Daniel José Older
How We Love is By Roasting Each Other
Daniel José Older is The New York Times bestselling author of Salsa Nocturna, The Bone Street Rumba series, and the young adult novel Shadowshaper. His short stories and essays have appeared in The Guardian, Salon, and BuzzFeed.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER: Humor is so situational. And there’s something about it that I think reminds me a lot of magic, in that there’s no way to quite replicate it. You know, you can try, and you can have a joke that’s funny, and sometimes it’s funny again, but the funniest stuff is really very much of that moment. And there’s a power to that.
[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacvba]
LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy. And this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully, by listening, we learn how to create our own.
This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And one of the main reasons I wanted to talk with Daniel José Older is because of how the humor in his writing makes his characters come alive. This is especially true in Shadowshaper, his young adult novel about a teenager in Brooklyn who has to figure out how to use her family’s powerful magic to save her community. Daniel practices Lucumí — also known as Santería — an ancient religion that originated with the Yoruba people of West Africa, and he was also a NYC paramedic for a decade — both of which have deeply influenced his writing and his life.
MS. PERCY: You know, the first thing I wanted to ask you, that I’m so curious about is, when you were growing up, who was the person that made you laugh the most?
MR. OLDER: Oh, geez, that’s a great question.
MS. PERCY: I’m going to make you think about it.
MR. OLDER: Yeah, that’s interesting. I mean I think between my sister and I, we made each other laugh quite a bit. I was more of the jester than she was, but we would definitely have lots of games that we would play, that we would just — I feel like we would take characters and situations from shows we would see or books we would read and just extend them into the absurd and kind of riff on them, almost, as we played games around them. And somehow, it was hilarious.
I mean, I couldn’t even tell you what was funny about it or anything, but I do remember us laughing a lot, just based on these weird worlds that we would make up that were, again, kind of riffed off stuff we would watch, whether it was Star Wars or He-Man and She-Ra or whatever.
And humor is so situational. And there’s something about it that I think reminds me a lot of magic, in that there’s no way to quite replicate it. You can try, and you can have a joke that’s funny, and sometimes it’s funny again, but the funniest stuff is really very much of that moment. It’s very momentary. And there’s a power to that.
MS. PERCY: That’s so true. It’s interesting too — is this your sister who’s also a writer?
MR. OLDER: Yes, Malka Older, an amazing writer.
MS. PERCY: Oh, wow. That’s amazing that both of you turned out to be writers, and you shared this humor together.
MR. OLDER: Yeah, well, we grew up in a very literary household. Our mom is a — just a big magical realism and world literature person, a PhD in world literature and all sorts of stuff. And my dad is a big sci-fi nerd like us, so we — between that, you know, we kind of put it all together. And there’s just books everywhere in that house, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
MS. PERCY: So who is Cuban and who is Jewish in your parents?
MR. OLDER: My mom is Cuban, and my dad is Jewish. We grew up Catholic and Jewish, and so we did a lot of both. But we always veered more towards Judaism, spiritually.
MS. PERCY: You’re so lucky. [laughs]
MR. OLDER: Yeah, I know. There was a lot of presents, like, Christmas and Hanukkah at the same time. I still do both, just because I really love both holidays. So I freely celebrate both.
MS. PERCY: So I mean you talked about growing up in this really literary family. And I wonder if you remember the first book or even books that you read that you really recognized your humor in. You know, that moment where you’re like, oh, my God — this is funny the way I’m funny.
MR. OLDER: You know, one I always loved when I was really little, it’s called Hippos Go Berserk! by Sandra Boynton. It’s a great, great book. And it just — it’s just about a party that some hippos throw.
MS. PERCY: I’m laughing already, because I’m picturing the hippos.
MR. OLDER: It’s so great. It starts out, “One hippo, all alone, calls another on the phone,” and then it just escalates. And every hippo brings three more hippos, until there’s just this house party.
