Diana López on Monsters, Myth, and Healing in Her New Book, ‘Felice and the Wailing Woman’

Diana López is an educator at heart with a penchant for finding the magic in the seemingly mundane. Whether on the road through her beloved home state of Texas, or sitting by a campfire, or floating through the water, Diana has the ability to peek behind the veil to find a story. In her new book, Los Monstruous: Felice and The Wailing Woman, the author takes us behind the curtain of Corpus Christi to the town of Tres Leches, where the daughter of a monster sets herself on course to undo a nightmare that has become something akin to a myth. Below, she reveals how our stories can heal the wound of trauma and why our monsters are worth exploring with a fresh perspective.

The Nerds of Color: You’re native to Corpus Christi, TX and have written about the iconic singer, Selena Quintanilla, who was also from Corpus Christi, and now Los Monstruous: Felice and The Wailing Woman is set in Corpus Christi. Do you find the place inspires your storytelling? What makes Corpus Christi a captivating setting for you to write about?

Diana: Well, it’s my hometown. I was a child here, and I had a very magical childhood. So, whether or not it’s truly magical, I don’t know, but for me it feels that way. Corpus Christi is a coastal city. I always felt this stark division between land and water, and it was always a very calming and centering experience for me when my life was getting kind of crazy. It’s interesting that in my book my main character has a deep fear of water. You’re surrounded by water here. 

Most of the book actually takes place in a fictional town. It begins in Corpus Christi, but it finds its way to Tres Leches, named after a favorite sweet cake. It’s halfway between Corpus and the Rio Grande Valley at the Texas-Mexican border. On my drive to the valley, there’s a little town called Riviera and a little town called Falfurrias. Every time I drive down that road, to me, it’s a transition road, and I always want to veer off the road and go explore those ranches and see what’s on the other side. So, it’s inspired by my actual setting, but also by where my imagination takes me. 

It sounds like this journey, this drive, really kind of got your creative wheels turning. After having that initial spark of creativity, what was your process of developing the story through that mythological lens?

The story La Llorona, when I first heard it, didn’t feel like a legend. It didn’t feel like a myth of any kind. It felt like, oh, this lady’s really here. It felt historical, but also current, because my first encounters with the story were during camping trips. My family did a lot of camping. We frequently camped either at lakes, or at rivers, so it was around the campfire that parents, or my aunts and uncles were telling this story. If you listen and you hear the wind, it actually does sound like there’s a woman out there crying. It was kind of a cautionary tale. It was very real to me as somebody with a very active imagination. There’s this scary woman, a ghost floating above the river, calling out, and if you go near she’s going to drown you. That’s all I knew about the story for many years. Then, I got more background about La Llorona’s story that she was a woman who was jilted. Sometimes it’s her lover, sometimes it’s her husband, and to get back at him she drowns her children. Sometimes she has remorse, but sometimes she’s just going to punish everybody. Later in life I heard the story of Medea and I thought, wait a minute. That’s La Llorona. That made me realize that this idea of this jilted woman is something that’s across cultures. 

La Llorona is also a story of colonialism, because in many of the versions the woman is a poor woman who falls in love with a wealthy man, or she’s from the servant class. He uses her, but leaves her to marry someone who’s of the right social standing. 

I wanted to go back into that and think about why is it always the woman’s fault? Why is she, at least from my experience, the fool for love, always being cautioned against these things and being punished for daring to love above her station? Those were the things I was looking at and wanted to reframe it, and put a more realistic spin on this La Llorona character. I just said, what if she didn’t drown her children on purpose?

Speaking of the cross-cultural parallels, while reading, and talking with you now, I keep thinking about the middle passage and my own history. Water is something that is very complex in my culture, as well. Why do you think water permeates our myths and folklore and is seen as a conduit of magic?

