Young adult novelist Guadalupe Garcia McCall’s latest book, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books), is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey with a decidedly Latino twist. We had a chance to chat with McCall, whose debut young adult novel, Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low), won the coveted 2012 Pura Belpré Award and was named a Morris Award finalist. She shared with us a little of her life story and the inspiration that led her to take on Homer.
Mamiverse: What inspired you to write Summer of the Mariposas?
McCall: When I was a student, I was a voracious reader. I looked for new worlds and adventure within the walls of my school library. I came upon Homer’s The Odyssey when I was very young, in middle school. I loved it so much that I researched it and ended up reading Bullfinch’s Mythology three or four times in the 8th grade, losing myself in that ancient world. That led to reading other ancient mythologies, and I devoured those too.
But as I fed on those stories from long ago, I always had the same reaction and questions my female students have when we now read The Children’s Homer in my class: “Why do men get to have all the fun? Why do they get to go on adventures? Why aren’t there any women defeating mythological creatures and embarking on heroic journeys of their own?” So for many years now, I’d actually been toying with the idea of an all-female quest story. I wanted to see if I could take one of the greatest stories ever told—a male-oriented story—and turn it upside down to make it all about the power of being female. It was a challenge, and I love a good challenge.
Read Related: Mamiverse Book Review: Summer of the Mariposas
Mamiverse: How did you decide to combine elements of Mexican folklore and Homer’s Odyssey in your book?
McCall: As you can probably tell, I am also a great fan of Gabriel García Marquez and magical realism. I think that all these elements—my experiences as a reader, my desire to create something new and different with mystical elements from my Mexican culture [McCall was born in Mexico and moved to Texas as a child], and something that would interest my own students here in South Texas—all came together and inspired me to fill a gap for my girls. It was an opportunity to speak to gender roles, about the Hispanic culture, and the importance of family values as it applies not just to my students and me, but also to all young women in general.
Mamiverse: La Llorona is a character who appears often in U.S. Latino literature. Your depiction of her may be different from what readers are accustomed to. What drove you to make her one of the central characters of your story in the way that you did?
McCall: I’ve always had a special interest in La Llorona. I wanted to retell her story from a different angle because I’ve always thought of her story as having more to offer than fear and foreboding. There is just so much going on there psychologically that it’s almost impossible for me to believe that she is as one-dimensional as she is so often depicted. So when I was looking for my Athena—the guide for my girls—I kept coming back to La Llorona. There were just too many thematic correlations between her story and Summer of the Mariposas. La Llorona is not just a scorned wife; she is a brokenhearted mother, and she has firsthand experience with abandonment. She is forever looking for redemption in the arms of her lost children. All of these concepts are critical issues in my novel.
Another one of the themes in Summer of the Mariposas is the need to understand and forgive, to cleanse ourselves and to be given a second chance. I think that these themes stem from my spiritual hope that everything in life, even pain, has meaning, that every experience has a higher purpose, and that we are all connected by that purpose. The Garza girls are searching for their way home, which is a basic human necessity: to look for and migrate to an ancestral destination, to our place, our home. So I rewrote La Llorona’s story because I wanted to do that for her, I wanted to bring Malitzin home.
Mamiverse: Aside from La Llorona, how did you choose the rest of the figures from Mexican Folklore that appear in the book?
McCall: Oh, that was the fun part. For the rest of the “cast” I wanted to play with the mythological creatures of our Mexican culture. I wanted to find correlations to continue to emphasize the themes of the novel, but I also wanted change and mold the creatures until they were different versions of themselves because I didn’t want to tell the same old stories in the same old way. By way of example, for Circe, the enchantress who tricked Odysseus into staying for years by her side, I created La Bruja Cecilia, who feeds the girls pan dulce, marranitos, cuernitos and petit fours to keep them drugged and lulled into a state of forgetfulness and complacency. That scene also echoes Odysseus’ adventures in the Land of the Lotus-eaters.
