The PEN Pod: Uncovering Underrepresented Realities with Lucas Rocha and Vitor Martins
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with debut authors Lucas Rocha, author of Where We Go From Here, and Vitor Martins, author of Here the Whole Time. Lucas is a librarian living in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He received his MS in information science from Fluminense Federal University in Rio de Janeiro. Vitor lives in São Paulo, Brazil as well, and works as an illustrator and book marketer. They joined us to speak about what it’s been like to release a book in translation during a pandemic, writing about “taboo” topics, the inspirations behind their books, and what they’re reading now. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Lucas and Vitor begins at the 14:48 mark).
To start us off, I had a question for you both about the fact that you’re both debut authors. Obviously, traditional tours are no longer really possible in our current age. I’d love to hear from both of you, what the experience of releasing your books has been like during this time.
VITOR MARTINS: So releasing a book—and in a country I’ve never been before—could be challenging. Approaching a new wave of readers, understanding how to market my book, learning about the U.S. publishing process—it could all be very overwhelming. Releasing it in the circumstances that we’re living in right now, it’s a whole new level of challenge. What I feel—not only about my book in particular, but looking at a lot of other books released this year—I noticed that the readers from the whole world kind of needed those stars right now. It’s been a rough year for everyone, and literature has the kind of special thing that makes us feel welcome to a new world.
I have so many friends, Lucas included, that read so many more books this year because the real world has too much happening all the time—and the internet was sometimes unbearable. So books became kind of our safe space. I’m so glad that U.S. readers already found that sense of safeness in Here the Whole Time. I’ve been receiving so many kinds of messages from U.S. readers, so I think this book—that takes place almost in one single apartment—can bring some joy to people in these times of isolation. So as far as I’m concerned, the experience has been great so far.
Lucas, I know that your book has been out for a little bit longer. What has that experience been like for you?
LUCAS ROCHA: It’s very different from what I was expecting, for sure. Not being able to be in the U.S.—and to know the cities and the places that we were planning to go—was definitely something that made me a little sad, because we were planning a whole tour of the book. I was going to go to five different cities, and then everything got cut off. But at the same time, the publishing world found new ways to make people know me and know my work, and know Vitor’s work. As someone who lives in another country, the online experience of the festivals is amazing to me, and it’s a little frightening at the same time because there’s always this extra layer of insecurity—for me in particular—because of the language, because English is not my first language. Besides that, I’m thrilled to see that people are truly engaging and listening to what we have to say about our experiences living in Brazil, and they also are interested in seeing what our books have to say.
“Most of the messages that I got from U.S. readers were about the fact that Felipe goes to therapy. So many readers showed me their gratitude for having this topic in the book. I usually tend to overanalyze things a little bit, so in my opinion, I think the therapy issue was hit by a different light when you read this book in 2020 because it has been a year where we talked so much about mental health and taking care of ourselves. I think it’s very interesting to notice these kinds of details and realize that the same book can highlight different topics, depending on who and when they are reading the books.”
How has the reader reception differed across the U.S. and Brazil?
ROCHA: It’s crazy because our market here in Brazil is the exact opposite of yours when it comes to YA. In Brazil, there are a lot of readers that do prefer to read translated books than read the national ones. And although that is changing the last few years, that’s a movement that we still see happening here in Brazil. So when my book got that translation, the impression that I had was that this gates to it, a kind of a seal of approval that this is a good book—because it went outside of our borders. In my case, the translation to English made the second Brazilian edition possible, and the book got more attention here in Brazil. And in the United States, what I see is that translated works are another rule, so the readers always point to that as something good. That’s amazing because this enables the readers to understand other experiences and other points of view of the world.
A funny thing that I always hear is that the book doesn’t seem like a translated work. Someone just said to me, “Oh, your book doesn’t sound like a Brazilian book.” People get so used to the stereotypes of what it is to be Brazilian, and when they read my novel—or Vitor’s novel—they realize that we are not so different as they thought that we were.
That’s really interesting that people are saying, “Oh, this isn’t really what I expected it to be,” which I think proves the point that we need more books and translation in order to really open that up. And Vitor, what has that reader reception been like for your book?
MARTINS: This has been something so special to me because, as Lucas said, being translated already felt like a big deal. When you’re talking about the YA publishing market in the U.S., we’re talking about the biggest YA market in the world, where there are so many authors waiting for their big break—even though my Brazil book got a chance to be part of this market. And in this field, as I said, it’s not that common to publish books in translation, so this was a huge honor to me. My book was released in November, so right now my book is two months old in the U.S. Since it was released, I have had a lot of messages from U.S. readers in my mail and my social media accounts. And there was something very different that I noticed, that I want to share with you.
