When literacy advocate Saraciea J. Fennell began to field troubling questions from her son about identity and criminality that emerged from the Trump administration’s brutal rhetoric on Latinxs, she discovered a literary void. As an author, book publicist, and founder of the online and pop-up bookstore The Bronx is Reading, Fennell understood the power of literature to influence and educate, but she could not find a book that accurately represented the Latinx diaspora and addressed the challenges and nuances of the moment.
Growing up as a Black girl in the Bronx, understanding her own Honduran identity was a complex journey—one she wanted to illuminate for her son and other young readers. “Everyone knows what Chicanx means, but if I were to say, 'I’m Catracha,' few people would understand,” Fennell tells Refinery29 Somos. “I have to explain that I’m Honduran, and that’s the term we use.”
With Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, Fennell’s anthology on the multiplicity of Latinx identity and experiences published by Flatiron Books, she is determined to address the lack of Central American, Black, and Indigenous representation in Latinx literature and spark an honest dialogue surrounding some of the most taboo topics facing the community. By assembling a cohort of 15 powerhouse authors—including Elizabeth Acevedo, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Janel Martinez, Naima Coster, Cristina Arreola, and more—Fennell edited an anthology that spans genre, identity, and subject. Each unique chapter embraces the role of an elder—not to impose or even make conclusions but rather to ponder, celebrate, and say, “I’m still learning, too.”
“It was very collaborative. I began by giving all the writers a theme: tackling myths or stereotypes and subverting them within our community. I wanted us to talk about all the taboo topics that are swept under the rug and wanted them to draw from their life experiences,” Fennell says, adding that it’s her goal to transform the publishing industry and uplift people from marginalized backgrounds.
Here, we speak with Fennell about her groundbreaking anthology, the diverse topics it covers, and why it’s essential for adults and young people alike. Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed is available where books are sold.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The publishing industry, whose editorial staff remains 85 percent white, can be quite elusive for people of color. It is rare to find a Black Honduran author. How did this project come about?
I hate to say this, but the seed for it was actually planted when Donald Trump was elected. During the presidential debates, and throughout all four years of his presidency, my son was listening to his rhetoric, watching his actions, and asking a lot of questions. My son is Mexican, Honduran, and Puerto Rican—he is mixed, and we've done our best to make sure that he knows his cultures and where he comes from. Still, you can imagine how difficult it was as a parent trying to explain to a child that their life matters, trying to reassure them that they are not the stereotype disseminated on national programs by people who are running the country. It was a very tough conversation to have with him, but I wanted to be honest.
That said, the idea emerged at home with him, but I love having conversations with young people overall because they ask very challenging questions that we cannot give simple answers to. It also got me thinking about my own childhood. At 10 years old, I was questioning my mom, but her response was always, “leave it alone.” Elders have a tendency to brush difficult conversations aside when they don't have the language, patience, or comfort level to have them. I really wished I had a book that provided the verbiage to talk about some of these things, and I knew that there were many others in the community asking the same questions about identity that only an anthology could respond to.
You have so many incredible contributors that cover so many diverse subjects. How did you decide which stories to include in this anthology?
I wanted to assemble a group of powerful writers, both new-on-the-scene and veteran, who already tackle a lot of these topics in their fiction, but I wanted them to now pull from their own experiences. For me, it really validates everything we go through in our culture and our community even more. Lots of people turn to fiction to teach, and I thought, why can't you do that with nonfiction? Why don't we have more nonfiction where young people can see themselves reflected?
I also wanted to be sure that voices that are too often erased—Indigenous, Black, and Central American voices—were included here. Where are we on the bookshelf? Why are we not in the canons? It's so frustrating to me that certain countries have more representation than others. So when I considered who I could get, I knew I wanted wonderful dynamic writers like Meg Medina, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Lilliam Rivera, who have already been demystifying and subverting a lot of stereotypes in their works. And then there were new voices, or rather newer voices. For example, Janel Martinez, creator of Ain’t I Latina, has been a journalist for a while. She is incredible at highlighting others, but I said, what if we turn the lens on you? Let's talk about your life story because that representation also matters. She's a Black Honduran woman, and that's important for people to see because that representation is not out there.
