Isabel Ibañez is a graphic designer and illustrator whose debut novel Woven in Moonlight is a “rollicking political fantasy inspired by Bolivian history and filled with irrepressible heroines, opulent settings, twisty court intrigue, bloody revolutions, and mouthwatering feasts” (Kirkus Reviews). It tells the story of Ximena, who has the unique ability to spin thread from moonlight. Ximena uses her ability to seek revenge for her people, who lost everything when they were driven out of the city by the usurper Atoc. The result is a “lush tapestry of magic, romance, and revolución, drawing inspiration from Bolivian politics and history.”
Bolivian history has always been important to Ibañez, as she is the daughter of two Bolivian immigrants. They always made sure that her and her brother were aware of and appreciated their heritage, their “Bolivianess” as she puts it. This upbringing has impacted Ibañez in many ways throughout her life, but especially in the characters, customs, food and scenery of Woven in Moonlight.
We spoke with Ibañez ahead of our January 21 event with her as part of the My America program series. Read on to learn more about this fascinating book, the writer behind it, and growing up as the daughter of immigrants. And be sure to join us January 21 to hear from Ibañez in person! Learn more and RSVP here.
AMERICAN WRITERS MUSEUM: As the daughter of Bolivian immigrants…does this aspect of your life affect your writing?
ISABEL IBAÑEZ: When I was a kid, I read a lot. Everyday, whenever I had a spare minute and space to get lost in a story. While I loved the stories, it was hard not seeing myself represented in the books I read. I wanted to read about someone who looked like me, spoke the words I did, ate the foods I enjoyed growing up. Because I grew up to be a storyteller, I realized that all of the details that made up my life could be dropped into my writings. Things about my culture that I loved, Bolivia’s lush landscape, Spanish words sprinkled throughout the narrative. The books I enjoy writing feature characters who look like my cousins. In short, my writing is an extension of who I am, the many parts of me, and that includes being a daughter of immigrants, having a home in the middle of South America, in a country that’s landlocked and eating food just this side of spicy.
AWM: Has writing affected your sense of identity and/or helped you define your identity? If so, how?
IBAÑEZ: In some ways. I’ve always been creative, and have been drawn to many forms of artistic expression. For a long time, I designed greeting cards, worked an old printing press. I’m a weaver and illustrator, and I think all of these things contribute to my identity as an artist. Writing feels like another way for me to be creative, to show a part of who I am. My sense of identity is very much wrapped up in the idea that at my core, I’m someone who enjoys creating. Writing is very much a part of that.
AWM: Many writers in this My America series have talked about feeling “othered” or being made to feel like an outsider…have you experienced feelings like this and if so, how have they impacted your life and writing?
IBAÑEZ: I think I must have gone through the opposite! My parents wanted my brother and I to have access to the American Dream, and to pursue whatever it was that we wanted. But they also didn’t want me to lose my “Bolivianess.” So we didn’t speak English at home, I brought Salteñas to lunch, and my parents didn’t allow me to watch TV during the week. I missed many pop cultural references in conversation, and yet I really tried to blend in. I stopped speaking Spanish in public, started bringing money for lunch. I wanted to be thoroughly American. The books I read all featured white characters, and as I kept reading, I had the nagging sense that I wanted more from these stories. Why weren’t these books satisfying?
“My writing reflects the deep appreciation of the culture my parents surrounded me in.”
It wasn’t until much later that I recognized why, and when I did, I embraced the big part of me that was different. I finally wanted to be different. So now my writing reflects the deep appreciation of the culture my parents surrounded me in. The country I spent years of my life in, visiting since my infancy, my summers always, always in Bolivia.
AWM: What does the notion of “American” mean to you? What does it mean to be American?
IBAÑEZ: I’ve struggled for a long time with this concept of being an “American.” At home, my parents fought hard for me to grow up speaking Spanish, to fall in love with with the Bolivian culture, to enjoy the foods they grew up eating. But that was at home. When I went to school, it was something else. I had to learn what my American friends were eating, watching, and consuming culturally. I don’t know if I have a set opinion on what “American” means other than that for me it means blending where I grew up and where my parents are from together to create an identity that’s fully my own.
“Writing allows me to access the well of my creativity and it often surprises me.”
AWM: Why did you want to become a writer?
IBAÑEZ: I love love love telling stories. I think more than anything, it’s the emotion behind every word, every character, how it can inspire someone to feel love and hurt, and joy and to laugh out loud or cry. There is something so beautiful about writing a story that many people can relate to or cherish. I want to be a writer because I want to live in my imagination, and not in any kind of structure. Writing allows me to access the well of my creativity and it often surprises me.
AWM: In addition to writing, you are also a designer and illustrator…do you find any similarities in the creative processes of these different forms of expression?
IBAÑEZ: In so much that they draw from the same well. The ability to tell a story both as a picture and with words feels like it comes from the same place. I think for me it means sinking into an emotion and putting it all down on paper, whether it’s with pen or a brush.
“Keep writing. Your story and words matter, and there is room for you at the table.”
AWM: If you could meet one American writer of the past, who would it be and why?
IBAÑEZ: Oh, I’d love to sit down with Louisa May Alcott! There’s something so beautiful about her storytelling, how it dwells in the relationships between people, highlights the details of why a particular friendship is special. Little Women made me grieve because I don’t have sisters.
AWM: What are you reading now? What should we be reading?
IBAÑEZ: I just finished the Ten Thousand Doors of January (by Alix E. Harrow) and I loved it. The story is unique, the writing warm and inviting, with a charming confessional style that really pulled me into the story.
AWM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
IBAÑEZ: Keep writing. Your story and words matter, and there is room for you at the table. There will be many voices that will clutter your environment, learn to listen to the ones that are encouraging and helpful and tell you the truth. Disregard everything else with a polite thank you.