Updated: Apr 5
By Amaris Castillo
Author and poet Julian Randall brought readers delight and magic last year with his debut middle grade novel, Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa. The book follows Pilar Violeta “Purp” Ramirez, a 12-year-old quick-witted dominicana from Chicago who sets out to learn more about her cousin Natasha, who vanished decades ago in the Dominican Republic during the Trujillo dictatorship. In doing so, Pilar finds herself on the magical island of Zafa where she is confronted by creatures like Cucitos (coconut-shaped demons) and embarks on a quest (with the help of a ciguapa) to free her cousin and get back home.
Around the same time that readers were introduced to Pilar’s journey in the spring of 2022, Randall was quietly completing the sequel. Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon, out today from Henry & Holt Company, follows Pilar nearly a year since her cousin’s rescue and the escape from Zafa. Randall dips his readers into the Dominican Republic for the finale of his fantasy duology, where Pilar is traveling with her family for the first time. While there, the unforgettable and hilarious hero ends up with a new quest before her: to hunt for the escaped demon El Baca and his new ally in order to save both the island of Zafa and her family.
Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon is perfect for young readers (and adults) who want a story filled with adventure, Dominican culture, humor and entertaining doses of attitude. Ahead of his book’s release, Randall spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about following up his magical tale, what it was like to set it in the Dominican Republic, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congrats on the upcoming release of Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon! This completes your fantasy duology, the first of which of course was Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa. How do you feel about this finale?
It’s been a very wonderful road to it, and it’s been a very strange thing to try and wrap my head around… What does it mean to write a sequel? What would the stakes of a sequel be? At the time that I was pitching the sequel, I had only just barely begun to accept like, ‘Oh, OK, I am going to finish this novel.’ It became strange to think about, What do you do with a sequel? What would be different? How is Pilar? How has she changed? How is she the same? And figure out what the stakes would be. It’s been interesting. It’s been weird, but in a way that makes me feel really grateful to have the opportunity to feel this kind of weird.
It’s such a pleasure reading Pilar. You’ve created such a memorable character in her. She is hilarious, she is real, and is very much her own person. I saw an interview you did where you said this character was inspired by the Dominican women in your life. Could you tell us more about that?
My mom is the Dominican side of my family. She has three sisters and so Pilar, in a lot of ways, is a story that begins being written down in June of 2019 or so. But realistically, it’s a story that starts 21 years ago. I’m eight years old. I stumble in, I see my mother crying, and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her cry. What’s more, she’s crying over a book so now I’m double confused.
I ask her what she’s reading, and she says this is the story of the women who fought back against the man who kicked your abuelo off the island. That was her way of telling me that she was reading In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. As a kid, to know that story of the Mirabal sisters and the barest outlines was to see that my mom and her sisters were, in fact, the heroic figures that I’d always dreamed and seen them as. That within each Dominican woman, there is a small and growing rebellion that says, ‘We deserve to be free.’ And I wanted Pilar to be a conglomeration of the strength and magic that they found in each other.
In Zafa you built this fascinating mythical island with Cucitos and the Galipote Sisters, who are cleverly named after las Hermanas Mirabal. In Pilar Ramirez and the Curse of San Zenon, you take readers to the Dominican Republic. What was it like setting this book in DR?
It was wonderful, strange, and a little nerve-wracking at first. Pilar is living out, in many ways, a much more intense version of a trip that I wanted to take very desperately when I was her age. When I was 13 years old, my mom was like, ‘OK, we’re gonna go see the island for the first time.’ And I was really excited to go see the island for the first time, and then some things came up. Some expenses go here, go there, and we can’t go. In a sense there was a little bit of diasporic shame to have been away for so long from this place that would help me understand even more of the magic of my abuelo’s flight, the magic of how my abuela keeps his whole family together. It’s something that I think could only be accomplished with that magic that only abuelas have access to.
In your first book of the duology, there was a lot at stake for Pilar. She wanted to find her long-lost cousin, Natasha, and also figure out a way to escape Zafa. In San Zenon, can you share with readers what is at stake this time?
That’s a great question. What is at stake this time? I feel like the stakes are that in Pilar One, Pilar was trying to save one world. This time, she’s trying to save two.
Pilar and her ciguapa friend, Carmen, go on this hunt for El Baca and his new ally. What kind of research did you do into the baca?
A lot of it is more anecdotal research. I did some Google searching, some reading and some comparing back and forth. I would ask my mom about stories that she told me growing up. She would then ask my cousin of a cousin of a cousin who had told her that story and then he passed it back to me and then ultimately, it would come back to: What do I think El Baca would be doing in this moment? How is he going to react to the ending of Pilar One?
If I were El Baca – which at some level as his creator, I guess I am – I was like, ‘Oh, every moment of every day, he had been dreaming about the get-back,’ and how do we make that a compelling story and motivation for his character. He has to have stakes outside of just, ‘I want revenge.’
Did you learn anything new about Dominican culture or history while writing this book?
I always knew that my abuelos were capitaleños, but I’d never seen where they walked, where they’d been. To be able to get to know people who knew them around the neighborhood, and get to know more about what they were like as young people gave me a better sense for the rhythm of just day-to-day life, which I think was really critical. Insofar as you know, who you guys costar is for a good portion of that, too. So that was a big thing for me. I think I learned a lot about I think I learned a lot about that.
