Interview with Yamile Saied Méndez, Author of Furia

Furia, by Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez, is the gripping, new YA debut igniting positive reviews around the world. It introduces readers to Camila, an athletic dynamo intent on playing soccer and taking charge of her life in the face of abuse, sexism, and at the risk of losing love and relationships. In addition to receiving a deep and beautiful education of Argentina, the reader gets the chance to fall in love with a believable cast of characters and, of course, soccer. Kirkus Reviews calls Furia “a riveting coming-of-age story.” Dead Darlings calls it the book you wish you had when you were in high school. Yamile generously took the time to speak with us about her writing process.

DD: You must have played soccer, yes?

No, I didn’t. I grew up in Argentina and, at that time, they didn’t have teams or playing opportunities for girls. I did grow up a huge fan of the game like everyone else. The neighborhood you were born in determined which team you rooted for, forever.

When I came to the United States when I was 19 years old, I began to play recreationally and the girls I was playing with had so much more experience than I did because they grew up playing from a very young age. But, my children play now. We’re at the soccer pitch all day, everyday.

You’ve created gorgeous picture books and middle-grade readers. Was the process of writing your first YA novel different from writing your other books? 

Actually, the transition was very fluid because I approach all of my stories in the same way. There’s not a mental switch for me so much as there’s such a subtle line. When I think about writing for different age groups, writing picture books is so incredibly hard in terms of word count. I have to accomplish a lot in less space in terms of developing the scope of themes and character arcs.

I started writing Furia in 2006 before my other books. I’ve been working on the story for a long time. The only change in mentality I had is when I picture who I was when I was Camila’s age.

Did Camila come to you first or the story?

The theme of the book is what came to me first. And, Camila has always been the same person. At the beginning, she just wanted to go to the United States to go to school. As the years went by and I got to know my character better and the world around me changed, her goals changed. It’s amazing to me who she was and who she is now. First and foremost, she was always a lover of the sport.

Camila has always been the same person from the beginning and she came to me first with her whole baggage. The family was already established in my mind. Her journey with her mom changed the most as I was writing the story. At the beginning, I thought I was writing primarily about a journey with her dad but it was really about the relationship she had with her mom. When I first met Camila, she didn’t want to be her mom. As I wrote, I realized if she was going to heal and break the cycle of generational trauma she needed to understand who her mother was. The line between making one set of decisions to another, it was more subtle and not as clear.

Camila is such a part of her family and that’s why she starts the story naming her family members that are still such a part of her. It’s that burden and gift of carrying the burdens and hopes of the past generations. As she begins to succeed in ways that the women before her couldn’t have imagined, we see she couldn’t have achieved what she did without those examples. She couldn’t have existed outside of her environment. She does have that warrior nature. She has that because of the people who made her, her environment, society and her family. At the end, whenever she’s talking, she knows she’s part of that chain and that she’s making her own mark. There is a little bit of freedom for her to allow herself space to make mistakes and at the same time she had the pull of the mission of what she wanted to accomplish in her life, to do what she wanted to do.

I’m a very visual writer. I see everything super clearly in my mind, even the minor characters like the people Camila sees on the bus. The people in my books are people I’ve seen in my own life. To me, when I was writing, they were as real as Camila.

As you write, you include so many details about your home country including phrases and words in Spanish. There is enough Spanish in the text for the reader to understand how Camila thinks in her first language. How did you achieve this balance?

That was a hard thing to accomplish. I didn’t grow up with English. We didn’t use it and no one else in my family did. Now, when I go back to Argentina, with Americanization, there are more English words included in everyday life. When I was a child living there, everything would be translated, even titles of movies. Now, you can add in words in English and no one will bat an eyelash.

In order to access my memories, I had to give the illusion the characters were speaking Spanish. Initially, it was hard to know which words to add in Spanish. I made a point of adding things that were untranslatable. That was a conscious act in the revisions. Making sure language and dialogue sounded authentic, that words and speech patterns would be recognizable. I’m glad I can say this, if anybody had told me the amount of work it would take me, if anyone had told me, I wouldn’t have daydreamed about it and wouldn’t have attempted to do it. Looking back, I can see all of the layers of revision that went into it. I worked to make sure this piece was not performative, to not portray the story or my country like a spectacle or just to educate. I wanted the book to be a mirror or a window glass, to have the language and culture be as transparent as possible.

Was there anything you had to cut that was hard to let go of?

