Matt de la Pena is a Mexican-American YA author who’s published five books, including his award-winning Mexican WhiteBoy. We talked with de la Pena about his universal themes and struggles to find his own place both in the culture and as a writer.
City Paper: In an essay you say you got into writing because of the “transformative nature of literature.” Do you think that’s why you specifically started writing fiction for young adults too?
Matt de la Pena: The biggest thing about young adult, for me, is that it was a complete accident. When I wrote my first book, I didn’t know what ‘young adult’ was, but when I got here, it was a perfect fit for me. I do love the coming of age story, and I love watching — especially working class — kids navigate their emotional growth.
CP: Mexican WhiteBoy. Is that another way of saying biracial, your personalized version?
MP: Pretty much. There’s a line in the book where the narrator describes the main character as “a Mexican among the white boys and a white boy among the Mexicans,” so it’s just this idea that even beyond biracial, the idea of not fitting into either culture and not knowing cultural place. It did come from a personal place.
CP: Did writing the book help you find your place in a culture?
MP: I will tell you this: I learned a very valuable lesson when I was writing that book, because in the first draft I was very judgmental towards the character, and I think I almost viewed him as a sell-out, like he wasn’t Mexican enough. It almost ruined the book, because when a writer places judgement on a character, it’s not a good thing. I had to start over.
CP: More than making the character biracial, what do you think the power of titling your book Mexican WhiteBoy is?
MP: I never thought they would let me title the book that, but my publisher was actually excited about it. It’s a good title because I think a lot of colleges and high schools don’t even need to read the book to know it will work in curriculums that explore culture and race. Some schools think it’s too out there, because of “WhiteBoy.” A district in Arizona thought it was anti-white, but I don’t think they ever read it.
CP: Tell me about your author visits — I know you do several different types.
MP: I don’t know how this happened, but they’ve turned out to be more inspirational. I talked to a lot of schools with a lot of underprivileged kids, and I was the first in my family to go to college, so I talk about that journey. Especially for Hispanic students, education is not the number one thing pushed in the household, and some Hispanic kids feel like sell-outs for going to college. I talk about having to own that.