I learned more, and a deepening about how we navigate forgiveness and restoration. I figured out that Curse of San Zenon at some level is about that. It’s about restoration. It’s about return. It’s about rebuilding, and how do we navigate that in a real way in the aftermath of generational trauma, and the payout of that.
Your writing has so much life. You have very poetic descriptions, and then there’s the humor and fiery personality you bring into Pilar which feels very middle-grade. As a poet who is also recognized for your middle grade fiction, what’s it like to balance both?
No doubt. I think that actually she’s the one who helps me maintain that balance, for real for real.
I owe this enormous debt to when I first became a poet and began to gain any small level of notoriety for the work that I did. There was never a point where I wasn’t working with young people somewhere between the ages of 13 and 19 years old. I was always teaching, I was always workshopping, I was always mentoring. I think that it continued this lifelong admiration that I’ve had for the minds of young people.
It puts me back in conversation with the 12-year-old version of me. I had such a different rhythm of my day. For instance, 12 was like the last time I can remember not really having a phone, not having a watch. If I went outside, it was on me to come back at the right time. I didn’t know when that was, and as a result I had all this world that I saw and all this possibility that was fundamentally rattling around in my mind. And I dreamed great cities from that. And to be in conversation with kids now, and see the great cities that they have dreamed of, they’re such different shapes than the ones that I would have thought of. I love putting those things together.
To me, some of the lyricism and description and the beauty of that is absolutely a manifestation of me being a poet, but it’s also at least what I hope to accomplish with it. There’s this essay by this poet named Reginald Shepherd where he’s talking about notes towards beauty, and the idea that beauty – at some level – is its own form of resistance that shows us the world as it ought to be. So when I put in a poetic phrase or a really lyrical sentence, to me that’s about showing my respect and admiration for the interiority of young people’s minds. That
they have a lyricism and an architecture to the way that they think about and process things that we've lost as adults. We gain many things as adults, but we lose almost as many. I think that this is my way of trying to negotiate and explain how I see that.
You are one of a handful of middle grade Dominican American authors. How do you feel about the growing numbers in this space?
Yoooo, keep it coming, son! Have you read Frizzy [by Claribel A. Ortega]? It’s so good. Who had a better 2022, really? Pura Belpré Award winner. Publishes the graphic novel that I needed when kids were sticking pencils in my hair to see if they’d stick, or when people were telling me that I didn’t need a helmet because if I fell off the bike, I’d bounce off the concrete. She took all of that hurt that so many of us feel, and she placed it inside of this wonderful character, this incredibly engaging artwork, a chicken named Cantinflas. You couldn’t ask for a better person to have a better year, and I’m just so grateful that we get to share a diaspora and a craft.
Who do you write for?
I think the ‘who’ is also explained by a ‘what.’ What helps me rebuild my hope is I like to start my books from the presumption of a world that loves free Black children, because that’s not the world that I grew up in. But I believe very firmly that it is the world that I deserved, and it’s the world that so many other children deserve right now.
If I can imagine and center a world in which we have made the collective decision to cherish, to admire, to uplift, to protect young people – especially young, free Black people – it’s a kind of worldbuilding. It’s kind of a promise towards, ‘I am building something that I cannot yet see.’ And that’s at the heart of all liberation. The Mirabal Sisters grew up in the Trujillato. They had never known a country without it. They dreamed [of] a better one. And then, one day, it happened.
I like to think that the work that I am doing is a promise and a love letter to the imaginations of free Black children everywhere, to say that the world you deserve may be right around the corner.
What do you hope readers get out of Pilar’s journey?
The same thing that I hope all children get from reading my works: the feeling that you were always enough. You were always enough magic. The thing that saves you deserves to look like you. You can be the thing that saves you.
Is there a chance you may want to revisit Pilar in a future book?
I always say that I’ve been a fiction writer for such a short period of time compared to everything else. I don’t like to say that anything’s like done done. I always aim for every book that I do to be like, ‘Hey, this is the last thing that you ever see of this, but you’re feeling good. You’re feeling like you’re in a good place with these characters.’
To purchase a copy of the Pilar Ramirez duology, visit our Bookshop.
About the Author:
Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, CantoMundo, Callaloo, BOAAT and the Watering Hole. Julian is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Julian is the winner of the 2019 Betty Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Publishing Triangle.
His writing has been published in New York Times Magazine, Ploughshares, and POETRY, and anthologized in Black Boy Joy (which debuted at #1 on the NYT Best Seller list), Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed and Furious Flower.
He has essays in The Atlantic, Vibe Magazine, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other venues. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Ole Miss.
He is the author of Refuse (Pitt, 2018), winner of the 2017 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and a finalist for a 2019 NAACP Image Award, as well as the middle grade novel Pilar Ramirez And The Escape from Zafa (Holt, Winter 2022), and The Dead Don’t Need Reminding: Essays (Bold Type Books, Spring 2023).
He can be found on Twitter @JulianThePoet.
Amaris Castillo is a Brooklyn-born journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology, and is forthcoming in Sana Sana: Latinx Pain and Radical Visions for Healing and Justice. Her short story, "El Don," was a finalist for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her work at amariscastillo.com and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.