Sixteen-year-old Nalah, AKA Chief Rocka, leader of the all-girl Las Mal Criadas crew and the heart of Lilliam Rivera's new YA novel Dealing in Dreams, is blinded by her vision of life in Mega Towers. The Towers, three giant and luxurious concrete apartment blocks, loom over the residents of Mega City. All of Nalah's actions on the streets — running curfew patrols, punishing stragglers, fighting other crews in public showdowns — are aimed at earning the favor of Déesse, the city's beloved leader, and a home in the Towers for Las Mal Criadas.
Only when Nalah leaves Mega City, traveling across the border into Cemi Territory, can she begin to see the Towers, and Déesse, in honest light. Rivera told Spine this phenomenon, distance granting a clear eye, is not only central to Nalah's journey through the book, but is also at the heart of her own creative world-building process.
"My experience is living in the South Bronx all my life, and then moving away." Rivera now lives in Los Angeles. "Most of my stories are set in the Bronx. The book doesn't really say Mega City is the Bronx, but a couple of hints are in there, that it's set in the Bronx," she said.
"You're able to see your city, or your home, a lot clearer if you step away from it. That, for me, is the case. I feel like I can write about the Bronx in a realistic light. If I were living there, I might not be able to see things. Nalah was doing the same thing, she had to be away to be able to see."
When building worlds, trying to fully realize imagined places, Rivera considers the micro, the macro, and the systemic. In Dealing in Dreams, Nalah is the explorer experiencing each facet, all at once.
"She's leading us into this world, her world and outside of Mega City. I just kept on thinking about making sure that I included the macro of what Mega City looks like — the towers, the mercados, and the papi chulo clubs [nightclubs staffed by subservient boys] —and the micro, zooming in like a camera and looking at where [Las Mal Criadas] live, looking at their underground homes, their altars, and what each crew member puts on these altars."
Mega City and Cemi Territory are each centered around an ideology, and the people in each place carry out day-to-day operations in accordance. Mega City is wholly female-centric, with a woman leader and girl gangs enforcing her strict rule. Cemi Territory embraces personal responsibility and personal freedom, in gender and in operation. As Nalah moves from one place to the other, she has an opportunity to consider how each system operates, and whether she believes either works, in general and for her.
"I was thinking about different systems," Rivera explained. "Obviously Mega City is this very isolating, pro-female empowering kind of world that incorporates these male traits at all costs. I kept thinking of the other side of that, when she steps out of Mega City [into Cemi Territory], as this utopian kind of world that embraces culture and embraces gender fluidity and all these things.
"Nalah doesn't know if that's the answer either. I wanted to have that question, and that struggle. What path does she take? Is there a definitive right path? I wanted readers to embrace that no one has the answer, and that the path is your path, and it could incorporate hard and soft, and it could … those are not either/or things."
Early days writing the book, Rivera's brain moved around from topic to topic to topic, all which she wanted to explore. Her Simon and Schuster editor Zareen Jaffery, with whom she also worked on The Education of Margot Sanchez (2017), had a particular knack for getting her in the right headspace to weave all her themes together.
"I would tell her, 'Look, I'm thinking about the opiate crisis and how the Puerto Rican women were the first to use this drug. They were guinea pigs, and no one talks about this. These government-run labs were testing on women of color, they were even led by women of color.’"
Rivera was thinking about addiction, but also gentrification, the cult of celebrity, family … and how to get all of this into her novel. "Jaffrey read the manuscript and she told me to watch this movie, Internal Affairs [2002, Hong Kong]. It's a crime thriller, a police officer infiltrates this gang. How many people would tell me to go watch a Hong Kong crime thriller? It was perfect.
"It was awesome, it made me think of how to rewrite the novel."
Rivera celebrated the release of Dealing in Dreams in March, and is currently working on a young adult retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the Bronx, that will be published in fall 2020.
Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.