Latinx Horror: Interview with Isabel Cañas
Isabel Cañas is a Mexican-American speculative fiction writer. After having lived in Mexico, Scotland, Egypt, and Turkey, among other places, she has settled (for now) in New York City, where she works on her PhD dissertation in medieval Islamic literature and writes fiction inspired by her research and her heritage. To find out more, visit www.isabelcanas.com.
What inspired you to start writing?
I remember that I started dictating stories to my older sister when I was about 4, before I could write. I really kicked off writing with Lord of the Rings fanfic when I was about 11 and started writing original stories when I was 12 or 13. I was homeschooled throughout most of elementary and all of middle school, so I was privileged enough to spend the majority of my day reading, daydreaming, and writing. (Never really learned math, though—oops.)
Today, I am a writer because I can’t not write, I can’t not spin daydreams into short stories or novels in the back of my mind throughout the day. There are a lot of storytellers in my family; I think it’s in my DNA.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I have loved Gothic novels for a long time. Two of the most influential books I read in my teen years were Dracula, which I read at 17, and Beloved, which I read when I was 19. Dark fantasy also holds a special place in my heart—I read Holly Black’s Tithe at 14 and have never been the same since. I started reaching for horror as an adult in late 2019, a habit that was accelerated by the pandemic. Reading and writing are my number one form of escapism, and in March 2020, the high fantasies I usually reached for to flee my own anxiety suddenly weren’t cutting it. I needed a headier hit. I needed suspense. I needed someone else’s fear to distract from my own. My attention span was also shattered in those early pandemic days (and still is, honestly), so I frequently turn to short fiction and podcasts. The Dark and Nightmare Magazine are my mainstays, as is Snap Judgement’s Spooked podcast.
Do you make a conscious effort to include Latinx characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I absolutely do. Like many other marginalized writers, as a young writer, I found myself regurgitating the kinds of (White) characters I found in books in my writing. I have since happily broken out of this habit and choose my characters with intention.
One of my goals as a writer is to portray my own experience of being Latinx in all of my writing, be it horror or historical or fantasy, because we desperately need the diversity of the Latinx experience represented in media across the board. The experience of being Latine/Latinx is not a monolith—we have different historical experiences with colonialism and migration, we’re different races, we have roots in different countries, we speak different languages. The world needs to see that in order for mainstream media to stop painting Latinx people with a single, blunt stroke. I hope that the characters I offer in my work will become just one piece of an enormous, colorful stained glass window of Latinx representation.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Up until I wrote The Hacienda, I primarily wrote fantasy and the driving energy in my work was wonder. Diving into horror has forced me to evaluate my craft in unexpected ways. It is a genre of tension and suspense, of atmosphere and feeling; I have learned so much about myself as a writer and how to precisely wield tone and voice. I’ve learned to imbue setting with feeling and to better control my pacing. I think all writers should try their hand at horror because (no matter the sub-genre), writing horror demands that the writer inspire deep feeling in the reader. Sparking fear and dread without the haunting music and jump scares that movies boast requires a precision and control of tone, voice, and atmosphere that other genres don’t. It’s an excellent training ground. I know my writing in other genres will be better for it!
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I consider myself relatively new to horror as a reader, but I have happily noticed more celebration of diverse authors and their work. I think that’s what drew me toward horror in the first place in 2019: suddenly, I was able to see room for myself in the genre. I began picking up books written by BIPOC and Latinx writers and found that they resonated much more strongly with me than ye olde Stephen King derivative horror. (Frankly, I can’t relate to horror by white cishet male writers. We just don’t fear the same things.) Traditional publishing across the board still suffers from an acute lack of diversity; it is my sincere hope that horror will continue to be and become increasingly more inclusive of marginalized writers.
How do you feel the Latinx community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
I think there simply isn’t enough authentic representation of Latinx characters in horror. I am very optimistic about what the future holds, though. I was thrilled to read Mexican Gothic and sink into how unapologetically itself it is; it’s fiercely anticolonial in how it faces eugenics, resource exploitation, and racism head-on. It also features a big old English house in the middle of a mining settlement in Hidalgo, and in that, it doesn’t pander to the Anglo gaze of what Mexico “should” look like. I absolutely adore that about Mexican Gothic.
I am enormously grateful to Silvia Moreno-Garcia for how her work has carved out space for more voices similar to hers. It made space for books set in Latin America that don’t feature any American characters—something that many in U.S. traditional publishing used to say couldn’t be successful. The runaway success of Mexican Gothic opened many doors for me personally, and I will fight to keep that door open for the next wave of unapologetically Latinx writers, no matter what genre they write.
Who are some of our favorite Latinx characters in horror?
This is going to be kind of an obvious answer given the popularity of Mexican Gothic, but definitely Noemí! She’s stubborn, curious, totally chic, and takes no shit—exactly the kind of heroine I strive to be in my own life.
I have to shout out Amparo Ortiz and Yamile Saied Méndez! They are co-editing an all-Latinx YA horror anthology called Our Shadows Have Claws (out in 2023) that I am absolutely dying to get my hands on. In there you’ll find writers like Courtney Alameda, Maika and Maritza Moulite, Tehlor Kay Mejia, Lilliam Rivera, Jenny Torres Sanchez, Chantel Acevedo, and others. I’ve read many of these authors’ writing in other genres and cannot wait to see how they tackle the anthology’s theme: the many monsters, ghosts, and cryptids of Latinx folklore. YA horror is having a great moment in traditional publishing that I hope lasts forever!
The majority of the writers in Our Shadows Have Claws are US-based writers. As far as Latin American writers are concerned, I absolutely must first recommend the Argentinian writer Mariana Enríquez. There is a haunted house story in her collection Things We Lost In The Fire that truly wigged me out and inspired me to write my own. She’s required reading, as far as I’m concerned! Second, while his work doesn’t necessarily fall under the heading of horror, the ghosts in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo were deeply influential on me and my work—it’s a haunting classic of modern Mexican literature that I think too few readers in the U.S. are familiar with.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Write your truth. Dig deep for it. The secret to writing good horror is knowing yourself and being frank about what you fear; leaning into emotional vulnerability will always level up your writing. It never stops being a bit painful, but I promise it gets easier with practice!
And to the Latinx writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
You are enough. Don’t take no for an answer. You are enough. Keep writing. I can’t wait to read what you create.