Quetzalli’s Last Song: Brum Hesles’ adventure, from Desiree Calderon de Fawaz
Author and illustrator Desirée Calderón de Fawaz is the winner of the 2018 Middle East Book Award for her children’s book Tata’s Earrings (Los Aretes de Tata). Now, the former microbiologist brings us her debut novel Quetzalli’s Last Song, an adventure based on some of the experiences of her unconventional Mexican childhood. In this novel, Desirée is determined to combat the misrepresentation of her cultures through Brum Hesles, a stressed, witty, female protagonist that will surely leave readers of POC works yearning for more.
Desirée now lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. When not negotiating peace amongst quarreling chaneques, she practices yoga, learns herbology, and enjoys challenging what you think you know about the world.
Here’s an interview with Desiree about her new book, Quetzalli’s Last Song:
The main character in your upcoming book ends up fleeing Texas for Oaxaca, Mexico in order to escape political violence and unrest. Were you commenting on racism and trends within the U.S.?
Indeed, the entire Brum Hesles series was born out of my hopelessness on the current political and social atmosphere in the U.S. I suppose, for me, stories are the best form of protest. As a natural pacifist, my words are pretty much my only weapons.
Now that I think about it, you’ll invariably find Xenophobia — the eldest child of ignorance and fear — as the main target in everything I write. Honestly, it was not intentional. At least not at first. I guess it just reflects the concerns of a person of color like me in this time and place.
Having Brum run away from the U.S. and migrate to Mexico was not really an irony but a real possibility in a country where racism is at the foundation of all levels of government. Sadly, a few chapters into the story, I realized that writing about a witty, brilliant, charming, tormented, colored girl running from a country that doesn’t value her wasn’t an entirely fictional premise.
As a book lover, I’m pleased to see Brum Hesles take refuge in a library! This plotline reminds me a tiny bit of the Narnia series where kids displaced by war find a new world in an elderly relative’s closet. What, and who, were your inspirations for this story?
Funny you ask! I would love to take creative credit for the formidable library in the story but the truth is that it’s a carbon copy of my grandfather’s library in Mexico City. That library was the backdrop for many warm memories of my father, and I guess it was only natural to have Brum seek refuge there just as I once did.
How does Brum Hesles’ heritage and cultural background inform the story, and her journey?
Brum — as many multiracial children — has grown, in a way, detached from much of her past and cultural legacy. Her voyage is one of self-discovery, where she finds what it means to be a Hesles, an heiress of Mitla and a Keeper of Resonance. As I wrote about her epic journey, I wanted to make sure to include all of the elements that made my childhood epic. It was my dearest wish to have the readers experience the smell of copal, the textures of a black sapote, and the views of the Mexican highlands. In that way, I aimed to shatter whatever preconceived ideas readers might have of my land and people.
The fate of the imagined world, and the everyday world, in this book, all rest on the shoulders of Brum Hesles. Do you think teen girls, or teenagers in general, are capable of saving and managing the world?
Of course, they can! Ask Greta Thunberg. But, it is essential to give girls, and teenagers in general, the tools to achieve their greatness. It’s not only a matter of self-confidence and education. There’s more. The stuff they don’t teach you in school. The knowledge of self-healing — once intrinsic in most cultures — is now almost an obscure art. It was important for me to have Brum learning, the hard way, to monitor her breathing, energy, sleep, and food. I find that in our “disposable” society we are growing a highly accomplished generation of stressed teenagers that burn out too soon. I believe that, like Brum, the oncoming generation of teenagers are Keepers of the planet and they should be revered and instructed as such.
Brum’s journey seems to differ from other YA heroic journeys in that she’s connecting to her family history and their past, rather than tossing out all the wisdom from the incompetent/evil adults in her life. Was this a conscious choice on your part?
Not at first. It resulted from giving me, a Latin American daughter-of-an-archaeologist, a pen. Throughout her journey, Brum, like any Hispanic girl, is worried about her mom and dad. Her love and admiration for them are palpable. I guess it mimics my relationship with my parents at that age. As a Latina, upholding family values/traditions and honor was never optional, and I was expected to integrate my multigenerational family into everyday life. Because of this, it made sense for Brum to feel responsible for ensuring the safety of her siblings and to have her take decisions from a family-centered standpoint. Well… most decisions, but not all.
What’s your writing process like? Do you plan everything out before starting to write or do you discover as you go along?
I was recently asked this by my journalist daughter (the one who inspired Brum Hesles) while editing the story.
“Can I see your draft?” she asked.
“Your timeline… where’s your timeline?” she inquired further.
“What about a basic outline?”
My blank expression prompted her to demand with impatience:
“Walk me through your writing process… ”
“Well,” I said, “first, I make tulsi tea with maple syrup. Then, I ask Alexa for Ludovico Einaudi’s most epic soundtrack and sit outside, on the grass, with my laptop. Finally, I look at the blue sky and ask myself What is Brum Hesles up to today? Then it comes… the whole scene plays like a movie in my head. I can even hear the dialogue!” I looked away, staring dreamily through the window. “In all honesty, the first two books of the series have felt like a revelation. Sometimes, I even questioned why the characters were saying what they were saying until I discovered, later on, what they meant. I know it sounds insane but… that’s just the way it is.”
A long silence followed.
“I can’t believe you,” she sighed with exasperation, remembering all the months of researching, planning, outlining, writing and rewriting scripts for her latest podcast.
How is your book unique in the vast sea of YA fantasy?
How many series (by the way… Book 2 of the Brum Hesles Series, Tollan’s Ballad, will be out by December 2021) have you read where the main character is a multicultural, multilingual, multiracial girl who is witty, smart, and strong but also vulnerable? How many of those fictional series are based on the author’s own life as an actual Mexican girl? I’ve read too many books where POC are thrown in recklessly without any firsthand experience as someone from that culture.
As cultural diversity rises in the U.S., the line between racial/ethnic groups is getting increasingly blurred. And, as a voice for this ever-growing community, I feel the need to present an original narrative that does do us justice.
Quetzalli’s Last Song is an adventure centered on the Hispanic experience, where family bonds become stronger as the backstory reveals itself. And, as a character, Brum Hesles stands on her own two feet as a mirror and a positive role model for the many underrepresented Latinx teens living in the U.S. in these critical times.
To learn more about the Brum Hesles Series and her latest projects, visit www.desireecalderondefawaz.com.