Julian Randalla Black queer Dominican American writer who lives in Chicagohas, up to this point, been known for his award-winning poems that cover a wide range of themes.
However, he now has released a novel, Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa. The contemporary middle-grade fantasy centers on the 12-year-old Chicago-based title character, who searches for answers connected to the disappearance of her cousin Natashawho vanished in the Dominican Republic 50 years ago, during the Trujillo dictatorship. Ramirez lands on Zafa, an island with fantastical creaturesand a magical prison where her cousin is being held captive.
Windy City Times: This book is a bit different than your previous work. What compelled you to go this route?
Julian Randall: In 2018, I put out my first book of poems, called Refuse. And throughout the time of that tour, there'd be parents who brought in their kidsincluding multiracial families. People would say, "I can't wait until my [child] is old enough to read this." On one hand, I was really excited but I also thought about adolescent anxiety and pain; I kinda wrote this book to help that kid. I started thinking, "How can I take my gifts and help kids while they're still kids?"
I eventually linked up with my amazing agent, Patrice Caldwell, and she asked me if I wanted to pitched a middle-grade Dominican fantasy. I have to say that I love poetry. I'm not a super-spiritual person, but I have to say that writing for young people has me feeling what people who do believe in spirituality call a "divine purpose." It feels like what I was built to do.
WCT: One of the things I noticed about the book is that the text is not quite Spanglish, but there are Spanish words [interspersed] throughout. Was that to reflect your background, to expand the readers' vocabulary or something else?
JR: There are two tiers to this answer. On [one] level, it's how Pilar's voice appeared to me. And I was able to build on the [source] of this voice. Pilar grew up in a household that was full of Spanish but she doesn't necessarily have a full grip on fluency. Like many third-generation kids, she has a lot of feelings and built-up shame around that, but she has a lot of access to Spanish. One of the things I had to think about Zafa is what language people would speak, so it helped to have these elements of Spanish that made it feel like homeand it connected to my own heritage.
WCT: Maya Angelou once said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." Do you agree?
JR: I think there are very few things I've read in my life that are more accurate.
In the process of learning how to talk about this book, you have to explain why this book, this project, is so important to mewhy I have to spend so much time in a room pretending I'm a 12-year-old. The reality is that this story began in 2019, but I actually have been trying to write it in my head since I was 8. [Randall is now in his late 20s.] Twenty years ago I walked in on my mother crying, and it was the first time I had ever seen her cryand it was because she was reading In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez. [The book is a fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters during the time of the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic.]
She explained to me that this was the story of sisters who stood up to the man who kicked them off the island. Trying to figure how that whole story fit together was agonizing as a kid because there was nothing to explain what was going onand certainly nothing for a third-gen kid, which is what I am. Now, 20 years later, I wrote my attempt.
WCT: So this is going to be a series?
JR:It is a duology. What would I ever come back to Pilar? Nothing's ever written in stone but I'm feeling really great about the ending.
WCT: How does Chicago figure into this latest work?
JR: You know, it's Chicago over everything. I love this city and it's like nowhere else. It's a deeply Chicago story; throughout the course of her life, Pilar has seen how Logan Square has changed. On a fundamental level, this is about why memory is so important and why stories are so importantand being in Chicago helps Pilar understand not only the world she's born into but the world she transitions into.
WCT: You wrote a poem called "Chicago," and there's a line that reads, "The city breathes too hard." What did you mean by that?
JR: "I am from Logan Square/in Illinois there are tornadoes/In Chicago the city breathes too hard/we make our own disasters."
What Lori Lightfoot said today is probably a good place to start with that. [WCT: What did she say?] Every time I see her talk, I feel that something bad is going to happen.
On a policy level, on an attitude level, there's just so much displacement that is happening inside the city that is the epicenter of dopeness in the modern world. We are in this constant struggle between people who are ruining the city and the folks who live in the city and who are trying to preserve. We have to breathe too hard because [those who are in charge] are not really listening.
WCT: How has sexuality informed your work?
JR: Yeah… This is something my partner was helping me make some sense of: For both of us, coming into our queerness is not just about sexuality but is about understanding every piece of information that has come into our trajectories. The world's trajectory and your own deserve to be questioned and reformatted in order to best serve you and your community.
I have all these different drafts of myselfincluding the days when I was supposedly straightfrom which I can pull in order to [compose] characters and reimagine scenes. That period of reimagination allows me to accept my sexuality and to continuously reinvent myself so I understand myself. To quote Prince, "I am an experience."
WCT: I want to conclude this interview with a question I've asked a variety of people. People have had a lot of time to self-reflect these past two years thanks to COVID, and some have had a racial awakening. What have you learned about yourself during this time?
JR: Whoo… This is going to sound corny, but I learned a little bit more about the other side of my dream, and what it takes to sustain that is going to be way different than I had been living previously. What I mean is that I come from a regular family of really hard workers and hustlersthat Chicago work ethic. That carried me through for years and then I went to college; I became a writer but I didn't [abandon] that work ethic.
I think I also believed that gentleness was antithetical to progress. I have to reconceptualize what that means going forward. There's still so much more going on in my head that I want to show people.
More about Julian Randall as well as works (including Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa) is at juliandavidrandall.com . He can be found on Twitter @JulianThePoet.