Q&A with Bolivian American novelist Isabel Ibañez
"In Ibañez’s debut novel, every detail is rich with meaning and nuance. [Woven in Moonlight] showcases a fantasy world that transcends traditional Western tropes and underscores the value of complex female characters." ― TIME, "The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time"
We hope you enjoy NYS Writers Institute graduate assistant Kaori Chen's Q&A with novelist Isabel Ibañez.
Born in Florida and raised by Bolivian parents, Isabel Ibañez takes us to the fantasy world inspired by Bolivian history, politics, art, and food in her debut novel Woven in Moonlinght, which made Time magazine's list of 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time (https://time.com/collection/100-best-fantasy-books/). Her second novel Written in Starlight was published in January 2021.
In Woven in Moonlight, how did you come up with the character of Ximena?
I had been trying to think of a character who would have had the most opportunity to change, and was in the position where she could change. Ximena slowly came into focus because she was carrying so much responsibility and told to be a certain way and it isn’t until she steps away from everything familiar to her that she discovers who she really is. I was really intrigued by that kind of responsibility in opposition to that slow discovery.
Why is she a skilled tapestry weaver?
Weaving is a beautiful expression of creativity and art in Bolivia! Virtually on every corner, you can find tapestries and rugs and shawls to purchase. It’s something bright and colorful that captures the spirit of Bolivian industry and art.
Are you also a weaver? If so, what do you like to weave? If not, have you ever tried weaving?
I am! I love to weave tapestries whenever I have a vision for a pattern of colors.
What has your life been like during the pandemic?
It actually hasn’t changed too much! I’m an introvert and a homebody and so the pandemic didn’t really alter my lifestyle too much, ha! I’ve read so much and written another book and I did a fair bit of designing, too.
Are you keeping in touch with your family members in Bolivia? How have they been during the pandemic?
Yes! We are all on a group text and exchange something like 50 messages a day between everyone! I think there are at least fifteen of us on there. They’ve been doing well, but missing their old routines.
How have your upbringing and cultural background influenced or inspired or informed your work?
I think because both are an integral part of who I am, my writing naturally reflects that! I can’t separate my upbringing and culture from my work because it’s through the lens in which I see everything! My love of sitting around the dinner table and eating traditional foods, incorporating an artisanal craft and the language I spoke growing up. My work is an extension of my lived experiences.
There are a lot of labeling practices in the U.S. Some people may identify you as a Latinx author or a Bolivian author or a Bolivian-American author and so forth. How do you see yourself and what does it mean to you?
I see myself as a Bolivian American, first generation daughter of hard working immigrants. To me, it means embracing both sides of who I am and that I neither fully one or the other but a blend of my surroundings. At home, we spoke Spanish and ate Bolivian foods. My parents raised me the way that they were raised. Outside the house, I spoke English and enjoyed whatever my friends were listening to, and eventually I learned to feel comfortable in combining both spheres of my life.
When and why did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I never wavered in my desire to be a professional storyteller. I have always loved the power of story, of how it can make a reader feel. Stories are windows into so many human experiences and perspectives. I love capturing those big emotions on the page, creating flawed characters who learn something about themselves along their journey.
How did you prepare yourself to be a writer?
I did a lot of research and forged friendships with other writers who were figuring out publishing at the same time I was. So much of what I learned came from trial and error and learning to ask the right questions. But more than anything I read constantly and practiced my craft!
You are also an illustrator and designer. Have you been drawing since you were little?
Yes! My mother has kept all of my sketchbooks since I was a kid!
There are many ways to tell stories. Why do you choose fantasy to tell stories?
I wrote about a place that was inspired by Bolivian politics and history and to me it felt right that the backdrop included the fantastic. It made handling the heavier themes of the book easier and also displayed the lens of how I view Bolivia: vibrant and whimsical and dangerous.