So many parts. It’s hard to remember exactly what. But yes, I had to cut a lot about the kids from the Good Shepherd. In a way, I was glad I had to keep the story under a certain word count. It made me think about what was most important. The most important character in those scenes was Karen. I used to have more attention on the boys. When I went back in during several revisions, it was clear she was the most captivating character. The story had the chance for Karen and her group of girls to shine. That was wonderful to encounter. A special shout-out to my editor, Sarah Alpert, who was incredible in guiding me to find the gems of the story. She encouraged me to polish those and to not spread myself too thin. Even when I was writing the acknowledgements she came back with edits!

One thing I wish I could’ve had space for was to go to the soccer stadium, but those two scenes didn’t go with her story. It was more a part of Diego’s story. I would love for people to experience what it’s like to go to a soccer stadium in Argentina. It’s unforgettable and indescribable, the intensity and the emotion you can feel. Here, when I go to the MSL games, I love them and they are so different from what you experience in Argentina. In the United States, I also love the intensity of the women’s games, how there’s that feedback between the audience and the team. That alchemy is hard to explain.

In Furia, you highlight the different roles that women and girls can and do play in each other’s lives. Can you speak about this?

At the beginning of my writing journey with Furia, it was unintentional. These characters were just born because I was fortunate enough to go to an all-girl’s school. For some, it’s hell but for me it was a blessing. I’m still best friends with my friends from elementary school. It’s amazing when you eliminate the boy element from society because I had that opportunity to find community even though I wasn’t part of a team. I had my sisterhood at school and I had incredible role models in my family and my community. I grew up seeing female figures changing the world, the presence of these women changing history. Eva Peron’s presence is still very real today. When I was writing, I thought about how we now see women fighting against obstacles in every other aspect of society except for soccer. As I was revising, I had the opportunity to highlight how other women impacted Camila.  At the beginning of my writing this book, I was closer to Camila’s age and now I’m closer to the mom’s age and that was an enlightening exercise to examine my life and the women of my generation. It was a study in womanhood and the power we hold over our own lives.

I knew that Camila was always going to save herself. Even when she didn’t have soccer to save her at the beginning, she was never going to choose the route to go with Diego even though it’s true love. She had to learn to love herself a little more.

Your book begins with the powerful line, “Lies have short legs”, an adage that circles back to the reader several times in the book. Can you talk about this and what it means?

That’s the sentence I grew up with. Mentiras tienen patas cortas. That phrase exists in every culture in one way or another. I feel like Camila had been trying to justify the line to her parents, as in, this is the only way I can achieve my goals and at the same time she was lying to herself. It was just a way for her to deal with the disappointment she might have faced if she told her mom the truth and her mom said I won’t sign your papers. She wasn’t ready for that reality and once she started being true to herself, it started getting better for her even if it wasn’t easier. Following her dreams or the plan for her whole life or to follow her love, Diego, to Spain. She would’ve been happy but there would’ve always been that remorse–what if she would’ve believed in herself. And, that’s how it comes full circle because, in the end, she isn’t lying anymore. There are things she lost along the way and there always are when you make choices because there are doors you are always closing behind you. In the end, she was honest with herself.

Who did you write this story for?

First, I wrote it for myself because I would’ve loved to have read this story as a teenager when I was growing up and forming myself. I want girls to read this story as well as their parents and the gatekeepers. Sometimes, I feel we put down girls and their interests. They are beautiful and glorious! I’d love boys and men to read this book and to remember that girls contain multitudes. Just because girls love books doesn’t mean they don’t love sports.

The other day, we were at a scrimmage with my son’s team. He plays at a very high level and, on this day, they were floundering. I love talking strategy with coaches and some of them, a few who are Latin American, dismissed my comments. That’s another reason why I would love men and boys to read Furia, so they can realize there is space for women in this beautiful sport and to realize amazing things are happening. I’m excited for this new generation to have the opportunity to have success on the pitch and to be compensated monetarily. They can’t play if they aren’t paid.

I’m grateful and floored by the early reaction and feedback that I’m seeing from Furia. I try to stay away from reviews but I’m really encouraged by the reaction I’m seeing around Furia and this kind of story. When I saw the first sketch of the cover, I cried. I couldn’t imagine anything better. The artist, Rochelle Baker, really got Camila. I love the expression on her face. I’m so grateful that a brown Argentine got to be on the cover because the majority of children there are brown-skinned kids.

Yamile Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American who loves meteor showers, summer, astrology, and pizza. She lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids, two adorable dogs, and one majestic cat. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children’s and Young Adult program. She’s a PB, MG, and YA author. Yamile is also part of Las Musas, the first collective of women and nonbinary Latinx MG and YA authors.

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