MS. PERCY: [laughing]
MR. OLDER: And then one little weird guy that’s not a hippo — I don’t remember what he is, but he’s just some weird little creature. And then they — I think they probably burned down the house. It’s just chaos, you know, just everyone — hippos are just running amok. And they leave in the same groups they came in, so it’s kind of a de-escalation, and it’s hysterical. And then it goes back to the one hippo, all alone again. It’s a great book.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] That’s amazing. One of the things that you’ve written about a lot, especially as people ask you especially about writing and getting advice about writing —you’ve said that listening is such a big part of how you approach writing dialogue. And I really get that sense in your work, especially something like Shadowshaper. I mean there are these lines that just made me laugh out loud, in just how people communicate with each other. And I wondered if you could just talk a little bit about that, how listening is such an important part of writing humor, specifically, in dialogue.
MR. OLDER: Yeah, very much so. I feel like I wouldn’t have any funny parts in my books if it wasn’t for my characters. [laughs] Because they’re the ones with the real sense of — I don’t know how to write funny things happening, but I know how to write people who just mess with each other constantly [laughs], which is really what they’re — they’re just roasting each other the whole book.
MS. PERCY: Which is so natural, and I love it. Like I’m thinking of this section where, I think, the little group is gathered. And then you say here, it was Rutilio, and he’s talking about the gravestones, like, “Oh, make sure that’s what they write on your gravestone.”
MR. OLDER: [laughs] Right.
MS. PERCY: And he’s like, “Here lies Manuelito, the blankness of void blankness estupid.”
MS. PERCY: It’s so good.
MR. OLDER: They are so mean to each other, but they love each other. You know, it comes so much from love. And I think that’s what I was really trying to capture, is just that this is sort of how we love is by roasting each other, because it’s such a deep form of familiarity to be able to just constantly be going at each other. And there’s certain, I think, rules that sort of apply; there’s an understanding of how far it’s going to go and what we’re going to do. And then there are moments when it becomes very serious. These characters will take each other aside and have heart to hearts and confide in each other. So it’s not that all the time, but there are these moments where they’re letting off steam.
And I actually had to pull back on it, I remember, at certain points, because there were moments when narratively I would build up a lot of tension and expectation and kind of fear, and then I would let them go off and just riff on each other, because that’s what we do when things are bad. We cut each other, we joke, and we make it funny or whatever.
MS. PERCY: To break the tension, yeah.
MR. OLDER: Right, which is good in life but bad in literature, because you’re trying to maintain that tension, right? [laughs] So I have editorial notes where they’d be like, “You know, you just did all this work to build all this tension, and then they just start cutting on each other. And you let—all of that good work that you’ve done just goes to waste immediately.” [laughs] It’s like, you’ve got to…
MS. PERCY: Wow.
MR. OLDER: Yeah, which is a great note. It’s very true. So I had to be very intentional about the moments when I let them just riff—which is easy for me to write. And that’s the thing. I have to — so much about knowing yourself as a writer, right—like I know I could just write dialogue of characters just messing with each other for hours, for days, but it wouldn’t be a good book. It’d be funny for a little while, for a couple pages, but that’s not a plot. That’s not a story.
MS. PERCY: Exactly.
MR. OLDER: So then it becomes: knowing that about myself, I know when I start to get into these moments where they’re cutting, I have to be very disciplined and keep them on target to get them back to the story.
MS. PERCY: You’re so right about that, and that’s one of the things that I loved about the book— about Shadowshaper. Something that you mentioned, even though it may not be good for tense situations, building tension, I feel like you handle — you use humor in so many ways to confront big issues, like all the –isms, basically — racism, classism, sexism. I mean a sentence that blew me away, the way you wrote it, is when Sierra is trying to decide what to wear on her sort-of-date with Robbie.
MR. OLDER: Right.
MS. PERCY: And there’s this sentence where you say that “She chose a skirt and a tube top[…] But it was hard work making suggestions and not blatant declarations with her ever-changing Puerto Rican body.”
MR. OLDER: Yes.
MS. PERCY: And that was—I mean that really struck me. I mean you say so much in that sentence. And I just wonder, when did you first realize that language had that power, that you could use it in that way?
