The Homegirl Project interviewed Jen Cervantes, a nationally-acclaimed author, about storytelling, breaking boundaries, and youth empowerment.
MK: Your novels have been (rightfully) praised for bringing much-needed diversity to the kid's lit scene. Do you think that representation is important?
JC: It’s critical. Books are powerful extensions of hope, truth, and understanding. Kids need to see themselves in the pages of books, they need to feel valued, and they need to learn to see beyond their own lives, recognizing and celebrating others. When we teach respect and enhance empathy we not only heal ourselves, we heal the world.
MK: What inspired you to write The Storm Runner? Was there a specific aha! moment, or was it a gradual process?
JC: I live in New Mexico with a view of a beautiful mesa where there are a few dormant volcanoes. Like all my stories, I began with the question: what if? What if a boy lived on the mesa and found something magical and dangerous in one of those volcanoes? What if his only friend was his three-legged dog? What if he found himself at the center of an ancient prophecy? What if he had to fight demons and gods to save the world? So, for me this book was a gradual process that began with the question all my stories begin with: what if?
MK: Many writers from diverse backgrounds struggle with embracing their hyphenated identities. Has this impacted your writing?
JC: I am my culture and heritage and it is something that not only informs my identity but my writing. For example, there is so much magic, myth and mysticism in the Mexican culture and this is a whole universe I get to explore and bring to life!
MK: Tell us a little bit about your journey evolving as a writer.
JC: I always say that I didn’t go looking for writing, that writing found me. When I first began to create stories, I had no idea I was writing a book. So, this journey (like that book) has been sequential. I have been fortunate to meet some incredible mentors along the way, to find the right resources at the right time, to venture to writing retreats where I pushed the limits of what I thought I could do as a writer. There are so many fears that can pop up for artists: am I good enough? What if I’m not? What if no one likes my book? What if no one wants to publish my work? What if what if what if? So for me, facing those fears (with a dagger) is equally important as honing my craft.
MK: What advice would you give aspiring young writers of color?
JC: Support books by POC. Read them. Buy them. Boost them. Get involved with some of the organizations doing incredible work in this area like We Need Diverse Books. Enter contests like the New Visions Award. Finally, begin with what you know, what you grew up with. Tap into the magic that is so prevalent in our cultures and let that carry you through the story. Don’t let anyone tell you that your experience doesn’t matter or isn’t ______ enough (fill in the blank) or doesn’t align with the “norm.” An above all, be authentic and be kind.
MK: Who inspires you in life?
JC: Anyone who is living their passions, who is committed to making the world a better place, who is reaching beyond what feels safe and is willing to step off the cliff because how else can we grow wings? More specifically? My three daughters inspire me every single day.
MK: The motto of The Homegirl Project is "Empowering women of color, one story at a time." How does this issue impact your life?
JC: SO much! I had no books where I saw myself reflected as a girl. Today, that’s changing but there is still so much work to do. We need not only more books published by POC, to reach more kids, we also we need publishers to hire POC in their houses from marketing to editorial staff and to support those professional trajectories. One of my dreams is to host a writing retreat for women of color someday.
MK: What is one issue that you want to change about the world?
JC: In her famous poem, Human Family, Maya Angelou wrote, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” This rings so true for me and I believe we could change the world if there was more broad-mindedness, more love and acceptance. And dare I say, an embracing of others?