Mark Oshiro’s new YA novel Each of Us a Desert could hardly be more different from their searing and widely acclaimed debut Anger Is a Gift (2018). The latter is a contemporary novel set in the ungentrified neighborhoods of Oakland, where teenagers at one of the city’s wildly underfunded public high schools band together to resist police violence in their community. Each of Us a Desert, by contrast, is a post-apocalyptic fantasy set in a secondary world, where the survivors of a devastating solar disaster eke out a living from the scorched earth that remains.
The disaster, La Quema, is said to have been caused by Solís, the solar deity whose powers have been inherited by two distinct groups: the animal guardians and the human cuentistas. The novel’s protagonist Xochitl is a young cuentista, serving her village, Empalme, as she was taught to do by the woman who passed the power onto her: she takes confessions, or stories, from her fellow villagers, and expels the stories and their accompanying negative emotions into the earth, forgetting them in the process. If she does not perform this cleansing ritual regularly, the pesadillas—nightmares—will come.
Empalme has kept its traditions, including the practices of its cuentistas, for generations. Just before the novel begins, however, violent change arrives, in the form of a band of outlaws, led by a man named Julio, who ride into the aldea, and begin demanding tribute from the villagers before they can use the well. Julio's daughter Emilia, a teenager like Xochitl, seems to be the odd one out, holding herself aloof both from the aldea and from her father’s men.
Xochitl inherited the powers of a cuentista at the age of eight, and she chafes at the accompanying restrictions: that she can never leave Empalme; that the villagers see her in terms of her usefulness to them rather than as her own person; that the path of her life is already laid out for her. For the time being, she takes refuge in the handwritten poems—given in both Spanish and English in the text—that she has found at various places in the desert and kept to herself.
Pursued by Julio, the two set off for the underground settlement of Solado, where Emilia claims she knows someone who possesses the power to take cuentista powers away. Along the way, the two encounter strange perils, as well as other people who have wildly differing attitudes towards cuentista powers and how a cuentista should use them, only deepening the mystery of what Solís intended.
Each of Us a Desert is an intense read, and not just because much of the book consists of journeying through inhospitable desert during daylight, as the night is full of monsters. (The sun is almost a physical presence in the novel, emphasized by the chapter header illustrations depicting its position in the sky; I spent a lot of time wishing for their sake that the characters had hats.) Isolated by her position, Xochitl’s intense loneliness and yearning for connection, for answers, for the freedom to choose, are powerful. The people and places she encounters along the course of her journey are powerful too, as are the stories that she continues to take as a cuentista, however much she wants to be done with the power. Ultimately, the journey becomes her way of working out who she wants to be and how she wants to exist in the world, an intense decision that has its own dangers: becoming her own person means rebelling against the ways of Solís that Xochitl has been taught, and daring to believe not only in herself but in another way.
It’s an intense read in other ways as well. The stories that Xochitl takes are set off with a different font and page color; the stories range from terrifying to pitiable, but are always viscerally real. On top of that, the book is literally a story that Xochitl is telling to Solís, and she is not happy with Their indifference, Their lack of answers, what They have allowed to happen:
“Why did You punish all of us, Solís? If You despised what humanity had done to Your world long ago, why punish all those who came after? Why not wipe the slate clean, start over, and fix the mistakes from the first time around? Or do You not believe that You made any mistakes, that all of this was our fault?
“If your creation was perfect, then why do we do such imperfect things?
“I was told so many stories, and the farther I walked from Empalme, the less real they became.” (p. 250)
The book’s title comes from one of the poems that Xochitl finds, and its first line becomes her mantra during the rest of her journey:
Cada una de nosotras es una desierta Each of us a desert solitaria y vasta solitary and vast quemada burned nos estiramos por siempre we stretch forever
“Weren’t we all?” Xochitl wonders after reading the poem. “Weren’t we all so vast and solitary inside? Or was it just me?
“No, it wasn’t. There was someone else out there who understood me, who knew what it was like to feel this unending loneliness, to be empty within.” (p. 232)
The poems appear in both English and Spanish, a choice that is in keeping with Oshiro’s frequent use of Spanish throughout the novel. Spanish words and phrases appear throughout and are left both unexplained and unitalicized, deliberately rendering them everyday, unexotic, and equivalent to the surrounding English. Some of the meaning is clear from context, but in some cases non-Spanish speakers may need to consult a translator app to get a rough approximation: I suspect the poems in particular will not fully translate. This equalizing use of Spanish makes sense for a world in which every major character is Latinx, providing a different kind of representation than in Anger Is a Gift, but one that is equally welcome. And though the book is set in a different world, Oshiro does not avoid potential resonances between another desert in our world that is frequently crossed by Latinx people heading north on their way past a wall.
Like Anger Is a Gift, queerness and queer characters are found throughout the story, starting with Solís the nonbinary deity, and Xochitl herself. Unlike Anger Is a Gift, which was set in our world, amidst structures of oppression, queerness in Each of Us a Desert is unremarkable; nonbinary characters and queer people and couples abound without anyone thinking anything of it. I’m not one of those who believes that writing books without homophobia is a betrayal of queerness, and while I appreciate books like Anger Is a Gift in which bad things happen to queer characters, not as a punishment for being queer, but because that is the nature of life and of stories, Each of Us a Desert and its blanket queer acceptance is a welcome change of pace in this regard. Both kinds of story are equally valid, and equally enjoyable in different ways.
Xochitl’s story breaks with genre conventions in other ways: here is a magic-user whose entire story is dedicated to removing or repudiating her power, who is driven not to master her abilities but to figure out who she is when she isn’t defined by them. Although her relationship with Emilia blossoms somewhat late in the novel, the connection they form is no less powerful, based not only on the shared hardships and dangers of the journey itself but on their shared outlook on their world. In another book Emilia might have remained a girl who acted distant and superior, but she transforms as Xochitl gets to know her better even as Emilia endures her own trials on the journey. (Xochitl on Emilia’s first appearance: “Her brows furrowed as she looked at me with an expression that said it all: She was above us. She would not dare to lower herself to our level” [p. 43]. )Together, they find that they are strong enough to face the truth.
“We are an answer. To a question no one has asked yet,” another discontented cuentista tells Xochitl at one point when their paths intersect (p. 321). By the end of her final address to Solís, Xochitl has come far enough that she can ask that question herself, as well as embody the answer to it. Although her odyssey is harrowing at times, by the end she understands the place in the world that only she can fill, and is ready to do so. Given how varied Oshiro’s output has already been, not only in their novels but also in the Mark Does Stuff franchise, I won’t venture to predict where they will go next with their fiction (though I am eagerly awaiting their middle grade novel The Insiders later this year), but I am very much looking forward to it.