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When Erika L. Sánchez set out to write her first novel “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” which is now a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Awards finalist, she did it with a certain reader in mind.
“It was important for me, for young people of color, to feel seen by the book,” Sánchez told NBC News about the novel, which focuses on a young woman, Julia, who has to grapple with grief following an accident involving her sister and her mother's comparisons about the two.
Born and raised in Cicero, Illinois, to Mexican immigrant parents who worked in a factory, Sánchez started writing poetry at a very early age as a way to cope with the world around her.
“It´s a strange thing for an immigrant child to want to be a poet,” said Sánchez, whose book of poetry, Lessons on Expulsion was a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award earlier this year. “A lot of people don’t care about poetry or are afraid of it.”
Sánchez, an Arts Fellow teaching poetry at the prestigious Princeton University, confessed she was “a messed up kid;” though she was an avid reader, she didn't get excited about getting an education until she was in college. Julia, the character of her young adult novel, shares some of the traits she had as a teenager.
Sánchez said the character she created turned off some literary agents.
“I got rejected a lot by agents. Some of them didn’t like the voice," said Sánchez. "My character is not for everybody, she’s a snarky brown girl, just as I was. A lot of agents didn’t understand that kind of person. There’s this idea that minorities are supposed to be model minorities. I think that is unfair."
Shedding light on depression, especially among Latinas
Both Sánchez and Julia suffer from depression, which unfortunately still carries a stigma in so many communities. For this reason, she was determined to raise awareness about it through her literary work. “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” addresses the issue of suicide in young Latinas. Hispanic teens, especially females, have reported significantlyhigher rates of suicide attempts than white or black teens, according to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data.
“I think it’s important to talk about mental health. I’m tired of the stigma. People need to see it as a part of health in general. If you’re not mentally well, you’re not physically well. People think [depression] is a character flaw, when it’s a mental illness that needs treatment.”
Sánchez graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and later received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. Yet she warns against a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to college.
“I think college is amazing for those who want to attend," Sánchez said. "I just think there are many ways to be intelligent. [Saying college is the only option for Latinos] denigrates people who don’t go to college and that’s not fair,” she said.
After Sánchez graduated college, she couldn't make a living as a writer. She had to get a regular job she didn't enjoy, and blogged about her struggles.
“I was coping with a 9-5 job after grad school, so I wrote a blog. The title was: Oh Hells Nah! It was a way to vent with my situation," said Sánchez. "This certain producer started to follow and read my blog. She was in New York City, and asked if I’d ever written a novel or a screenplay. I hadn't. But thanks to that question, at 28, I started writing the novel. It ended up being published when I was 33.”
Her book of poetry took much longer. It was a 10-year journey that she saw through as she also wrote essays, columns and articles (including work for NBC Latino) because poetry is her favorite form of written expression.
“I got so much rejection, I lost count. In poetry you have to pay for submission fees to even be entered for a contest. It was ridiculous. Then I started to be a finalist. And eventually I reached out to my favorite publisher and they accepted my book,” Sánchez said.
Both her books were published in late 2017. The poetry book was released in July and her novel in October. Sánchez was on tour constantly in the fall, for both publications. “It was great to have so much attention given to my books. I would wake up not knowing what city I was in.”
And yet, Sánchez doesn't take her accolades, like being a finalist for the National Book Award, for granted.
“I was completely elated. The ceremony was amazing; I got to wear a gown!" she said, laughing. "It was one of the best nights of my life. I think about it a lot. I was disappointed for a second, [when I didn’t win] but it all made me very, very happy. "
On the heels of so much recognition, Sánchez admitted she's a little nervous about her next writing project.
“I don’t want to disappoint anyone, so I do think about how I’m going to go about the next book. I'm almost finished with my book of essays, which is very different from the other two books," she said.
One thing she never expected to have to deal with was competition from fellow writers. One woman told her that because of her novel, her own writing had all been in vain. Sánchez' response to that kind of attitude is to try and separate herself from other people's reactions to her success.
“I believe that the more stories, the merrier. We need more diverse stories. To see it as competition, well, it’s a depressing kind of notion.”
Always concerned with being a role model for young Latinas, Sánchez wants them to know they should live life for themselves.
“We’re always listening to messages of what we should and shouldn’t be," said Sánchez. "Women, especially Latinas, are often told to serve others. I don’t think that’s the way we need to live. Your life is your own!”