MR. OLDER: I don’t know, but I will tell you that Shadowshaper, and really all my work, is as much inspired by conversations we have on the street as it is by the great books that we’ve read. And I just think that’s such an important element of writing that I go back to again and again: that the roots of writing really go back to people telling stories to each other and not to the written word. And that’s a lot wherein, I think, lies the power of it, is the words that we say out loud to each other and the power and the poetry of just the vernacular. And again, back to the way we roast each other or the way we tell each other we love each other or the way we just have a conversation about something, but we’re really saying we love you.
And I think there’s so much power in that. And I really have been intentional, throughout my growth as a writer, to just recognize that as I’m writing. And to read, of course: of course, great books have inspired me deeply; but just as much, conversations on the ambulance. I used to be a paramedic, and certainly, paramedics know how to alchemize tragedy into humor in a way that few people do, by storytelling. And then just living in Brooklyn and bodega chatter and just hair salons and the way that folks talk and tell stories.
MS. PERCY: Yeah, that’s where your being a good listener really comes in.
MR. OLDER: Right.
MS. PERCY: I hear that. I hear that in your writing.
MR. OLDER: Right.
MS. PERCY: I mean I just love how something like the YouTube video you did about “Why We Don’t Italicize in Spanish.”
MS. PERCY: You used humor all throughout that to illustrate a really important point and, honestly, one that I’m ashamed to say that I never really thought of. Tell me about that: how did you come to think of how to address that?
MR. OLDER: Actually, some of that is through my mom, because she’s always pointed it out. That’s something she feels very strongly about. And I remember her telling me about Junot Díaz fighting that with the New Yorker and winning, and how amazing that was.
MS. PERCY: And that is the decision not to italicize when Spanish is spoken by a character.
MR. OLDER: Right. And then I think — I think I was sort of raised that way, so it just automatically looks ridiculous to me. And then just being around bilingual people, being a bilingual person, it just jumps out so much. And I think if we’re understanding language as a form of communication, above all else, and a form of us having a conversation with each other, rather than a system of rules, then it becomes so ridiculous to emphasize certain words that in no possible way would ever be emphasized by the person speaking it, right? And I think it actually does go back to this idea of literature as something that is, in its heart, spoken out loud. Because when you read an italicized word, you’re supposed to emphasize it. And it just does come across as so goofy.
I mean to me, the humor is in the situation more than in even how I presented the situation, because I think it looks so ridiculous to have these italicized words in there, just jumping off the page, being really extra. So immediately I’m imagining the stereotypical, quote unquote, “Latino,” being extra in the…
MS. PERCY: Exactly.
MR. OLDER: Right. In all the—
MS. PERCY: Shouting at you with every word.
MR. OLDER: Supermercado! Like, calm down. That’s not how we talk.
MS. PERCY: [laughs] Yeah.
MR. OLDER: It’s not real.
[music: “Butta” by Oh No]
MS. PERCY: I’m curious — you’ve written a lot about kind of navigating the world in your own identity, being half white, half Latino, and the complicated issues that come with passing for white at times too. And I read an interview that you did, and you talked about how sometimes a passage that you’ve read has landed differently with white audiences versus people of color.
MR. OLDER: [laughs]
MS. PERCY: And I wonder what passage it was, and can you tell me what the story behind that is, because I was just so — I feel like that speaks volumes.
MR. OLDER: It does. It happens a lot with humor, actually. There’s one story — it’s happened a couple different times. There’s one in particular. There’s a short story I wrote, called “Animal,” that’s about a pet store in a suburban enclave somewhere. And there’s a Mexican girl working at the counter and a white girl, and they’re best friends. And the guy who runs the pet store and his wife both turn out to be these horrible, mutant creatures that have a baby, and it’s half human and half creature. And then they eat each other, and it’s disgusting. It’s really grotesque and, I think, really, really funny.
So I read it to a group in Brooklyn that was mostly POC, and people were just on the floor at all the parts that I thought were really funny when I was writing it. And then I read it to an all-white room at a sci-fi con in Boston, and they were staring at me, like, oh, my God, what is wrong with this person? This is complete insanity.
