Our interview with Daniel José Older – “The Pleasure in the Struggle”

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Local Voices

Breanna Lopez and Kyndall Jackson, TF South sophomores
TF South sophomores Kyndall Jackson (left) and Breanna Lopez share their experience interviewing bestselling author Daniel José Older (Screenshots provided)

The screen lights up as four faces come into the Zoom, one by one. You could see the nervousness in everyone’s smile. Two young sophomores, the yearbook teacher and the principal all stare at each other with the same anxious energy. The principal’s phone rings and everyone is frozen, almost like the Zoom itself had glitched. The interviewers‘ gazes are on a neverending swivel, down to their paper and back up to the screen.

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Then, the moment everyone had been waiting for, Mr. Daniel José Older’s smiling face fills the screen, and all the people in attendance are starstruck, including Older himself as he realizes how many people joined the webinar.

Daniel José Older (Screenshot provided)

Daniel José Older is a New York Times Best Selling Young-Adult author who wrote the Shadowshaper series that Guadalupe Ramirez’s Honors English 9 class reads annually, at the beginning of the year. Throughout the Shadowshaper Trilogy, Older “keeps it real with his fans” by referencing major political, cultural, and racial issues that are happening in the real world today.

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One major thing that is referenced throughout the books is gentrification and how it affects the people who originally lived in the area. Older passionately shared the reason why the gentrification of the setting in the book was a big part of the plot, stating, “For so long, like so many people did not want to talk about gentrification. Like now, it’s more of a topic which it should be, and needs to be.” As Older talks about gentrification, you can see everyone’s eyes brighten with a new understanding about how important that issue is and why it was at the forefront of the trilogy.

Later on, Older was asked about the two most controversial characters in his series, Tia Rosa from book one and Ms. Rollins from book two. In book one Tia Rosa makes multiple slick comments to the main character about the person she is seeing, one of which goes along the lines of “Don’t date a boy darker than the bottom of your foot.” Throughout book two, a white history teacher in a school full of minorities, Ms. Rollins puts on a façade and pretends to be an ally to the main character and her friends. However, she would allow only one-way respect. The amount of respect her students gave to her wasn’t the same amount that she gave back. Older expresses how he thinks it’s important to highlight real-life situations like this and be real with his readers about them. He says, “I could’ve written a LatinX fantasy that was just like ‘Everybody gets along, ayyeee, we have a cute abueloooo’ and like that, that’s a lie. It’s another lie, and I didn’t want to perpetuate that lie.” Older did not want to magnify this false assertion that the world loves to shove down our throats. He wanted to resist making this perfect story about perfect people with perfect morals. This resistance is strongly implied in the characters and situations they are put in throughout the story.

In a large number of scenes the characters are protesting and fighting for the greater good. With the Black Lives Matter movement, Older expresses how he genuinely wants us to tell our stories in our own ways, to resist the stereotypes in our own ways, but to do it in a healthy manner.

Older leaves everyone with their hearts open and ears wide as he says, “If you decide that you’re just going to fight all the time, and never sleep, and never get your other stuff done, and never have fun, and never watch Star Wars, you’re going to be miserable with your life. You’re gonna burn out, and you’re not gonna do anybody any good. So I want you to find pleasure in the struggle. I want you to find joy in making art, I want you to find your voice but not to stop there, but to find your next voice. Maybe it’s in making clothes, or beats, you know, or movies, whatever that might be, but never let anybody tell you what your voice is supposed to sound like or be or how it should come out. That’s for you to figure out.”

Older speaks to our generation with an empowering message that we all need to apply to our lives. The Shadowshaper Trilogy is not just an uncompromising fantasy story with an Afro-Latina lead. It’s a story about identity, political issues, and the struggle of trying to thrive as a minority in our day and age. These books find a balance between the pleasure and the struggle, now it’s time for us to find our own.

Breanna Lopez and Kyndall Jackson

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Local Voices is our version of “Letters to the Editor.” The opinions posted here are those of the writers, and posting them does not indicate endorsement by The Lansing Journal. We welcome input from fellow residents who have thoughtful things to say about topics that are important to our community. Send your submissions to The Lansing Journal with “Voices” in the subject line.