Argentine author Romina Garber has been a fresh and unabashedly original voice in the industry since her young-adult fantasy novel Lobizona hit shelves last August. Blending mythology, magic, and werewolves (?!), the novel follows an undocumented immigrant named Manu whose mother is arrested by ICE, leaving her alone in the world. When she decides to follow the clues left behind by her late father and his criminal family, Manu uncovers a secret world previously thought to only exist in Argentinian folklore. This past August, Garber released its sequel, Cazadora, proving her voice to be not only unique but also necessary.
Sofía Aguilar and Romina Garber hopped on Zoom to discuss the last entry in her duology, her experiences as an Argentine immigrant and author in the U.S., and how she hopes to change the narrative for undocumented people, both on and off the page.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Have you always considered yourself a writer?
ROMINA GARBER: I knew I was a writer when I was 9. I didn’t hear conversational English at home, so it was a very exciting time. Our fourth-grade teacher read to us from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, and something in those stories broke me in the best way. I started writing, and I couldn’t stop. I felt like I was really hearing the English language for the first time.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What first compelled you to write Lobizona, this first entry in the series?
ROMINA GARBER: I had written an ancestor to Lobizona in 2008 called “Yellow Eyes.” I couldn’t find representation for it because I was told “teens in the U.S. just don’t care about Argentine immigrants.” That hurt because it wasn’t just about my characters. I’m an Argentine immigrant, so what are you saying about my own story as a human? But I let it go, I was an unpublished 20-something aspiring author, so I started writing more allegorical stuff. Then came 2017, the previous administration, and horrible stuff was going on at the border. I felt so powerless to help, but if anything, it showed me that this book was more important than ever.
I wanted to write a girl werewolf because werewolf-ism is symbolic of what we go through every month—the blood, the moon cycle, the transformation. It’s inherently feminine but that got lost or co-opted somewhere, which is so typical of the patriarchy to consume and appropriate everything they think is cool.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: In both Lobizona and Cazadora, you play with both languages, often allowing the protagonist Manu to directly translate from one to another. How did you decide to explore that?
ROMINA GARBER: I added that detail because it’s something I do as an anxious person. When someone gets emotional, whatever language it’s in, my brain will start translating it into the other language. I’m detaching from the moment to intellectualize the language and cope with emotions, and I wanted to give that to Manu. Obviously, beyond English, Spanish, and Spanglish, her real language is literary. She reads to relate to the world. This was the first time I ever let myself write in my real languages. It was the most liberating writing experience I’ve had.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Did that pose difficulties when Spanish translation rights were sold?
ROMINA GARBER: I loved the woman who translated my first series Zodiac in Spanish, Jeannine Emery, so I asked if we could hire her for Lobizona. Something that came up in the process is that all the Spanish in the story is in an Argentine dialect, but books are typically translated into neutral Spanish. The question became, “Do we keep the Argentine stuff or do we neutralize everything?” I had fought so hard to keep the Spanish in the English version that for me not to fight to keep the Argentine Spanish would have felt hypocritical. If I’m talking about representing nuanced characters and cultures, how can I then neutralize my own? In many ways, I think of this book as a “treatise on labels” because it’s all about language and the words we use to create cages for ourselves.
I had fought so hard to keep the Spanish in the English version that for me not to fight to keep the Argentine Spanish would have felt hypocritical.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How did you find the link between Manu’s undocumented status and her werewolf transformation?
ROMINA GARBER: It all starts with la ley de padrinazgo presidencial, a law that states that the president of Argentina becomes padrino/a to the seventh consecutive son or daughter in a family. If you go back to its origins, you’ll find that this tradition stems from Russian immigrants in the early 1900s, and if you go back even further, there’s a superstition that claims the seventh consecutive son will become a werewolf. And I wanted to write about immigration from the perspective of someone who didn’t fit into a binary or into any of her worlds. She’s “illegal” residentially in the States, then she enters a realm where her hybrid existence is outlawed. On top of that, she’s a wolf. She’s in the wrong body for who she is. On a sillier point, I wanted to write a girl werewolf because werewolf-ism is symbolic of what we go through every month—the blood, the moon cycle, the transformation. It’s inherently feminine but that got lost or co-opted somewhere. Lycanthropy became masculine, which is so typical of the patriarchy to consume and appropriate everything they think is cool. I also wanted to reclaim the word “lobizona,” which is, unfortunately, a rarer term than its masculine counterpart, “lobizón.”
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you hope readers take away from Manu’s journey given its undeniable parallels to real-life?
ROMINA GARBER: I had readers reach out to me and say that they thought the opening chapters were dystopian. They didn’t realize that this was normal life for someone without papers! So my biggest wish is that readers will come away with a new point of view on immigration and immigrants. I hope teens who read this will grow up to be conscientious adults who want to change the immigration system.
This was the first time I ever let myself write in my real languages. It was the most liberating writing experience I’ve had.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: You will be featured in a forthcoming anthology called “Reclaim the Stars,” which features 17 stories from 17 Latinx authors who explore fantastical elements in their work, edited by Zoraida Cordova. Could you tell us a little about that project?
ROMINA GARBER: It’s tales from the Latinx diaspora, so it’s really beautiful because we’re all bringing our own culture to life and sharing something special. As far as my story, it’s called, “Leyenda” and it’s actually a Lobizona story about Zaybet that I wanted to fit into the books but would’ve taken way too long. She has a whole history of becoming this activist and leader, and I felt like that was important. All the stories in this anthology are fun and it comes out in February—I highly recommend it!
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What is a question you wished more people asked you about yourself?
ROMINA GARBER: I like when people ask me about my journey. It took me so long to be published, almost a decade, but it often feels like the stories we’re hearing are the sexier ones with seven-figure deals. Mine was a really hard and painful path to publication. I remember writing five books before Zodiac, each one in the 400-page range, each one unique, and each one rejected. But the only person who could have shut me down for good was me. So I would say to anybody, whatever you’re pursuing, don’t give up! It will happen. All it takes is one person. Just hang on for your “yes”!