The books we read as kids can change our lives and outlooks forever. Julian Randall’s stunning and immersive fiction debut Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa feels like a book that can do just that. And that’s entirely the point. The first in a middle grade fantasy duology, the story follows Pilar, a young, passionate documentarian. Struggling to deal with life in an ever-changing world and swiftly-gentrifying neighborhood, she becomes swept up in a vibrant adventure deeply connected to her own mysterious family history and the real life Trujillo dictatorship. In the lead up to the book’s release, we chatted to Randall about how his life shaped Pilar’s and what he wants kids to take away from her adventures when the first of the duology hits!
Nerdist: How did Pilar and this book come to life? What was the origin story?
It has two origin points. When I was eight years old, I stumbled on my mother crying. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever seen her cry, which I did not know was a thing that was possible. So immediately I had to know what was behind all of this. What was more, she was crying over a book. That book was In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. She explained it to me as the “story of the sisters who fought back against the man who kicked your grandfather off the island.” And I was like, “Wait, what happened to Abuelo?”
I’d always known that my mother’s side of the family is Dominican. But it never occurred to me that they came here under duress because you don’t really have a language for that when you’re eight years old. So I wanted to know everything about this time period, about what had happened. In the Time of the Butterflies was well past my reading level, according to various people who were supposed to be in charge of that kind of thing. I asked my teachers, I asked my librarian; nobody had a book that was tailored for kids. So I’d always wanted to try and render something like that.
About 18 years later, I met my lovely agent Patrice Caldwell, who I love so very much. She asked me if I wanted to pitch a middle grade novel about Dominican mythology. I always had it as a thing in the back of my mind, and just as Patrice kind of does that permission giving, in walks Pilar and she was pretty fully formed. She said, “I got this.”
You touched on that historical aspect and of this book focusing on an era that is never really taught in schools. How did you find that balance between the realities and horror of the Trujillo dictatorship and making this an accessible story for kids?
I think that the first step in that was really just reaffirming my belief that the history of it—like, the Dominican-ness of El Trujillato, all of that—is a story of the deeply surreal. Like my abuelo makes a joke about Trujillo, then he hears that the secret police are coming after him, and now him and my abuela have to leave the only place they’ve ever known to go off to America so they can raise their daughter somewhere that they won’t be preyed upon. That’s a surreal story.
When they said they flew here, the little kid that I was, for a moment I saw them literally flying. And Trujillo has all of these surreal aspects that he kind of bigged up about himself. Like this is a man who routinely lived in 90-100 degree heat but he convinced everyone around him he couldn’t sweat! That’s surreal! It doesn’t make sense unless you remember the myth dictators need, and once you lean into that then the magic comes all the more because otherwise how could something like this happen?
I think that kids often try, as I did, to process these massive things as they grow up. In that vein, to understand the very edges of what was happening with the Trujillato as a kid, I tried to search for the magic. It also helped that the sisters who led the rebellion were named after butterflies. To me they’re all kind of one in the same.
Something else that really spoke to me about this story was the way you built in the narrative of gentrification. Pilar is aware and angry about what’s happening. Why was that important to you?
So Pilar and I are from the same block. The house that she describes early on is literally the house that I grew up across the street from. Unlike me, Pilar got to stay in Chicago. I left in middle school, came back for the other part of middle school, was here through the end of ninth grade, and then we left and then I didn’t get to come back home until 2020. What was a predominantly Latino neighborhood is now a predominantly white one. There’s so many different ways that the neighborhood has changed. The street that we grew up on is a genuinely different shape than it was when I was a kid. I thought to myself, this is incredibly jarring for me as an adult, what would it be like processing it as a kid?
We had conversations early on, like how is gentrification relevant to a contemporary fantasy? Part of it is that Pilar needs to have a strong sense of place because she’s from Chicago. And then how is this little Dominica from Logan Square gonna have anything in common with these mythical creatures? But she sees that once this land looked one way, and it loved us, and now it looks different and it doesn’t. She saw that her whole life and in a way that I was away for. So I think that the psychological effect that would have had on her makes her even more of a candidate to be empathetic to the struggle of the Zafa people.
Another thing that immediately stands out in this story is Pilar as a bilingual lead. How did it feel to craft her voice and bring that part of the story to the forefront?
This is one of those rare opportunities where the first line was really the first line. From that, I understood the rhythm of Pilar’s voice. Ultimately, Pilar is someone who, like me, grew up with a mother who just seesaws in and out of whatever language is most helpful to her. Spanish is often something my mom brought out when she was especially exasperated. So you pick it up very quickly! It made sense to me that that would be part of Pilar’s voice, how the rhythm would interact.
But also it made sense that she would, like me, have her insecurities about her like fluency. I think that’s something that I often found to be true when I was a kid. I wasn’t a fluent speaker, but many people initially expected me to be. How do you reconcile that kind of challenge to your understanding of what is expected of you? And Pilar allowed me to tap into the rawest parts of those emotions.
Finally, as we move closer to the release date, what are you hoping for readers to take away from Pilar’s adventures when they pick up the book?
I’ve been thinking a lot today about my childhood Barnes & Noble. It’s the spot where my dad used to sit, waiting for the midnight releases of the books that I was interested in, all that good stuff. They had a children’s section upstairs, and it was one of my favorite safest places in the whole world. But in that same time period where I was trying to find my story and trying to put these things together. I remember running my hands along the spines. Even though there were so many stories, I still couldn’t find ours. At that moment, I felt like I had failed—at eight years old—failed because there had not been sufficient space to grow an imagination that could conceive this story. I never want any kid to feel that again.
I want this book to be available for kids who grew up with these questions. In knowing more and more folks whose parents fled various dictatorships, various fascist regimes that popped up across the planet, one thing is that there’s a commonality to it. This is a book that I wrote as a long love letter to my people, but also a long protest letter against the idea of bondage at a national level. I really, really want that to come through and be a resource.
Ultimately, what helps Pilar is that the power that she needed was inside her all along. What I wanted to make was a book that encapsulated a fragment of my mother and her sisters’ magic. I want a kid to open this book and feel like they can make anything happen with just the tools they have.
Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa hits bookshops on March 1.