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Lizz Huerta's 'The Lost Dreamer' is inspired by Indigenous, Latinx culture and the power of story

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Courtesy of FSG Books
Author Lizz Huerta is shown in an undated photo at left; the cover of her debut novel, "The Lost Dreamer," is shown at right.

A new YA fantasy novel by San Diego author Lizz Huerta builds a magical Mesoamerican-inspired world where a lineage of seers — women known as Dreamers — can see truth beyond reality.

Lizz Huerta's debut young adult fantasy novel, "The Lost Dreamer," starts — like most stories — in a place that feels like the middle.

"The wail of a far-off conch shell woke me from my already broken sleep. I wanted to wail in response, in grief, in terror."

At its core, Huerta's novel is a book about stories, where the beginnings, middle and ends are folded in on each other. In Huerta's deftly built world, the setting, lore, magic and time — with all of its mysteries — are lush, compelling and evocative.

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As are her characters. Indir, who we meet abruptly awakened on the first page, is one of two seemingly unconnected characters we follow as the book unfolds. The other is Saya.

Indir is born into an ancestry of gifted seers called Dreamers. In the ancient Mesoamerican-inspired city of Alcanzeh, the Dreamers — Indir, her sisters, her mother and her aunts — are highly respected and live in a temple. They can see beyond reality or glimpse truths from the future to help the city. Each woman's gift is slightly different: one can see which animals to hunt or which crops to harvest. Another dreams what Huerta refers to as "possibility," or the way decisions can play out.

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Indir's gift is rare, revealing the absolute, clear truth. Whatever Indir saw, Huerta said, would happen.

"And Indir has a few secrets, including the devastating realization that she is no longer able to dream," Huerta added.

Saya is on the run, traveling between villages with her mother who doesn't share the gift. Saya has grown up not really understanding what sets her apart, living an incredibly different life to that of Indir.

"Saya has a gift, but really no context on how to use it. She's had no training. She has no lineage. All she has is her mother who is pretty manipulative and abusive towards her and uses her gift for her own gain, claiming it as her own. So she has this beautiful magic but really has no concept as to what it means and who she is," Huerta said.

Saya's gift feels wilder, more unrestrained than the other Dreamers; part of the upbringing of Dreamers in the temple trains them to be careful and safe while in the Dream. Saya unknowingly breaks the rules, entering without ritual and interacting with the spirits, and she experiences a version of this alternate reality more vivid and dangerous.

"Dreamers never dance with us, or even notice us," a voice whispered in my ear. I spun around to see a mass of dancing lights. I blinked and moved back a few steps, the lights following. "We're happy to have you here; we've been waiting for you."

Feminist and Mesoamerican roots

The power in Huerta's world revolves around women. The magic, the gifts and the ancient traditions dwell almost entirely in the female characters, with a few exceptions, and are passed down from mothers.

"When I went into this story, I really just wanted to center women. I wanted to center mothers and daughters and sisterhood and aunts and chosen family," Huerta said. "Because for me, I come from such an incredible lineage of women — an incredible mom, aunts, sisters, extended women in my family — and they really are the backbone of my family and I think in a lot of other Latinx families. So, I wanted to center our stories as sacred, that we have these gifts that carry us forward — and our caretakers and creators and visionaries. I just wanted to celebrate us."

Huerta also blurs heteronormative gender binaries and writes relatable bodies. "My characters have ample hips and stomachs. They have bodies that don't fit the western standards of beauty, which is fine because they are still beautiful," Huerta said.

"When I went into this story, I really just wanted to center women. I wanted to center mothers and daughters and sisterhood and aunts and chosen family. Because for me, I come from such an incredible lineage of women — an incredible mom, aunts, sisters, extended women in my family — and they really are the backbone of my family and I think in a lot of other Latinx families."
Lizz Huerta, author of "The Lost Dreamer"

Like the book's intrinsic feminism, the way Huerta tackles death and memory is also rooted in her Latinx upbringing. In the book's world, death and grief is treated with prominence and awe.

Unlike in the U.S., Huerta said: "We don't really have a death culture. Death is very sanitized and kind of put away. Even driving around California, you don't see graveyards anywhere."

Huerta is Mexican and Puerto Rican, and she said in those cultures, death is treated differently.

"Death is a part of life, and there are these long, beautiful mourning processes. There's Day of the Dead," Huerta said. "There's this really intense reverence of those who have become ancestors. And in my family, at least, we talk about our dead constantly, as if they're still with us, as a way to honor them and keep them in our stories, in our living stories."

'I'm obsessed with story'

It's no surprise that stories are so pivotal in "The Lost Dreamer." Stories have shaped Huerta's life — she has always been an avid reader — but it took until she was a teenager before she ever saw herself represented in a book.

"I love story, I'm obsessed with story and always have been," Huerta said. "But every time I wanted to place myself into a world, whether that was in 'Anne of Green Gables,' or 'Lord of the Rings,' or any of the books that I was reading as a child, I had to change everything about myself — my skin color, my hair color, the language that I’d learned to love in, what my family looked like and where they came from. So, it was very important to me to create a world full of characters that looked like my family, that looked like the people that I love."

Huerta wrote much of her book on breaks while working in her family's wrought iron business, doing primarily manual labor.

"I'm not really good in the office or on the phone. I have pretty intense ADHD. So my father sent me off to be an iron painter, which I've been doing on and off for 20 years," Huerta said, adding that she hopes she gives other working class artists a little bit of hope. "I love that I'm a working-class writer. I think there are so many artists out there who are invisible because nobody tells them that they can do the work."

Her work has also further kindled her love for stories — and sparked this one.

"I think listening to audiobooks all day, every day and working with my body, and looking around at the other workers, many of them of indigenous descent from Mexico and Central America, and trying to place them in a story where they were sacred, where we were sacred, and it just all kind of came together," Huerta said.

"The Lost Dreamer" comes out Tuesday, Mar. 1, 2022, published by Farrar Straus Giroux (FSG). A local book signing and author Q&A takes place March 1 at 7 p.m. at Mysterious Galaxy Books.

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