The sirens in The Odyssey were vicious. They sang sweet songs and lured men to their death by speaking to their very souls. In their place, I cast a coven of lechuzas who speak in the voices of the women who have been wronged in the book because I could think of nothing more frightening than having a birdlike witch perched on your chest, clawing at your face, and telling you all your sins before she takes your life. It has been a wonderful experience to be able to retell our mitos and leyendas and introduce them to a whole new audience.
Mamiverse: You dedicate the book to your cinco hermanitas. Are the five sisters in the story inspired by your own?
McCall: Oh! Yes, most definitely! The cinco hermanitas in the story are very much like my own cinco hermanitas. I won’t make it official here, but they know who they are in the novel. It’s been fun hearing them debate who each one is, and why. It’s taken us all back to our childhood. Although, to be honest, we are still those same crazy, rebellious, bickering sisters full of laughter and love for one another—very much our Mami’s daughters. We are the Garcia girls, together forever, no matter what, and our Papi knows it too.
Mamiverse: The book does not shy away from displaying some of the most difficult aspects of divorce, even while it sends a positive message to those who may be living through that reality. Was this important for you to do? Why?
McCall: When I first started writing the novel, I knew that it was going to be about abandonment, but when I got to that final scene, the one that tells it like it is, well, that was hard to write. But I knew I had to write it like that because that’s the kind of world we live in, and these are the kinds of things our children are facing, the pain they are experiencing.
At its core, Summer of the Mariposas is about the significance of family and home. Separation and divorce are difficult things for young people to understand, especially when the adults in their lives don’t quite understand them themselves. Sometimes, children of divorced parents have to go on a journey of their own in order to make peace with their parents’ decision to end their marriage. Young people have to delve into unknown territory on an emotional, often troubling “odyssey” of sorts, a time filled with tears and sorrow.
Most heartbreaking of all, is that sometimes young people have to travel that path without an adult to guide them through it. In my book, Odilia and her sisters have to rely on each other for love and protection. They have to travel that difficult road with nothing more than their most basic instincts and the spirit of their ancestors to help them find their way home. In the end, they come back home courageous and strong. I hope that when young people read this story, they learn that family is important, and that love and faith will always see them home safely.
Mamiverse: I love the end of your Author’s Note, where it reads: “Mothers are very important. They have a special place en mi corazón. Mothers are for love.” Can you tell us what inspired you to write those lines? Do they hold any special meaning for you?
McCall: Those last words came from an experience I had many years ago. When I was a young woman, I saw a lady with her child at a grocery store. The toddler, who was sitting on the grocery cart, got mad at his mother because she scolded him for taking a candy bar without permission. To my horror, the toddler responded by striking his mother—he slapped her face, hard. Without showing anger, the mother took his hands in hers, squeezed them tight, looked straight into his eyes and said, firmly, “No. We don’t hit the Mommy. Mothers are for love.” Then she kissed his chubby little hands and asked him to repeat her last words. He smiled, kissed her, and said, “Mommies are for love.”
I don’t know why, maybe because I had just lost my mother months before, or maybe because I knew someday I wanted to be a good mother (like my Mami had been), but that moment and those words have stayed with me all these years. I share them with everyone I know: from my own sisters, to my children, my friends and my students. I ask them all to always remember: “Mothers are for love.”
Mamiverse: Are you working on another book? If so, can you tell us a little about it?
McCall: Yes. I just finished a historical novel-in-verse entitled, Joaquin, The Jack Of Hearts. It’s the story of a shy, introverted boy struggling to find his voice, assert his identity, and win over the girl he loves while enduring the racial tensions, savagery, and turmoil caused by the infamous Plan de San Diego in the Nueces Strip of South Texas during the time of the Mexican Revolution.
Mamiverse: Do you have any favorite children’s books that you would like to recommend to our mamis?
McCall: There are so many wonderful books out there! I love all four of Lowry’s books, The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and now Son. I also love Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Oh, and My Brother Sam Is Dead, and I love, love, love Night by Elie Weisel. I really could go on and on, but I’ll stop for now.
For more information about the author, visit: GuadalupeGarciaMccall.com.