Twenty years ago, Alisa Lynn Valdés released her first novel, “The Dirty Girls Social Club.” It was a runaway success, and the writer published 12 more books in its wake. Then she took a 10-year break, coming back with “Hollow Beasts,” a suspenseful murder mystery that is out now as an e-book and hitting bookshelves on Apr. 1. The novel introduces us to a new protagonist — rookie game warden and former poetry professor Jodi Luna.
I catch up with Valdés while we hike out to the spot where she originally dreamed up her new novel. Looking back, Valdés isn’t sure if writing “The Dirty Girls Social Club” was selling out or not. She styled that first book after what she heard the publishing industry wanted — a Latina Terry McMillan (who wrote beloved titles like “Waiting to Exhale” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back”).
“What does it mean to be Latina is what informed my first book. [It] was an exploration of that, because so many different kinds of people are under that umbrella,” Valdés says. And indeed “Dirty Girls” follows six Latinas from wildly different backgrounds who reunite regularly after college. Valdés is proud of “Dirty Girls” and particularly how it blew up the idea of the stereotypical Latina — even if, somewhat ironically, writing the book pigeonholed her into its chatty vibe.
“My second novel, after ‘The Dirty Girls Social Club,’ was a literary novel about a jazz saxophonist,” she says. “And I turned that in to my editor, as they have a first look, and she was like, ‘This is a beautiful book, but it’s not in your brand.’ Literally, it was autobiographical about being a female saxophonist at this school like Berkeley,” which is where Valdés went and studied music herself. Still, she remembers her agent telling her, “That’s not what people expect from you.”
Valdés played ball and wrote more books in the style of “Dirty Girls,” including the sequel, “Dirty Girls on Top.” But the expectation to put on a persona wore on her and she walked away from publishing, deciding to try other things. She wrote a screenplay. She worked as a teacher. Time passed. Then she had a near-death experience where she was clinically dead for a while: “I discovered this piece within me about no longer trying to do things because that’s what other people would accept or expect,” she recalls, later asking herself, “What do I sincerely want to do, now, as me?”
The answer was relatively simple: “It’s time to write about home in the genre that I love,” she shares. “And I wasn’t sure if it would work or not. I wrote the book. And, you know, it worked.”
Valdés shares that she’s 11th-generation New Mexican on her mom’s side, tracing her lineage to Spanish colonizers, so part of a group that didn’t cross the border — the border crossed them. Her dad’s a Cuban immigrant, and not a typical one either.
“He’s a socialist. So we were never in Miami,” she says. “He came here as an orphan at 15, and we have a whole family back there that stayed and benefited from the revolution.”
With this mixed Latinx heritage, Valdés has a lot to say about Latina identity and how her home shaped how she sees herself. New Mexico has the highest percentage of Latinos of any state in the United States, so Valdés grew up being a “who” rather than a “what,” as she puts it. When she left for college, it was a shock to suddenly be asked, “What are you?” as if her humanity wasn’t readily apparent.
New Mexico also boasts one of the most distinct cultures of anywhere in the country, according to Valdés, who credits its uniqueness to the pueblo way of life — meaning the Indigenous people who continue to live here regardless of what empire is running the umbrella government. She traces the endurance of native traditions in New Mexico to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, calling it “the first real American Revolution.”
In that uprising, Indigenous groups successfully defeated the Spanish, exiling them from the state for 12 years. “When [the Spanish] came back, they were more conciliatory, as far as allowing people to retain certain traditions, including the Pueblo architecture that we like so much here, the food, all that stuff,” she says.
And those traditions give “Hollow Beasts” its setting and its texture, serving as the physical and metaphysical birthplace of its unique heroine. Jodi Luna is a hotheaded outdoorswoman who returns to her native New Mexico with her teenage daughter after her husband dies. When he was alive, Luna had a whole career as a poetry professor but always failed to fit in with the other intellectuals, thanks to how she likes to go hunting and butcher her own kills.
With her partner gone, Jodi decides to lean into her physical side, not forgoing the intellectual but incorporating it into her new role as a game warden. “If you’re from Latin America, the idea of a poet being also a revolutionary is not surprising. José Martí is sort of the national poet of Cuba, and it’s a lot of his poetry that inspired the Cuban Revolution,” Valdés shares, citing Chileno Víctor Jara as another example. She adds, “When the fascists come to power, those [poets] are the first people they kill. So for me, Jodi Luna being an angry revolutionary poet is not unusual.”
In addition to the history books, Valdés also drew on her own life to create the character, combining what she learned from one friend who is a game warden with a woman hunter she knows and follows on social media. Being a game warden is one of the most dangerous professions — they are seven times more likely to be assaulted in the field — Valdés learned in her research. The increased danger comes in part because of game wardens’ vast territories of wilderness, often without radio or cell service. And they’re up against poachers who, Valdés notes, “are killing things that they’re not supposed to kill because they can get away with it . . . poachers are almost always male. They’re armed. You’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re by yourself.”
Valdés gave her story poacher antagonists, layering in the white supremacy she was seeing in the news. “I had heard about a story out of Ohio where a 14-year-old girl named Natalia Miranda was hunted down by a white supremacist who ran her over multiple times because she looked Mexican,” shares Valdés, who had harrowing experiences of her own in Arizona. She was protesting racist immigration practices with her 6-year-old son when a group of men on motorcycles cornered him.
“[They were] pretending they were gonna run him over because he was Mexican to them,” she recalls. “And then when he was in first grade there, he got in the car one day and asked, ‘Mommy, am I legal? My teacher wants to know.'”
For Valdés having white-supremacist bad guys actively hunt and kill people for looking Mexican, well, that’s happened throughout time — from today back to the “foundational genocide of the country.” After all, Homeland Security consistently names white-supremacist terrorists as the number one terrorist threat in the US. Valdés wanted to dramatize this real evil, particularly as she doesn’t see the prevalence of white-supremacist terrorists “reflected in pop culture, where terrorists still tend to be nonwhite.”
In terms of culture, Valdés knows there’s a lot to do, whether in publishing, TV, or films. She recently submitted the second Jodi Luna novel, completing her two-book deal and hoping for more. She was also working on a deal with a prominent, yet-to-be-announced Latina actress, who wants to adapt the novel for the screen.
“My dad told me every political movement throughout history must be necessarily preceded by one or two generations by a cultural movement,” she says. Valdés sees her work as part of that cultural movement, part of a hopefully coming change for Latinas — one that wholistically values Valdés, the Latinas who come after her, and the world we all share in a just and sustainable way.
Image Source: Thomas and Mercer