Each of Us a Desert: How Mark Oshiro Crafted Their YA Latinx Fantasy

We talked to author Mark Oshiro about the inspiration for and origins of coming-of-age fantasy novel Each of Us a Desert.

Author Mark Oshiro and Book Cover Each of Us a Desert
Photo: Tor Teen

Mark Oshiro’s Each of Us a Desert is about finding your place in this world through the most unexpected means, while staying true to yourself. Part coming-of-age story, part fantasy, this book not only delivers an enchanting tale, but also has some of the most creative world building happening in speculative fiction right now—all told through a Latinx lens.

The Each of Us a Desert story follows Xochitl, a cuentista of her home of Empalme. As a cuentista, Xo has the ability and responsibility of retaining the stories and sins from the villagers and returning them to the sun, aka their god Solís,. In this world, Solís has stripped the world bare with its fire and only left far and few in between alive. While this may sound like a post-apocalyptic wasteland a la Mad Max, there is just as much joy, wonder, and love as there is danger, hunger, and pain to be found in this world. There is a romantic element to the book as well, one that tips the scales to the side of good, but doesn’t take away from the coming-of-age elements. Xo’s strength, conviction, and willingness to treat those around her with kindness makes her stand out amongst the cast of characters in this book, her heart guiding her as she finds herself in the desert they call home.

Den of Geek had the chance to speak with Mark Oshiro about creating this compelling story of survival, love, and hope while holding onto his own roots as a Latino man who just so happens to be queer themselves. Here’s what they had to tell us….

Each of Us a Desert Cover

Den of Geek: Where did you get the idea for Each of Us a Desert? Where did it come from?

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As I talk about the Genesis of this project, I also have to admit that I would say maybe 1% of that first draft is what actually ended up in the final draft.

It happens sometimes… you have an idea, but it takes you on a really weird path. But the initial idea came before I even had a book deal. It was when I had gotten an agent and my agent asked me if I was working on any of the projects. And I was like, “No,” because I’m trying to get this published,” and he gave me a good piece of advice, which is, “Well, the book’s done. We can do whatever work we can to get it hopefully published. But right now you should think about what comes next. Do you have any ideas?” And I was like, “No, not really,” and because I just at that point was, especially when you’re unpublished you’re kind of just hoping the thing that you wrote is the thing that makes it. 

So I started giving it some thought and I had a very coincidental experience that inspired it. So myself and my twin brother, we’re adopted and we know very little about our biological parents. And so for many, many years, we’ve been sort of trying to find out who they are, where they are. I managed to track down our biological mother, but we’ve never met or seen his photo or even known the name of our biological father. And not long after this conversation, I had an experience with my brother where we did actually find our birth father’s whole name, which when you’re searching in records, when you’re searching for the legal stuff, that’s one of the most important parts and we’ve never had it. Unfortunately, in that very same document in which we found his name, we found out that he was not a U.S citizen and that he had given up his parental rights to us. And as far as we knew, went back to Mexico.

And all of a sudden, we went from the elation of, “We have information,” to … “Oh, there’s a border.” There’s this invisible line in the earth has now made this search just as hard as it was before. And so I remember coming back from my brother’s place and having this image in my head of this girl trying to find her parents and she was trying to cross this large expanse. It was just images. And this is the first time I didn’t have a concrete story idea. I just kind of just liked this image of like, “Someone searching for their parents,” because it was something that I was doing and that then took shape. And over the course of a month, I came up with this whole novel idea because it’s not the book that you read. It was very different, the first draft of this book was like far-future dystopia. It wasn’t fantasy at all. And so over the course of many, many edits, it became the book that is now, Each of Us a Desert, but that’s where it came from.

How did you approach the world-building aspect in the book?

The book wasn’t fantasy at the start. So I actually figured out the character arcs, particularly Emelia’s and Xochitl’s, those came naturally and came first. All of the world building came second. So I then designed the world around them, which is why so much of the world building is actually very intimate. It’s very personal and very emotional because unlike literally all fantasy authors ever, I came up with the world second. It was important for me to know what their stories were first. I feel it made the world building easier. If you know where a character’s going and what their journey looks and feels like…because then a lot of the details like the whole myth of cuentista was not a thing until draft three.

