If there’s anything I have more of on my Instagram profile than selfies, it’s Throwback Thursday (excuse me, #throwbackthursday) pictures. I find the concept hilarious: resurfacing adorable, embarrassing, and unforgettable moments from childhood for everyone to gawk and “awww” at. I personally enjoy the chance to look back on who I was and reflect on where I am now, mentally tracing my path from point A to point B. I once commented on one of my TBT’s, “Looking back and wondering if this little guy ever guessed or suspected any of the places or situations he’d end up in, the people he’d meet, or the things he’d do.”
I’m probably sucking all the fun out of Throwback Thursday, but I promise there’s a point. The point is that yes, this little guy did suspect. He did know, on some level, much of the trajectory his life was going to take. Or he at least had an idea. I’m thinking specifically about last week’s TBT, which is one of my favorites, not just because it’s freakin’ adorable (modesty), but because it captures one of the most important parts of me.
I don’t remember anything about this picture. I don’t know how old I was (I’m guessing four). I don’t know who took it (I’m guessing my mom), and I don’t know when. I’m dressed as a witch (wizard, whatever), but I know it’s not Halloween; I was a witch for Halloween once, and it’s not the same costume. This is a picture of me on any given day, playing pretend like I still do. What kind of child runs around on a regular day dressing up as a witch? This kind.
Witches. Vampires. Mythical creatures and magic powers. These are some of the things I love most in life. The things that make me a little nerdier and a little different from everyone else. Even though I remember nothing about the picture it reminds me that, even as a child, I lived in a fantasy world: a place that was more magical than it was for everyone else because I could escape into my own mind whenever reality bored or pained me.
My obsession for the supernatural is a part of who I am. Somehow, it has all come full circle, and the little boy in the picture still likes to play with magic. Only now, instead of dressing up as a witch or a vampire, I’m creating entire worlds full of them. A professor once told me it’s not true that writers should write what they know. This limits them to the confines of their own experiences. Great writers, he said, write what moves them, and this frees them to draw from a limitless well of inspiration.
Ever since I knew I wanted to be a writer (which couldn’t have been long after this picture was taken), and started telling stories about how I was an alien prince from a planet called “Plantia”, I’ve known what moves me. My mother once asked me why I only write about such strange things. She said my writing was beautiful, and that she would love to see me write something truly human, truly moving. There was nothing malicious in the question, unlike people who have told me that just because I’m Puerto Rican, I should write like a “Latino” (because, obviously, that’s all I know). She simply wanted to know why I chose to write what I write. And she’s not the only one who’s asked me.
I can’t really answer that question. What draws a horror writer to the macabre? What drives a fantasy author to play God with an entire world of their own creation? At one point in my own novel, a character says to my protagonist: “You have a strange affinity for the darkness. You attract it. Or it attracts you. Either way, it seems like you were born to play in the shadows.” I suppose this is the closest answer I can give. I have an affinity for it, and that affinity moves me to passion. It has since I was a little boy playing pretend, all the way up until I got a tattoo of the Harry Potter symbol for the Deathly Hallows as a reminder of both my eternal nerdiness and my inspiration to be great at what I write.
And my response to any insinuation that fantasy/horror writing is a somehow less worthy ambition? My mother was trying to foster my creativity and get me to focus on the humanity of my work. But I’ve had people, mostly professors, who have been downright demeaning in their opinion of genre fiction. They deem it formulaic, uninspired, trite, and particularly mainstream. Professors have told me there’s no creative value in fantasy writing, and that I was the one who was limited by my attraction to the darkness. I guess literature can only be great if it’s esoteric and has only been read by twelve people. English professors: the original hipsters.
My question to them is: why can’t genre fiction be human? Who can say that Harry Potter isn’t as complex and multi-layered as the greatest literary classics? What Harry Potter fan can say they haven’t been moved by the humanity of the characters? Just because a story is widely accessible does not mean it is too low-brow to be considered great. I’m drawing comparisons to Harry Potter, not because I’m trying to emulate JK Rowling, but because she’s the best and most recent example of someone who’s done it right. As fantastical as my novel is, I draw from my own experiences to keep it human. My book is an apocalyptic fantasy, but it’s ultimately a coming of age story, which is something anyone can relate to. In the end, that’s what literature is meant to do, no matter what it’s about.
My mother is going to read my novel for the first time this summer, and I think once she does, she’s going to realize I’ve written what she wanted me to write all along: something meaningful, something human. It’s just that most of my humans have wings, horns, or fangs. These are the kinds of stories I was always going to write, the kinds I love, the kinds through which I’m best able to tell my own. I don’t find it limiting, I find it natural. What could be more natural for that little boy in the witch’s hat?