The reason why Brazilian readers usually come to me is to share their stories about self-acceptance, body issues, and being fat in this very, very mean world. Most of the messages that I got from U.S. readers were about the fact that Felipe goes to therapy. So many readers showed me their gratitude for having this topic in the book. I usually tend to overanalyze things a little bit, so in my opinion, I think the therapy issue was hit by a different light when you read this book in 2020 because it has been a year where we talked so much about mental health and taking care of ourselves. I think it’s very interesting to notice these kinds of details and realize that the same book can highlight different topics, depending on who and when they are reading the books. The reception from readers is very different in the points the readers point out to me, when they reach out. Also because Brazilian readers are super loud and warm—and they shout about your book all the time—sometimes I think we don’t have that much of a barrier. And I think the language barrier can influence that a little bit too much. The experience has been incredible. All the messages that I get so far always touch my heart in a very deep way.
“I really hope that my book, Vitor’s book, or any other book that talks about ‘taboo topics’ can open the minds of people who get prejudice about—in my case—the HIV virus, and that can turn into an honest conversation, because a taboo is only taboo if we do not talk about it. Particularly about HIV—we have a lot of data, we have a lot of scientific information, and we have a lot of advancements than we did not have 20 years ago. But the conversation got lost—that fear of this image, of the AIDS crisis during the ’80s and the ’90s. So I hope that my book, and other books as well, can open real discussions and end some false presumptions.”
Switching gears a little, I wanted to talk, of course, about your books themselves. Your books both touched on queerness, sexuality, coming of age, and also topics within those kinds of larger umbrellas that might be considered taboo in some circles—even today in 2020, including body image, insecurity, fatphobia, HIV. So now that the books are out there, obviously you’ve gotten the initial waves of reader reception, but what do you hope that your readers either now, or in future years, will take away from these two books of yours?
ROCHA: I really hope that my book, Vitor’s book, or any other book that talks about “taboo topics” can open the minds of people who get prejudice about—in my case—the HIV virus, and that can turn into an honest conversation, because a taboo is only taboo if we do not talk about it. Particularly about HIV—we have a lot of data, we have a lot of scientific information, and we have a lot of advancements than we did not have 20 years ago. But the conversation got lost—that fear of this image, of the AIDS crisis during the ’80s and the ’90s. So I hope that my book, and other books as well, can open real discussions and end some false presumptions. I think everyone will have a lot to gain if these conversations happen.
I think the point you just made—it’s only taboo because we don’t talk about it—is such a good point because the more we talk about it, the more light we can really shed on the different issues and how they impact different people in a community. Vitor, I would love to hear your thoughts on this question as well. What do you hope that your readers will take away from the book, either now or in future years?
MARTINS: Here the Whole Time is a super cute, cheesy, gay love story, but I think the real message that I tried to pass with Felipe’s story was a message of kindness. I won’t spoil anything right now, but at a certain point of the book, Felipe says that he always was so busy trying to not feel bad, that he forgot to try to feel good. Sometimes, we are just so hard on ourselves because of the way that we look, or we try to measure our self-value with our productivity, or we just get used to making self-deprecating jokes all the time because being the funny one is easier. We don’t stop and actually seek what makes us feel good—what brings us joy.
Sometimes, all the body positivity discourse that we find online can be a little bit hard to follow because we hear so many people saying that we have to love ourselves because we are enough, we are beautiful, we are gorgeous the way we are. But what I think the whole point of this book is, what happens when we are not at that point yet? What happens when we don’t feel that we are enough? What I hope readers can get from this book is this message: It’s okay if you’re not there yet. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to have that feeling that you need some external validation when you can’t validate yourself on your own. We all have different journeys of self-love and self-acceptance, and your journey should be the most suitable for you in the moment you’re living right now. If today was a hard day, we can always try it again tomorrow.
To turn back to these questions about the origin points of your stories—so Lucas, the book obviously discusses the issues that HIV positive people face nowadays, and it’s a very different landscape, of course, than what it was a decade or more ago. It’s interesting that you have these three different characters that are approaching it from their journeys and their experiences that are very different. You also work as a librarian at a foundation in Brazil that provides access to HIV and AIDS treatment for people. Was your interest in this story something that grew out of your professional experiences? What was the process like of creating that narrative from there?
ROCHA: Being able to work there as a librarian was what gave me the initial kick to write this story. If I didn’t work there, maybe this book would never see the light of day, as it is right now. When I worked there, I had access to a lot of stories and a lot of scientific data. I always point out that we are living in some kind of dystopian world right now, where science is not taken seriously anymore. And that’s very scary. But when I worked there, I read this article about what people in Brazil thought about HIV and AIDS, and I saw a lot of misconceptions that gave me the motivation to do something about it—I was doing my master’s at the time.