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Solis was one of the only things that was in the first draft. Everything else came in bits and pieces, as I thought about how their story and what would be interesting about it? Once I realized like, “Oh, I think this is a magical power. It’s not something that’s a myth. What does that magic look like?” So it was coming up with their story and then building the world afterward. I will say that while some parts of it were easier. If I ever wrote a fancy book again, I would definitely come up with the world first, I think. I was just like, “Why didn’t I think of this first? I did this all backward.” So yeah. That’s how the world building went. It was not a typical path for a fantasy writer.

That’s intense, but it sounds like it was fun.

It was. It was fun discovering this stuff and that’s the part that I’ll never regret at all. I’m glad it happened the way it did because it was fun to stumble across things. There is a grand design in the end, but in the beginning it wasn’t, it was all about discovery, which I feel like that … weirdly, that theme is what the book is. It’s so much about discovery and whatnot so it kind of worked out for me.

And what parts of you and your Latinidad are in Each of Us a Desert?

Like I said, I’m adopted. So I’ve been very open about the fact that I’ve had a very bizarre experience because I am, what’s sort of called, a transracial adoptee because I was adopted by people of a different racial and ethnic group that I have. So my adopted mom is white. My adopted dad is Japanese, born in Hawaii. So it means that I wasn’t necessarily raised in a lot of the traditions or sort of cultural morals or beliefs that a lot of my fellow Latinx people can relate to. It meant that I often felt very isolated. I felt alone. I felt like I didn’t fit in. So on that level, there’s a lot of that sort of spirituary in Each of Us a Desert where you have this character who might be in a group of people who look like her, who believe the same things like her and yet she feels so isolated. She feels so very alone. 

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I learned Spanish, bits and pieces as a kid, especially picking it up on the playground. Years ago though… part of how I wanted to sort of reclaim my identity was re-learning Spanish. So I’ve spent the last four years studying it fairly intensely, and this was the first time I wanted to go there. I mean, there’s Spanish in Anger Is a Gift, but it’s in very small pieces. And this is the first time I was like, “Look, I think I really want to do this and I want to commit to it.” 

I’m very proud to be able to say that all of the poems that are in the book, I wrote in Spanish completely. It was only after the fact that I translated them. And even then, I mean, that’s the beauty of Spanish and Spanish as a language is that there is something where the English just doesn’t quite nail what the word means. It’s almost there, but it’s not quite. And so I love that there’s going to be sort of this extra layer for anyone who speaks Spanish. That there’s an extra meaning.

I think that is one way that it shows up, my Latinidad. And it also shows up in talking about queerness, being a Latino and growing up in a place that felt rural. It didn’t feel like a big metropolitan city. And I think there’s a lot of that in the construction of me. I grew up in Riverside, California. It is not a small town by any means.

And you pull from parts of your life as inspiration. But I think the fun, especially with Each of Us a Desert, was getting to just do new things and experiment and write things that may have nothing to do with me. I think most of Each of Us a Desert, where Anger Is a Gift is very business autobiographical, this book is almost an emotional sense, not in experiential sense.

Talking about being queer, and I like that the book talks about change and becoming the person you were always meant to be. Can you talk about exploring those themes in Each of Us a Desert?

I love that this book is not a big city. There is a big city for a small portion of it, but it’s not. It’s about being in a small town. And that feeling of feeling isolated and alone. And I loved getting to write this story that sort of has both a very on-the-page queerness throughout with multiple characters, but then there’s a subtextual queerness to it too, which is that so many of us have to leave the places we were born or leave the places we grew up in order to find ourselves.

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And I love getting to write that for Xochitl. And getting to write this journey where she comes to understand who she is. And there’s an agency to that. It’s not just understanding who she is, but choosing where you are. And I love that she gets to choose who she is, who she has in her life and what love means to her. I think out of everything in the book, it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of is her journey and where she ends up. And it comes very much from a place of appreciating my own journey and getting to come into my own and coming into my true self.

That’s beautiful.

Thank you.

I wanted to ask what books inspired this book?

Two in particular were super influential. One is what was one of the only Latinx books I read while in school, which was Rudolfo Anaya’s book Bless Me, Ultima. It’s almost spiritually in conversation with that book, even though one is a contemporary, the other one is very sort of fantasy, I feel like it’s undeniable, when you think about the two books. How they’re in conversation with one another, particularly in how magic can be a personal thing.

