In her new novel, Running, author Natalia Sylvester explores diversity, representation and the power of using your voice against the backdrop of a presidential election.
By Hannah J. Phillips, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Shot on location at East Austin Hotel
Natalia Sylvester grew up with a wild imagination, writing her first stories at an early age. Studying creative writing and journalism at the University of Miami, she dove into the world of magazines and newspapers after college but remained fascinated by fiction’s unique ability to foster empathy.
“Fiction allows the writer to ask questions and imagine answers that maybe aren’t accessible to facts alone,” she says.
Working in the media, Sylvester often thought about the story behind a story, perceiving the truth in an emotional way but limited as a journalist to the evidence she could corroborate from sources. Delving into fiction allowed her to rebalance that power by giving voice to the more subtle details that she felt deserved to be seen and celebrated. With her third novel out this month, she is continuing to explore how empathy offers a holistic worldview and why representation is the key to finding your own voice.
While imagination might be commonly described as self-reliant, Sylvester often reflects on the external forces that shape early development. Born in Lima, Peru, her family moved to the U.S. when she was 4 years old, first to Florida, then to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and then back to Miami when she was in middle school.
“It’s hard for me to say primarily where I’m from because that idea of where a person’s from has never felt like it can be fully encompassed in one place,” she says. “As an immigrant, migration was still very much a part of my life because we were moving from city to city, state to state, and not only that, but I had this weird awareness that I couldn’t remember my birthplace in Peru.”
Sylvester’s imagination developed against a constantly changing backdrop as she pursued a sense of home during a childhood defined by movement. She recalls grappling with a growing suspicion that her “home” might not be as attached to her as she was to it.
“I grew up being aware that my mom was always working on our immigration paperwork,” she says. “It was such a long process, and I could see how it weighed on her, always going to the mailbox to see if it had come back with some error.”
Today, she views much of her work as an interaction with what it means to belong, a theme she traces throughout her second award-winning novel, Everyone Knows You Go Home. Inspired by her early teen years in the Valley, Sylvester says the story is her way of revisiting those memories. She refers to her experience in the Valley as “the years that really count, the years that shape you.” Moving back to Miami meant leaving friends, crushes and her volleyball team behind in Texas.
“It crushed me. There was this longing that stayed in me for years and years,” she says, noting how her characters mirror that same aching retrospective. “They move because they have to, but they each carry a deep sense of longing, wishing they could go back, but knowing that maybe it’s moved on without you and you’re left stuck somewhere between here and there.”
Sylvester weaves that tension throughout the novel, moving beyond the political borders of states and countries to reveal a broader theme. Blurring the boundaries between the living and the dead, she uses physical borders to reflect and amplify the emotional and spiritual barriers her characters cross in order to build a life together.
“For me, it was more about the invisible spaces, which came out of my experience growing up watching the women in my life—my mother and my grandmother—make so many sacrifices that seemed to go unseen and unheard,” she says.
Forsaking tropes of the fetishized trauma of immigration, Sylvester instead paints a full picture of the people and life she remembers from her childhood in the Valley—both the struggles and the beauty.
“That gets so overlooked when we only see those communities in the way they hurt, and not the way they live with everyday joy and pain,” she says. “We don’t get a true picture of it unless we see all of it.”
Publishers initially opposed Sylvester’s commitment to creating fully dimensional immigrant characters. As she sought to publish her first and second books, she wrestled again with her childhood dream of belonging, this time manifested in the overt and covert power dynamics of the publishing industry. A 2019 Publishers Weekly survey reported that the industry is 84-percent white, giving one group extraordinary power to determine which stories are read and who gets to tell them.
Reflecting on her own childhood, Sylvester realized the damaging impact this lack of representation had on her imagination as an aspiring writer. Books and movies portraying only a certain type of person subconsciously conditions society to lend exclusive validity to that one experience.
“When I was little, the first stories I started writing were about white people with character names that were nothing like my own or my family,” she recalls. “It’s harmful because it shapes our imagination to believe that stories about white people are the only ones deserving of our attention.”
Sylvester argues this representative disparity damages every imagination, regardless of race. Over time, readers of color learn to see their stories as less worthy—a belief Sylvester unknowingly perpetuated in her early writing— while white readers lose important opportunities to empathize and lend credibility to a perspective other than their own. The cumulative effect of homogeneity can manifest subtly but has long-lasting effects.
During the submission process for her first novel, Sylvester received resounding praise for her writing style, but, since the novel is set entirely in Peru with Peruvian characters, publishers consistently asked for more “American” characters.