You also have a chapter in the anthology where you delve into your own story, sharing your identity challenges growing up as a Black Central American girl in the foster care system. What a brave place to begin. How did it feel to go there?
I wanted to be authentic and acknowledge that I am still learning. Back then, as a child, I didn’t know anything about where I came from. I remember society applying all these pressures by asking me questions that I didn't have the answers to. That experience made me realize that we can identify however we want, but what's important is that we know our history. You have to know where you come from, the good and the ugly, so that you can decide how to navigate the world.
Growing up, I hated being told, “this is who you are, this is what you eat, or this is how you're supposed to dress.” I felt disconnected, lonely, and often wondered, why do you think this is the thing that we do? I didn’t want to just believe what I was being told. I've always been very curious, always in search of the truth, so I decided to investigate. I was in junior high school when I discovered I belong to the Latinx community. After naming that, other Latinx kids started to embrace me. It’s not that they were mean to me or unfriendly at first. Instead, there was now this understanding that “you're one of us,” and they wrapped me up in a hug in this community. I still see that today. We’re all looking to connect.
Conversely, it’s important to keep learning about your history because there are also aspects about our cultures that we’ll realize we don’t want to embrace. For example, I wrote about bleaching cream in my essay. I described how my tia, when I was living with her, would say, “make sure you put the bleaching cream on your elbows, knees, and dark spots.” I didn't think to question it because I believed she had my best interest at heart. I thought, this is something she did growing up, so I too have to do it. But then I learned that this practice is rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and it’s not something I want to carry over to new generations. These discoveries felt important to write about.
Writing the book can be difficult, but it's just the beginning of the journey. There’s marketing and publicity that follows. As a book publicist, how have you brought your expertise to this project?
It's about community-building and, I think as a publicist, I encourage writers all the time, especially debut writers, to build their community because a lot of the time you're writing alone. It's a very solitary experience. While I got to work with 14 other wonderful writers for this anthology, we were all still writing alone, separately.
Similarly, I really want writers to know that, yes, writing is an art form, but it's also a business. If you want to write, you have to understand that it's also a job. I really think it's a disservice for writers to scribe something beautiful and then refuse to talk about it or engage with people about it. After spending about 75% to 80% of your time writing the book, there is a period of downtime before it publishes. This is a great time to practice talking about it. You have to practice your pitch because everyone's going to ask you questions. I encourage writers and aspiring writers to consider these questions before they’re asked and to be willing to talk with people about the work. Are some people going to troll? Absolutely. Ignore those people. Get to know the reader who wants to engage with you because that's your community. They're the ones who are going to be supporting you. They're the ones who are going to champion your work. They're the ones who are going to be building that buzz by passing the book from friends to friends.
Your mission and work are clearly defined and something to be very proud of. This makes me think of your role as a mother. I want to return to your son, the inspiration for this anthology. What do you want him to come away with after reading Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed?
I want him to be a well-informed individual in this world. The only way he can be well-informed is by reading, specifically by reading diversely. There are so many different real-life stories within Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed. It's so rich, and it's so diverse. Through these essays, I hope he can decide his identity for himself and understand that there is no one Latinx identity. I wrote in my introduction that I want people to read this and dismantle their idea of Latinidad. Society, Western ideals, and white supremacy have sold us this image. But I want my son and my readers to envision different faces of this diverse group of people. I want him to know that any person he sees on the street could belong to our community. The world is so rich, and I want to encourage young people to continue to read widely so that they can see all of these differences, become more cultured, and make informed decisions from them. I want every reader, whether they belong to the Latinx community or not, to know that we can travel the world through stories and through Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed.