The Latino equivalent of Windex is Vicks VapoRub, which is used to treat everything from a head cold to a sucking chest wound. Now you know.
When I retired from police work and took up crime writing, I saw the need for a change from what usually populated bookshelves in the mystery/thriller section at the time. I loved reading about grizzled homicide detectives working the mean streets of New York or L.A., but wanted to offer something different to readers.
Different…like Latinx characters and culture and strong Latina heroines with complex back stories and deep emotional resonance. I’d seen movies and novels featuring Latino characters as either villains or funny sidekicks, but I wanted to reflect cultural diversity in many roles, with the main protagonist as a person of color.
I began writing, all the while wondering if my book would be published. Would crime fiction fans enjoy reading an edgy thriller with a large dollop of salsa picante on top? Then, as I watched my husband dab Vicks VapoRub on a cut one afternoon, I had an epiphany.
In 2002, Nia Vardalos’s romantic comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, brought people to theaters in droves. Caught up in the fun when it came out, I recall discussing the movie with several friends of various ethnic backgrounds. Whether their lineage originated in Greece, Cuba, Ireland, Italy, or Scandinavia, they all said the film reminded them of their own family’s quirky behavior.
The movie was a hit, not because people of Greek ancestry went to see it, but because it struck a chord with millions of families who make their way to our beautiful nation of immigrants. There was also the coming-of-age story of a young lady who is trying to break free from the smothering (if loving) influence of her relatives to discover who she is and make her place in the world. Many people, regardless of their own ethnic background, can relate. Stories, after all, are about the human condition. And good stories transcend specifics.
Energized, I wrote my first novel, Blood’s Echo, a police procedural set in Phoenix, featuring a Latina detective who pits herself against an international crime family. Definitely not a romantic comedy.
The first agent I spoke to (who shall remain nameless) advised me not to have a person of color as my protagonist, indicating that “there was no market” and the book “would not sell.” If I would just change the story to have a white person in the lead role, well, then we could talk…
Not only did I ignore the advice, I kept looking until I found an agent who fully supports me. She is wonderful to work with, and committed to my success—without compromising who I am.
Fast forward several years, I’m now writing my third series. The books are sold around the world and have been translated into twenty foreign languages. One of them, The Cipher, has been optioned for film. It turns out that readers were happy to embrace diverse characters—even as the main protagonist—as long as the story is compelling and heartfelt. I always include an element of family in my books, because real families come in all sizes, configurations, and ethnicities. After all, everyone has a family, and there’s more to bring us together than set us apart.
Readers: what book or movie introduced you to a new, but totally relatable, milieu?
I am horrified that an agent who is not 100 years old, thinks a protag female of color would not sell! The thought of asking you to change your novel to sell to…who (TF)?!
I’m so glad you persevered!! And I loved My Big Fat Greek Wedding—it reminded me of my Korean family!
You are so right—absolutely everyone can identify to family quirks, tensions and loves.
Isabella, thanks for sharing some of your journey from page to…rage? Because sometimes those unknowing no’s do incite anger, at least for me, and yours delivers an extra wallop. So glad you stayed true to yourself, your story, your characters. I think the world needs women to offer up some salsa picante wherever we may go.
Vicks VapoRub? Who knew? Now I can’t wait to read THE CIPHER – obviously your other great novels have struck an international chord! Congrats!!
So true. Family is universal. Oh, the stories they all could tell.
In our family, it was Mentholatum! I still have two mostly used jars in my cupboard because, well, I might just need them. It’s so funny all the cultural differences there are, and how crazy and cherished they are, too. I’m so pleased, proud, and inspired by you, Isabella. You persevered, and in a big way. In your field — my field, too — female authors aren’t as welcomed as male authors, and that may have been an issue you faced, too. Still, she persevered! Thank you for that, and for your wonderful, riveting novels!