“That’s really code for white,” Sylvester says. “because I’m American, but I was not the kind of American they wanted to see.”
Confronted with this jarring realization, she quickly recognized a need to resist certain expectations of Latinx writers in the U.S. market. In her mind, the first step toward change is telling her stories, but that alone is not enough to change the power dynamics of how those stories are marketed and who they are told for.
The submission process for her second novel cemented this impression, with publishers requesting more dramatic stories of border crossings instead of the everyday lives of the immigrants she sought to portray. Sylvester pushed back, arguing that these more mundane moments add to the full humanity of a character: A person is not defined by one moment of crossing a border, but by the daily decision to keep crossing countless cultural barriers in order to carve out a home.
“I always try to ask, who is this story serving?” she says. “If you’re only going to portray marginalized people in ways that you can’t see their full humanity, you’re just reinforcing stereotypes that frankly harm and can even kill people.”
Recalling the widely circulated video of Amy Cooper, a white woman, calling the cops on birdwatcher Christian Cooper—knowing full well police might harm or even kill him as a Black man—Sylvester notes how white stories are so pervasive they can even be weaponized in the collective cultural imagination.
“The worlds we create in our stories have the power to shape how we interact with each other,” she says. “We can either harm or protect one another, hurt or celebrate one another. Stories are powerful in both ways.”
Sylvester hopes her own stories will not only celebrate but empower her readers. She feels privileged to have a voice in a largely white-led industry, but that sense of power spurs her to create more space for other Latinx writers in the market. In addition to engaging with local writer groups and events, Sylvester regularly works with the Texas Book Festival, volunteering, moderating panels and advocating for more voices of color in the industry.
The festival’s executive director, Lois Kim, says Sylester’s “voice is strong and true, and her activism is really tied to her writing. Writers need to be selfish with their time, but Natalia is always generous in giving back to the literary community and to making Austin a better place for everybody.”
Navigating the power dynamics of the publishing world only strengthens Sylvester’s mission to help others find their voice, but the work can be exhausting.
“Each time you push back, you have to calculate whether this will take opportunities away or whether this is actually the real work,” she says. “The problem is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
Sylvester explores this dynamic in her third book, Running, slated for a July 14 release. Her first foray into young-adult fiction, the book follows 15-year-old Mari as she finds her voice during her father’s presidential campaign. During the 2016 election, Sylvester noticed the daughter of one candidate standing just off stage during a TV spot.
“I started writing from her point of view and exploring what it’s like to have her support be assumed and taken for granted by her family,” she says.
Reviewing her initial chapters, Sylvester’s agent pointed out that she was writing young-adult fiction and Sylvester kept writing the manuscript with kids like Mari in mind. The perspective lent new purpose to her work.
“There’s something really wonderful about all the possibilities a person contains at that age,” she says. “When we’re younger, we are still in this process of beginning or becoming, and I think that’s incredibly powerful.”
Tracing Mari’s journey to self-empowerment and activism, Sylvester explores questions of power and privilege throughout the narrative. Mari steps into her power, but not without acknowledging her own privilege. In many ways, her heroine’s journey mirrored the questions Sylvester was asking herself after the 2016 election: Namely, what power do we have as individuals to enact change?
In writing young-adult fiction, Sylvester faced the added challenge of wrestling with the question of how to delineate a growing awareness without imposing on the character.
“I didn’t want to sound like I’m preaching or underestimating her,” Sylvester says. “It became a way of holding those in power accountable while staying true to what a 15-year-old would feel is her power and powerlessness.”
Mari’s journey had to be both internal and external, reflecting the world around her. Revolving around a particular election, Sylvester wanted to explore what it means to use your voice even if you can’t yet vote. We don’t suddenly become people that matter when we turn 18, she argues, and voting is not the only way to have a voice. Only by the time Sylvester turned 17 had both her parents become U.S. citizens; for years, they lived in a country without the ability to vote on policy.
“From day one, kids matter and human beings matter, so our youth deserve stories that celebrate and enable them to step into that power,” Sylvester says. “If they don’t feel it or have access to it, that’s our responsibility.”
Launching the book during an election year—and in the wake of recent protests against systemic racism—Sylvester hopes her readers of all ages will examine their own circles of influence, their own responsibilities and potential to make a difference.
“I see Running as a journey to what happens when you’re creating your own identity and having a personal awakening to what your beliefs are,” she says. “…It’s a story I hope will continue to have life long after this election as people think about how we’re wielding power in our choices—whether in the ballot box or beyond.”
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