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From Dirty Girls to Enlightened Ladies

Chica lit writer Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez challenges genre expectations with her novel The Three Kings.

Q. This sense of speaking out often runs through your work. Where does it come from?

A. The biggest driving force in my life has been justice — and by that I don’t mean revenge. I mean fairness for all kinds of people. I think it comes in part from being the daughter of an immigrant who was grossly underestimated for most of his career and life, and the sort of despair you feel watching that happen, the sense that things aren’t fair from a very early age. My father is an academic, a sociology professor specializing in Latin America, so he wrote books. My father speaks beautiful English, but he speaks it with an accent, so there was this sort of immediate dismissal of what he was saying from a certain segment of the population that couldn’t listen past the accent to hear the meaning of the words that were being said.

Q. When The Dirty Girls Social Club came out in 2003, it became a bestseller and many people credited you with establishing “chica lit,” a new genre of contemporary commercial women’s fiction featuring middle-class Latina characters. How has this new genre developed since then?

A. I never sat down and thought: “I’m going to create a new genre.” I just sat down and wrote a book that I wanted to read but couldn’t find. In retrospect, I don’t think it’s a new genre; it’s just a novel. There’s an unfortunate tendency in the publishing industry to view ethnicity as a genre and only for certain people. So if you are a minority, your race or ethnicity becomes your genre. Or if you are a woman, your sex becomes your genre. “Women’s fiction”: What does that even mean? Would we ever dare say “commercial men’s fiction”? I think these are marketing terms.

Q. What do you think of the “chick-lit” genre label?

A. There are writers in commercial women’s fiction who get really worked up, and they blog about [the label] and rail against the establishment. I can empathize and understand that frustration, but at the same time, it’s a waste of energy. I look at what the readers and writers of the romance genre have done in creating a parallel universe where they sell millions of books to readers who know these writers are good. They don’t need the stamp of approval. And what I love about my readers is that they are far more sophisticated, in my opinion, than most literary critics, and far less insecure. At the end of the day, people are reading my books and communicating directly with me, thanks to technology.

Q. Like social media?

A. Absolutely. Social media is terrifying to corporate media because you can make or break a movie with one tweet. You look at someone like Selena Gomez who has over four million followers on Twitter, and that’s more influence than the entire New York Times. If she sends out a tweet to millions of kids saying “Buy this book,” they will. So it’s uncharted territory, and it will be interesting to see what happens.

Q. Can you describe the premise of your seventh and latest novel, The Three Kings: A Christmas Dating Story?

A. I wanted to come up with an idea that was very identifiable to Hispanics. In a way, many of us, not all of us, grew up with the Three Kings. My father didn’t celebrate Christmas in Cuba the way we do here, but he celebrated El Día de los Tres Reyes — that’s when he got his gifts. So, I wanted to pay homage, but I also wanted to make the novel a contemporary chica lit book that modern women of all backgrounds could relate to. So, it’s about a woman going through some difficult times and trying to fix herself with self-help books about dating, like that very outdated book, The Rules. That book is still being read and suggests you should date three men at once, but none of them seriously. That got me thinking about The Three Kings, and what if a woman starts dating three cousins who are all named Reyes?

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