MS. PERCY: [laughing] What did you do you?
MR. OLDER: I laughed. And I could tell — you learn to read a room, and they were very engaged. And I actually — to the point where I think I ran out of time, so I stopped towards the end of it, and they were all like: No! They didn’t want me to stop, which was great.
MS. PERCY: So it wasn’t that they weren’t into it.
MR. OLDER: No, they were deeply into it.
MS. PERCY: It was just that didn’t have that same reaction.
MR. OLDER: They found it horrifying in a way that was just not funny at all. [laughs] Which is fine…
MS. PERCY: What do you think that says?
MR. OLDER: You know, I don’t know. I think that horror literature, and particularly grotesque literature, has just so often been used as a bludgeon against people of color. And so we’re just very used to it being like, we’re the demons. And this is also a story that was attacked for this very reason, like: oh, you actually had white demons! As if making demons out of people is a new phenomenon in horror, right?
MS. PERCY: Exactly.
MR. OLDER: If we want to go there, that’s a whole other conversation. And there’s actually a really great white woman character in that, who I think steps up as an ally in a really interesting way. But whatever; no one wants to see that.
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MR. OLDER: But I think it’s — there’s a shock value in turning that table and having that conversation in other ways, and what happens when, particularly, a white woman is also this mutant demon, and what does that mean. And then just the grotesqueness of it, which is so over the top, and the fact that it happens in a pet store. I mean there’s so much to unpack there, I don’t know. But I did enjoy the different reactions, that’s for sure. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: So just to kind of finish up, I wondered, as you think about your writing, and you think about humor and the role it’s played, what do you think humor gives you that you find nowhere else that you’re really grateful for?
MR. OLDER: I think there’s a — you know, as a writing teacher, I often talk about the kind of point after which things become inexpressible and unteachable, which is when things really get exciting but also frustrating. It’s kind of when we have to let go as teachers and let our students figure that out. We can teach structure; I teach fundamentals of what works and what doesn’t in a book and in a story; and all that stuff. And then there just becomes a point after which we kind of go over a cliff as far as, like, there’s just no rules. And I think humor is in that category, in that you can’t really teach how to make something funny. You can make little corrections here and there, try to push someone that way, but…
MS. PERCY: It’s so vulnerable.
MR. OLDER: It’s very vulnerable. It’s very, sort of, beyond. And everyone’s sense of humor is going to be very personal, just like their sense of horror. But I think particularly humor, there’s just a thing about it that’s just deeply who we are. And how we express ourselves in funny ways—it’s like voice, right, like I can’t teach any student to find their voice. All I can do is say, you’re at a point now where you need to find your voice — and send you on that journey.
MS. PERCY: And: this feels authentic. It sounds authentic.
MR. OLDER: Exactly. And humor is like that. Humor is voice. It’s bigger than us, and it’s connected to this whole web of other things around us. And all we can do is kind of patch in, try to hone that voice as best we can and honor it and then see where it takes us.
MS. PERCY: And that’s what it’s done for you.
MR. OLDER: Yeah, I mean, like I said earlier, a lot of it is through character. I’ve been blessed to be visited by really funny characters, so I let them do a lot of the work, as far as that goes, and just deal with their problems through humor and through — and relate to each other through humor. And I just sit there laughing. I just enjoy it.
I don’t believe in total dictation. I think it’s always a conversation when we’re writing. I don’t think it’s like, “Okay, muse, tell me the story.” That’s not how it works. But I do think you’re always in conversation with the world. You’re listening, and you’re taking it in, and then you’re bringing your point of view, and you’re ultimately doing whatever the story needs to be done. And you’re moving in that direction. So it’s kind of like a constant back and forth, which I think is a very spiritual process. Prayer, to me, is also a conversatory art. And I do think writing and prayer are very much linked up, in terms of process and creativity.
MS. PERCY: That was beautiful.
MR. OLDER: Thank you. It’s a great question.
MS. PERCY: Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to talk about or that you want to just offer up?
