Jennifer De Leon presents ‘Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From’

By Leighah Beausoleil, Editorial Staff 

Jennifer De Leon, creative writing professor, hosted a discussion of her new book, “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From,” on Zoom, Sept. 30. 

The event was in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, and sponsored by the Center for Inclusive Excellence, Latinos Unidos N’ Accion (L.U.N.A.), and the English Department. 

De Leon read two excerpts from her book, and answered audience members’ questions with the help of student moderators – Emily Costa, Johan Perez, and Corrin De Leon – no relation. 

The fictional story follows the experiences of 15-year-old Liliana who was accepted into the METCO program, said De Leon.

MECTO, the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity, is a real 50-year-old program that aims at desegregating schools in the suburbs by enrolling Boston students of color into predominantly white schools, according to De Leon. 

Liliana struggled to fit into her new school where she faced racism and microaggressions, as well as finding out her father was deported, she added.

“It’s a book that I think grapples with a lot of issues that I grappled with – identity, class, racism, microaggressions, code switching, not feeling Latinx enough, sometimes feeling too Latinx, whatever that is – and constantly straddling two worlds, but never fully feeling like I belonged in either one,” De Leon said. 

She said the book, despite being a work of fiction, “tells one true story.” It is meant to act as a “window” for those who don’t know about these issues, as well as a “mirror” for readers who see themselves in it. 

De Leon said this is the book she wished she had when she was younger, and wished she could have passed down to her students when she taught in Boston. 

Costa asked, “Can you name a few examples of microaggressions Liliana faced at a predominantly white school?”

De Leon said teachers made assumptions about Liliana such as asking if she needed to loan a laptop or assuming she was relieved to no longer be at her old school. Also, asking where she was from. 

Wanting to know more about a person is good if done the right way, but peers and teachers were asking the question wrong, and Liliana would be asked quite often, De Leon said. This was “taxing” on Liliana and made her feel being different was bad. 

Perez asked how De Leon chose the title of the book. 

De Leon said in the book, Liliana went to a creative writing center in her neighborhood, and one of the ice breakers was to write a six-word memoir. Liliana’s six words were, “Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From.”

On National Writing Day, FSU students also take part in writing their six-word memoirs, she added.

Corrin De Leon asked what her writing process was. 

De Leon said the book originally began as a series of short stories about Liliana that she would submit to magazines, but they would all get rejected. 

“And then one day, a former student actually shared this residency at the Boston Public Library where you got $20,000, in a nine-month residency, and office of your own with a key of your own,” she said. “And I applied for the residency, and I worked on this book.”

The book was originally written to take place in the ’90s from a third-person perspective, but the editor recommended she try first-person contemporary, De Leon said. This seemed daunting at first, but she remembered all the voices of her students in Boston, and “it just kind of poured out.”

A student in the audience asked whether the book would be adapted into a movie or Netflix series.

De Leon said she wasn’t allowed to say much, but her agent is negotiating for a possible TV series. 

Another student asked who De Leon’s inspirations were.

De Leon said her inspirations came from different authors, as well as the students she has worked with. 

“Toni Morrison has this great quote,” she added. “If there’s a book that you want to read in the world, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you need to be the one to write it.”