One thing a teacher of mine always said is, “When you see a problem, you have to try to find a solution.” And I guess the best way to approach this problem of lack of information—or lack of discussion—is write a book that tackles this topic. And I did it with three main characters at different stages because it was the most effective way to talk about those different issues. We have one character that just found out that he has the virus, and his world turns upside down because he doesn’t know what it means to be an HIV positive person in 2018—when I wrote the book. And we have this other character: He’s been HIV positive for three years, so his issues are different from the first character. And the third character: He does not have the virus, but he is trying to have a relationship with someone with the HIV virus, and he had a lot of misconceptions and a lot of prejudices that he had to overcome to be a better person, and to understand that the virus cannot be a wall between him and his love.
“What I hope readers can get from this book is this message: It’s okay if you’re not there yet. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to have that feeling that you need some external validation when you can’t validate yourself on your own. We all have different journeys of self-love and self-acceptance, and your journey should be the most suitable for you in the moment you’re living right now. If today was a hard day, we can always try it again tomorrow.”
I think the way you’ve approached that story too—through the three different characters—really allows you to present the different facets of an experience; obviously recognizing that it’s not representative of everyone’s experience, but that it presents a multiplicity of point of view and story within the larger story of your book. And Vitor, I loved that you described your book as like a happy, “cheesy” love story. For me, when I was reading it, it felt very joyful, despite of course the very real suffering that Felipe undergoes too. And of course the discussion of fatphobia, in the book too, feels so interesting and timely. It’s also a love story that takes place in this very intimate, closed-off scenario. I’d love to hear what inspired you to write his story in this way.
MARTINS: Yeah, it’s so hard talking after Lucas because he’s so smart. Here the Whole Time was actually me trying to write a Beauty and the Beast retelling. That’s it. It was my first idea because I wanted to write this character that feels like a monster and doesn’t think that he deserves love until a happy bookworm comes into his house, and they’re forced to live together for a while, and they get to know each other because they are right there and not leaving the house. They kind of bond in a certain way. And I had all these headcanons for who will be Lumiere and who will be Mrs. Potts. It was really fun setting up the story, but in the end, I felt the retelling thing was not helping me anymore, because I was trying to be so faithful to the Disney movie that I just had to let go. That’s a fun fact that I always like to share because that was the first initial stage of Here the Whole Time.
But the main reason that made me write this book was—I was like, desperate. It was in me, a desperate need to read some fat, gay representation in books. At the time that I wrote it, it was 2016, and it was just so hard to find a good fat, gay representation in books—especially here in Brazilian YA literature. When I wrote it, I had never dreamed of being published in the U.S., so looking at my scenario right here, it was very hard to find this kind of book around here. And when they talk about fatphobia, body issues, and these kinds of things in literature, we’re always drawn to the female main character. When you’re talking about a gay kid that grows up as a fatty, we have so many layers of issues to discuss—so many things that, for a moment, I thought were something that only I went through. But in fact, a lot of other gay teens—fat, gay teens—that grow up, went through it too. The gay community sometimes can be so hard on different bodies—bodies that don’t follow the beauty standard. So the main reason that I wrote this book was just me trying to see myself in a book for once. Thinking about other writers from our generation, I can see a lot of other authors that share this same background—of not seeing themselves in the books for a long time, and then deciding to take some action on it. What I love about it is that these stories usually come with so many true experiences that they feel so brave, honest, and genuine. And I just hope Felipe’s story feels honest to other readers too.
One thing that we’ve been asking a lot of the authors who’ve been coming on the podcast is what they’re reading these days—whether it’s for context or clarity around what’s going on, or for comfort and pure escape.
MARTINS: I just finished Memorial by Brian Washington. This is not a YA book, but it’s such a great story. It has a gay couple, a lot of relationship issues, family drama, everything that I love. And it’s so beautifully written. It’s a great novel. I really love this book. Talking about my field—the YA field—I think some of my 2020 favorites were Darius the Great Deserves Better by Abid Khorram. He’s one of my favorite authors, and this is the kind of sequel that I didn’t know I needed until I got it because it’s just an incredible book. Other books that I can recommend that were also 2020 favorites are Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo and The Extraordinaries by T.J. Klune.
ROCHA: Yes, I’m using quarantine time to read a lot. I’m reading a lot of books at the same time. Right now, I’m diving in Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson because I really love to shut down this world while I’m reading Sanderson’s books—and it has three plus dimensions, so it’s better than this one that we have right now. I’m also reading The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, a Nigerian writer. It’s so good. She wrote it during the ’70s and the ’80s, and talks a lot about the colonization process of Nigeria. It’s a book that I’m loving. And I recently finished Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie because Agatha Christie is never enough for me. I always read one or two novels of hers a year. I also finished Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, which is a nonfiction novel about therapy, which I should be doing. But my absolute favorite this year in the YA field was definitely Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender. This is such an extraordinary book. I heard the audio version, and it is amazing. All of the topics that Kacen talks about in their book—it’s wonderful.