This past weekend was the Tucson Festival of Books, which is the 4th largest book festival in the country. This year there was a particularly great group of young adult and children’s writers, including Lois Lowry, R.L. Stine, Cornelia Funke and Nancy Farmer. Nancy Farmer is the writer of The Eye, The Ear, and The Arm and A Girl Named Disaster, both of which are set in Africa (where she lived in her youth) as well as House of the Scorpion and the recently published sequel The Lord of Opium. Both are set in the fictional dystopian country of Opium, which lies between Aztlan, the future Mexico and the United States, precisely in what is currently considered the drug corridor in the Southwest.
While in line to get my copy of The Lord of Opium signed, I overheard her speaking to the person in front of me who happened to be a librarian for the juvenile prison system. She told this librarian that for The House of the Scorpion her best audience were young Latino criminals, and I had to think about that for a second.
There’s mounting evidence in education theory that children and young adults benefit from representation that is accurate and human and not stereotyped. Exposure to accurate representation seems to be more important than positive representation, which arguably gives way to the sainted token minority. Matt, the main character of both books is a complex individual. He’s “born” (this is arguable, as he’s a clone, which is already a loaded idea because it infers the inevitable copying of not only DNA but also the copying of lifestyle of the original, who was a ruthless and cruel druglord) into a crime empire – literally as El Patron, the original Matt, rules the country of Opium to the point that his DNA is the key that can both lock and unlock the country. Matt yearns to be normal, but what is normal when surrounded by fields of poppy that is supplying the world’s demand for opium? Matt is a criminal by birth.
And in that Farmer creates the most genius protagonist to relate to young Latino men. In the United States, young Latino men are often not given many choices. This is more due to lack of opportunity, lack of knowledge, and like Matt, pressure from external forces to conform to a life of crime. Currently in the United States Latinos of all races make up about 17% of the population, but make up 34% of all incarcerated individuals, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
If we think that young adults respond best to representations of the self, then it only goes to figure that these young men are reacting to Matt because he is, in a way, a representation of themselves. While Jacqueline Rose posits that we cannot understand audience, we can gauge demand and response. The House of the Scorpion has been and continues to be one of the most popular books in the juvenile prison systems in states like California, which have high rates of young Latino men who are engaged in crime as much by choice as by birth.
But considering the positive aspects of Matt – his choices to be more than a drug lord, his decisions to move away from being a criminal, we consider, too, the positive impact of literature. By structuring a protagonist who is not just a criminal, but a young Latino male who has been given no other option, Farmer constructs a reality that can be separated from the dystopia and presented in contemporary atmospheres without flattening him to the role of the martyr.
Latinos need more representation, more clever and fulfilled representation that rounds out people instead of simply stereotypes. Farmer accomplishes that by not shying away from the difficult topics that face the southwest, including drug trade, immigration, and even human trafficking, and by making the reader perceive it through a character as sharply defined as her protagonist, Matt.