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Yardley novelist wins literary award for book exploring immigration issues

by Lori Goldstein

What would you do in exchange for asylum in the United States if you were an undocumented immigrant?

In Alexandra Villasante’s debut novel, “The Grief Keeper,” 17-year-old Marisol has escaped from El Salvador with her younger sister, Gabi.

To avoid the threat of detention or deportation, Marisol agrees to participate in a clinical trial for a device that will eliminate the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

In essence, she becomes the grief-keeper.  

The inspiration for this book, a recipient of a 2020 Lambda Literary Award which identify and honor the best lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender books, was a science article that Alexandra had read about a device, akin to a Fitbit, that would help eliminate the symptoms of PTSD. 

She wondered “what if it wasn’t to alleviate the symptoms but to eliminate – to completely excise anxiety, stress, depression, rage – cut them out. Wouldn’t that be incredible?” 

In her research for the novel she consulted a neuroscientist who told her that even if the technology for such a device doesn’t currently exist, it could be possible. 

“The Grief Keeper” is a “contemporary young adult novel with a speculative twist,” says Alexandra. “I like to say it’s five minutes in the future. It’s not this world, but it’s a world you recognize. ” 

Since “energy cannot be created or destroyed, it [the symptoms of PTSD] has to go somewhere,” says Alexandra. “Where would it go in this society? It would go to immigrants, because immigrants already do the jobs that we don’t want to do – whether it’s cutting lawns, the tedious part of raising kids, or cleaning houses.”  

Thus Marisol’s selection for the PTSD experiment is no coincidence.

As to its ethics, she maintains that “governments have always used their own citizens or citizens from other countries. This is something that happens all the time. Completely unethical and terrible, but it’s not a ridiculous notion.” 

Marisol is exceptional in her understanding of both Spanish and English, which she has learned at the American Academy (a weekend program funded by her mother’s employer) and by watching her favorite American television show.

Alexandra deftly illustrates Marisol’s bilingualism by sprinkling Spanish phrases throughout, translated contextually rather than literally. “She is thinking about language and the interplay between the two languages a lot…I wanted it to [show] how Marisol experiences the world.”  

Alexandra also aimed to shatter the stereotypical Latinx character. “I wanted to show a character that was both very recognizably Latinx the way I am, but also was dealing with many of the intersecting identities that are often not shown in Latinx representation.” 

Latinx identity is often defined as people or descendants who come from Latin American, including South America, Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Haiti, and the Caribbean. 

One of the reasons Marisol has escaped El Salvador is that she is a lesbian, which is not culturally or religiously accepted there.

In the course of alleviating the grief of Rey, an American girl the same age as she, Marisol undergoes her own grieving process, which Alexandra regards as a mental health issue. 

“Having a mental health issue does not make you strong. In fact, there is a lot of misconception about what mental health issues mean,” she says. “It’s still in this country and even more so in marginalized communities; [a mental health issue is viewed] as a weakness: you don’t have enough discipline, you’re being lazy, or, why are you letting your emotions take advantage of you…That is something I wanted to explore and subvert because I don’t think that’s true.” 

Alexandra’s writing is a vehicle for the celebration of her Latinx heritage.

Her Uruguayan parents emigrated to America in the ‘60s.

Even though they were well-educated, they were often not considered as smart as their colleagues because of their heavy accents. 

Growing up in New Jersey, she concealed her Spanish-speaking ability in front of her friends. “Now people are often surprised that I speak Spanish so fluently.”  

A resident of Yardley for 12 years, Alexandra is currently under contract with Penguin Random House to write a second novel.

In the meantime, she has contributed to “All Signs Point to Yes,” an anthology of short stories that coincide with the astrological chart; her story is about Capricorns, involving a mother-daughter relationship.

She has also been asked to write a short story for the anthology, “Our Shadows Have Claws,” a collection based on Latin American myths, legends, and horror stories.  

Since 2019, Alexandra has been a member of the literary marketing collective known as Las Musas, a group of over 70 Latinx authors who are female or identify on the female Spectrum. “We’re together because Latinx authors and Latinx stories in all literature, more specifically in children’s literature, are under-represented.” 

The goal is to promote each other’s work through book tours, social media, and appearances at conventions for librarians and teachers. “Once you debut, you never really leave the collective. You become what’s known as a madrina, a godmother, a mentor to up-and-coming writers.” 

When many events had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, the collective organized the first-ever online Latinx Kidlit Book Festival. 

It occurred December 4th-5th, 2020, involving over 150 authors, plus 16 big-name publishing sponsors, and a global team of 70 volunteers.   

 
The festival offered a roster packed with seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and students – ranging from authors of pre-reader’s picture books to those whose audience are adolescents. 

There were poetry and illustration slams, interactive author interviews during which students submitted questions, even a virtual performance by the Grammy Award-winning duo, Uno Dos Tres Andres. 

 “When schools closed and situations were more difficult, all of the data showed that Black and brown kids have been impacted more strongly,” says Alexandra. “We wanted to do as much as we could for our own community, for other communities, and for authors who didn’t get to have a debut year.” 

“We wanted to champion underrepresented identities within the Latinx community – that means Afro-Latinx, Indigenous and Queer – and to make sure our list was reflective of who we really are.”  

 The festival’s statistics are impressive, with over 200,000 viewings of the YouTube site.

A goal for 2021? 

Perhaps a hybrid model consisting of live, in-person events that may also be viewed online. 

For more info visit www.latinxkidlitbookfestival.com.

PHOTO CAP: Alexandra Villasante

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