People often ask me which parts of TSSoE are fiction and which are based on my life. The truth is that it’s all fiction and it’s all real life. No writer, no matter how inventive, makes every story up out of whole cloth. We all “borrow” things – some big, some small – from our own world-view and our own experiences. But, when it comes down to it, TSSoE is the story of another girl, not me. One of the most rewarding parts of writing TSSoE was watching the main character, M.T., develop her own voice and her own experiences. I know that may sound like writerly mumbo-jumbo, but it really is true. You work and work on a book and finally one day you realize that the characters are telling you the story. That moment is the closest thing to pure bliss I have ever experienced.
Still, I borrowed a lot from the emotion I felt as a teenager – and which I still sometimes feel – while writing this book. Here are a few major themes I borrowed straight from my own life:
Feeling excluded. M.T. spends much of the book holding in her secret. She does this because she fears that if she lets the truth about herself be known she will be rejected. I know this feeling very well. I too kept my secret about being undocumented until well into my 30s, including from my best friends. I was sure that if I told bad things would happen. The trouble is that when you don’t share the authentic you then you can’t feel truly appreciated for who you are. It was such an amazing surprise when I was vulnerable about my “darkest secrets” and I was embraced and loved for them. It was quite the life lesson.
Being undocumented. Like the main character of TSSoE, I was undocumented. I hated how that made me feel, like I was somehow not good enough to stay in the only country I had ever called home. As an adult I learned that immigration laws are arbitrary and unfair and that it doesn’t mean anything about anyone who is out of status, no matter what the haters on TV say. I wanted to tell a story about the human side of being caught in this unfair situation. That said, there are significant differences between M.T.’s experience of being undocumented and my own. I originally wrote the end of TSSoE to mirror my own happy outcome – originally M.T. got an amnesty, which meant she was allowed to stay and get on a path to citizenship. That’s what happened to me when I was eighteen. But the political climate has changed a lot since I was an undocumented teenager, so I rewrote her ending to more authentically portray the times in which she’s living.
Suicide. M.T. thinks about ending her difficult life through suicide. I did as well. For me, trying to imagine what my adult life might look like filled me with a feeling of utter hopelessness. Without papers I couldn’t do any of the things I dreamed of doing and I couldn’t see the way out. So I can understand the thoughts. Having progressed to a much better place in my life, I know suicide is not the answer. It’s hard to explain why without sounding preachy. So I’ve done the two most responsible things I know how to do – I’ve written the most authentic representation I can write about a teenage girl facing tough situations (including how she found her way through) and I’ve provided resources for anyone facing these kinds of thoughts. If you find yourself facing thoughts of suicide or self harm, there is a world of help and support out there for you. Please click here for the Resources page and reach out to experienced professionals who can help you find your way. There is always an answer to every problem.
More to come!