MR. OLDER: I just want to shout out Eleggua, because [laughs] as a santero, we can’t talk about humor and not mention Eleggua. And we’ve touched on this idea of crossroads, of identities. And for us, Eleggua is really both the crossroads, the decision making point, and he is definitely the Orisha that we can most associate with humor.
MS. PERCY: Can you give a little background to Eleggua? I mean, it sounds like, “alegría.” Is there a connection with the word?
MR. OLDER: I don’t think there is. If anything, it reminds me of the word “lengua,” because it’s similar.
MS. PERCY: Lengua: language.
MR. OLDER: Language. But Eleggua is the crossroads and the trickster, we call him sometimes. He’s the little old guy on the corner, throwing dice, and then he’s, like, little kids. And it’s always hilarious to me, speaking of humor, that corner stores, bodegas here, are on the corner. Their whole identity is connected to Eleggua. And what you get there is liquor, games, toys, candy — all things that Eleggua loves. That’s an Eleggua spot in the city.
MS. PERCY: [laughs]
MR. OLDER: And you see the old folks in the neighborhood gather there, talk trash, gossip. It’s a place of people coming in and out. Diners, too: anywhere where there’s just lots of different energies entering and sitting next to each other and then leaving and bringing in their energy. And all that, to me, is Eleggua energy. He is the jester. He’s hilarious. He’s making the divine joke of life constantly and making us laugh — but also very powerful. He’s a warrior.
And I think that duality is very real. We look at literature — you look at Falstaff. Falstaff is the comic relief, but he’s a tragic character. It doesn’t go well for him, ultimately. It’s not a cute story. It’s really, really heavy. But he’s thought of as the jester, as the fool, right, as so many different things. So I think the best kind of humor, I think, carries that depth with it.
MS. PERCY: And you have that duality in your writing. I mean, I think about even the way you would title the paramedics blogs that you write.
MR. OLDER: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
MS. PERCY: One of my favorite titles is “This Week in Other People’s Disasters.”
MS. PERCY: I mean, that’s exactly that duality of being around — in many ways, being there for people’s hardest moments and having to find the humor of life in it.
MR. OLDER: Yes. And I think there’s a deep misunderstanding, which I talk a lot about when I lecture, in the way that paramedics — back to this idea of oral tradition — we will
literally have a terrible tragedy and deal with it, drop off whoever at the hospital, they may live, they may die. Either way, we’ll go get a pizza afterwards and talk about it, and it’ll be funny. And it’s hard to see that from the outside and not think, oh, these guys have closed off their hearts, and they’re just building walls around themselves. They don’t care anymore. They’re calloused.
And it’s, like, very much the opposite is true. You can’t really be a paramedic — you’re not going to be a good paramedic if you’ve fully closed off your heart, because then you just don’t care enough to do the job. At the same rate, you can’t fully just cry over every patient and carry that with you everywhere you go, because you will be a bad paramedic. You’ll be busy thinking about the last patient and not what’s in front of you. So what you learn to do is find a balance wherein you can laugh about other people’s tragedies and not become a cold-hearted, horrible person on the strength of it, and continue to do your job and exist in the world.
MS. PERCY: That is so true. The duality of life: you’ve got to laugh, or you’ll be crying all day.
MR. OLDER: Yeah, and I think that’s true in a larger scale of just existing in the world, right, like you could easily be like, how can you laugh at this horrible time that’s going on? It’s like, it’s because we’re surviving. There’s an aspect of celebration and humor that is very necessary to survival. And again, from the outside it can seem callous, it can seem crude, but that’s to misunderstand, I think, where we’re at it and who we are, deep down inside.
[music: “The Funk” by Oh No]
MS. PERCY: Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of Salsa Nocturna, The Bone Street Rumba series, and the YA novel Shadowshaper. He’s also a really wise writing teacher. His Skillshare class on storytelling fundamentals gave incredibly helpful tips, as did his post on SevenScribes: “Writing Begins With Forgiveness: Why One of the Most Common Pieces of Writing Advice Is Wrong.”
Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.