The other big one is Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. The original version of Each of Us a Desert was our future dystopia. And so it shares that sort of backbone with it, even though it’s not that book anymore. What it became is so much about this teenage girl sort of facing the notion of dogma. What do her people believe and how is that belief challenged when she gets out of her world? And I think a lot about how Parable of the Sower is about challenging your belief system and challenging what you were raised to believe, but then also how much the protagonist of Parable of the Sower reclaims her identity. She reclaims her belief system. So those were sort of the two guiding influences that I had when I was writing the book.

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If one day this was going to end up on TV or made into a movie, who would you dream cast as the major roles?

So here’s an interesting confession. I didn’t really get asked this question for Anger Is a Gift, so I never had an answer ready. But part of the reason why is because I actually don’t cast the things that I write.

Really?

A lot of people will… they’ll do mood boards. I actually avoid using real life images for my characters, because I want them to look like the version in my head, if that makes sense. I sort of fully commit them into my brain. Like, “This is what I think they look like. This is how I think they behave or whatnot.” And so I have actually never really truly thought about who would play these characters in a movie.

Totally understandable.

I saw this question, I was like, “Oh, I haven’t done this because I don’t do this for anything.” That being said, my hope was that in writing it…there’s a very specific way that I talk about characters, their hair textures, their skin colors, and their facial features. Like, I want this cast to be entirely brown.”

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Yas!

And I want them to act like Latinx people.

Sounds amazing. 

Hands down. For a reason. And I mean, there’s also a spoiler reason why it needs to be that way, that I can’t really talk about because but I don’t want to spoil a thing that you find out towards the end.

Yeah. I am 75% into the book right now. I am almost done.

Then I definitely don’t want to talk about what it is. There is a reason for the skin tone stuff that’s intentional. And so I wrote the book that way, because if it gets made into something, that’s something that’s going to be very important to me is, I want the people to look a certain way, not only for the internal logic of the role, but it’s also… I think it’s intentional in terms of representing a lot of the people who get ignored in our community too.

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Absolutely.

It’s something that’s important to me. So I have to think about who I would cast. I don’t know. Off the top of my head, I would love… Oh, I mean, now that I say that….

Yeah? What are you thinking? 

A lot of people don’t know, for example, that Lupita Nyong’o is both black and Mexican. And I would love. There’s a … oh, I can’t tell you because I think it’s a spoiler. But there is a role that I’m like, “Oh shit, she would kill it.”

That would be perfect. Lupita in anything and everything.

Yes, in anything. But I think that’s a very intentional thing, too, is that a lot of people get mistaken about race and ethnicity when it comes to Latinx people and with Hispanic people. And I want to break that. I want to constantly support that and surprise who you expect to see is a Latinx person.

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I love it. Last question, what else, if anything, are you working on right now?

Oh my God. So the timing of this is perfect because I can start to sort of talk about anything. So two things. First is that I just turned it edits on my middle grade debut, which is called Insiders. It’s out next year, which is a contemporary book with a dose of chaotic magic. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who, while fleeing from bullies, finds a magical closet that unites him with two other kids at different schools across the country. And they discover this weird, magical area that not only brings them together as friends, but helps them solve each other’s problems. It is my joyous, chaos bedded book, and I’m so excited about it. So that’s out of next year. I don’t have a schedule for it yet.

I just, literally, before this had a long meeting about my next book, which is going to be me returning to the contemporary world, but it is going to be a dark contemporary horror novel. I’m so excited because I wanted to write a fairly strict horror novel for a long time. There’s elements of it in Each of Us a Desert, but it’s not purely that. And I think this is my first chance I’ll be able to do that. And so right now I’m pitching it as if the movie Hereditary didn’t have any supernatural stuff in it and was somehow mixed with Aristotle and Dante: Discover the Secrets of the Universe, which are totally completely opposite things. But I think that’s a very weirdly good description of what this book is going to be.

That’s an amazing description. I want this now.

That’s the goal. I got to finish writing it. So I’m very excited about it. It’s much more autobiographical than Each of Us a Desert. And it’s really me leading it to a lot of my experience as a teenager in a way that I haven’t really written about it. So I’m excited to do something that is very personal to me, but also to kind of have fun with it and introduce you to this very frightening story.

I’m excited.

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I’m so excited.

Thank you for talking with me today about this. It really, really has given me such amazing perspective on the book.

Oh, thank you.

Each of Us a Desert is now available to buy. You can found out more about Mark Oshiro on their website.