We even have the River Styx, right? And then there’s the River Lethe that makes you forget. It’s one of the four elements, all societies initiated near water, you know? It’s very cleansing. It gives us life, but it’s also very dangerous. I had an experience as a teenager on one of our camping trips. We used to go tubing down the rivers, and one time I fell out of my tube and got caught in some branches. I couldn’t get out. There were maybe 6 inches of water above me, and I could see everything through the water. Luckily for me, my father was there and pulled me out. It wasn’t very long, but I had that minute of realizing I’m in real trouble here. 

Water is sustenance for us, they say life came out of the water. Our planet is two thirds water, our body is mostly water, it’s so integral to us. It also does, because we’re land dwellers, demarcate the land. You have to cross over a lot of times to get to another side.

The author is available to speak at libraries and schools.

We’ve talked about your inspiration for La Llorona, but in speaking about Felice, was there someone who inspired her journey? I really enjoyed reading her story. 

A lot of my characters, in particular for my children’s stories, they actually find their inspiration in props. I was at the store one day, and I already had in my mind the “what if” question. What if one of La Llorona’s children survived? Then, in the store they had a happy face emoji purse. I bought it, not to use it, but I just felt like this was something. That gave me this idea of a girl who’s got a lot of trauma in her life, but she’s also very positive and happy, or she tries her best to be. It was an interesting contrast, because La Llorona means “the wailing woman,” so I thought what about the smiling girl as her child? 

You’re exploring some really complex themes, especially the generational effects of trauma and healing. How do you make these concepts accessible for young readers? Why are these things important for you to explore? 

A lot of young people are dealing with very difficult times. So many are introduced to these difficulties at such a young age. In my work with young people I’ve found amazing resilience. They inspire me themselves. I have ten years of working with middle grade students. It was two decades ago, but, let me tell you, they’re still with me. I had them write in journals, and I really feel a closeness to them, even still, and an understanding. I wish we lived in a world where these things weren’t happening, but they are. There comes a point in time for every child, when your parents, whether they’re great parents, or terrible parents, they are mythological creatures. I think for many children they’re like gods, because it’s like they know everything, and you’re so dependent on them. They’re the ones that introduce you to the world. 

There comes a point where your parents turn into the monsters —

Around puberty.

Yes, around puberty! They might be monstrous, but it might just be that they are enforcing rules and limitations on what you can do. They’re trying to guide you in that way, and you just want to do whatever you want. You don’t want that kind of guidance, because you’re discovering your own independence. I think Felice, her mother is on both sides of the spectrum of this. She’s a goddess, but also a monster. I think we all have to confront that in some way as we grow up. 

I love the cover. I think it’s so beautiful and I’d love to know what it was like collaborating with Pablo Leon on this to realize your vision. 

It initiated with a conversation with my editor and, and the marketing team. When I was writing the book, I had a very cinematic view in my mind. It was colorful, it was animated in my mind in a sense. I told them I want bold colors, strong shapes. I want the cover to accurately portray the cultural makeup of my characters and the town without being stereotypical. So, they sent me some portfolios of some artists, but when I saw his I was like, his work looks familiar. I realized he’s done animation before. I had my fingers crossed that Pablo Leon would be interested in doing this, because I would love for him to bring his energy to the cover. Sure enough, he was available. I am so grateful, because I think he did a great job with it.

This is the first book in a series. I don’t want to make you give away any spoilers, but what can readers look forward to seeing next?

Well in, in the first book, Felice is a newcomer to a new town. A big part of the first book is discovering the town, and meeting the community, and finding out how that world works, and how it’s different from her Corpus Christi hometown. She makes some friends. She meets a character named Rooster, and she meets a character named Ava. It turns out that Rooster is the son of the Dancing Diablo, which is another South Texas legend. Ava is the daughter of La Lechuza, an owl witch. So, the next books are going to tell their stories. Felice will be there, but the main character will shift. We’ll get to take a peek at some of the other niches and corners of the Tres Leches world, and learn about her friends and what they’ve been dealing with as they cope with their own parents’ monster nature. 

Los Monstruous: Felice and the Wailing Woman will be available April 18, 2023.