Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez (Algonquin, Sept. 15) takes readers into the life of Camila, a resident of the fútbol-mad Argentine city of Rosario. A successful student who dreams of going to university in the U.S. and becoming a professional futbolera, Camila is juggling competing pressures. Her hardworking seamstress mother sees medicine as a more stable career path. Meanwhile, her budding romance with childhood friend Diego is complicated by his new superstar status playing for Juventus FC in Turin, Italy. Pulled in different directions, Camila must figure out what her heart really wants. This page-turner has exciting soccer action, thoughtful reflections on gender equality on and off the pitch, and an achingly real love story. Furia already caught the attention of Reese Witherspoon, who made it the YA selection for her book club this month. Méndez spoke with me over Zoom from her home in Utah; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book is perfectly timed with the huge following the U.S. women’s national soccer team has.
I’ve been writing this book forever—I started in 2007! Of course, I was working on so many [other] things in the meantime. I kept going back to it, but I feel like the market was ready now. In the past I had amazing feedback, but everybody said that nobody would want to read about a girl growing up in Argentina. This is the piece that I submitted for the Walter Dean Myers grant, so I knew there was something there. [Editor’s note: Méndez was one of five winners of the inaugural grant given by We Need Diverse Books in 2015.]
Does Camila’s story have autobiographical elements?
I was born and raised in Rosario, and [like hers] my family is composed of immigrants from all over. My grandfather was Syrian Lebanese, and although nobody in my family spoke Arabic after [he] passed away, we were very much connected to the culture. I’m [also] a descendant of Indigenous people from Argentina, but sadly my mom was an orphan from a very early age so we lost that connection to her family. I went to an all-girls school like Camila. My parents were not of means at all—my mom was a nanny, my dad was a taxi driver—but they were adamant about education. Having been teenagers during the dictatorship at the end of the ’70s, they knew that education was the only way out of our situation.
Diego grew up struggling and has achieved wild success in Europe, yet he feels so homesick; you approach this with such nuance.
That experience of Diego missing home is completely me being away from home and then going back as having “made it,” because I am the first in my extended family to have gone to college. I always say that I left Rosario, but Rosario never left me. It’s the call of the land where you were born. Although I love to travel, I left thinking that one day I would go back to my country, and I never totally said goodbye. The only reason I’m here today and have the privilege to write in a foreign language and have people read this book is because of the sacrifice of all who came before me. With Diego, it’s his desire to pay it forward to the little kids who maybe have an even brighter potential than he did. He sees himself everywhere when he goes back to Rosario. It’s that struggle between assimilating and keeping your roots.
The obstacles the girls on the soccer team face are central to the book.
As a child, I wasn’t allowed [to play soccer], not because my parents were horrible people, [but] because of the stigma. In Latin America there’s a big tradition of physical education at school, and so we played the accepted games for girls: volleyball, handball, field hockey. But we didn’t play football, not even at recess. El Buen Pastor [where Camila teaches children living in poverty] is a real place—it was the women’s jail in the 1800s. Football 100 years ago was forbidden to women by law; we could go to a place like [that] for being disobedient daughters. These women, these futboleras, were still playing even knowing that. What they did 100 years ago made it possible for us.
Feminism is an important theme in the book, along with violence against women. The march the girls go on when the sister of a teammate disappears is very powerful.
Every time I open [an Argentine] newspaper there’s at least one new name. When I was in school in the ’90s, there was one girl, María Soledad [Morales], that marked my generation. She was the first big name that we knew. She had been killed just for being a girl. In the past, this violence was explained as “oh, they must have done something,” or “what were they wearing”—the typical things that are said here, too. But lately I feel like the message that we need to do something as a society is reaching every family. The violence is just brutal. A lot of it lies in having been a colonized nation: This violence that was inflicted on the Indigenous people dripped down into society, and it’s always the most vulnerable who suffer the most. The first Ni Una Menos [Argentine feminist movement] march was in 2015, and now there are more and more.
In your author’s note you talk about the context for dark-skinned Camila’s nicknames of “Negra” and “Negrita.”
I wanted to address the colorism and racism that exist in Argentina, because Camila is called “Negra” and that was my nickname growing up. I never took offense because it was an endearment, [but] I never explored what it meant. I’m darker skinned than most Argentines because of my Middle Eastern and Indigenous backgrounds, but I always felt 100% Argentine. I wanted to warn the U.S. reader that we didn’t have a civil rights movement as the U.S. did in the ’60s, so our racial relationships are complex but are different. When [readers] encounter somebody calling my character “Negra” and she doesn’t call it out, it’s not because she’s scared. It doesn't even faze her because it’s not on her radar—she's fighting for her life just for being a woman. Maybe after she’s been outside of Argentina, she can explore what it meant. I wanted the reader to know that I wasn’t unaware of this dynamic. It’s just that it wasn't realistic for her to be choosing that fight when she had bigger fights.
What do you like about writing for teens?
I love YA because I have such admiration for teenagers. At that age, I was ready to come to the United States by myself, and my parents encouraged me so much. Teenagers have these beliefs and hope for the future, and that makes them believe that they can do whatever they want, but there is such magic in that attitude. I keep going back to those feelings and that mindset. I love to explore these big questions. Instead of finding the answers in their family or their friends, these young adults have to find [them] inside their own hearts for themselves. The stakes of the decisions we make at that age are so huge.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.