Chicana and Indigenous author Dani Trujillo is a storyteller of Pueblo and Mexican descent who is transforming what love stories can be and who they’re written for. From reviewing books online as a Bookstagrammer to becoming a romance writer, she’s served her book-loving community in many ways. That never was more clear than when she self-published her debut novel Lizards Hold the Sun in May of this year, which follows Indigenous Mexican Xiomara Chavez, an archeologist dedicated to preserving her Mexican homeland. When she’s chosen to coordinate the creation of the Bunchberry Tribal Museum in Bunchberry, Canada, she meets Calehan, a fellow Indigenous Mexican who is museum architect and as aloof as he is captivating. Sparks fly between them everywhere, in the archives, on the museum site, but it will be ultimately up to them if they will belong to each other or if their responsibilities to their tribes and families are too great to keep them together.
“What I wanted was happiness and joy,” Trujillo tells HipLatina. “For people of color and especially Indigenous people, so many people only want our stories of pain and suffering or overcoming. And while those stories are important, it’s equally as important to talk about just the happy moments, the times that we got lucky or we made a mistake but it ended up okay. That’s what I was missing, so that’s what I wanted to write.”
Like many authors, reading from an early age helped fuel her love of writing later in life. She especially loved fiction where she could escape from her everyday life. But at times, it was also frustrating as she wasn’t seeing stories that featured Indigenous characters or that were written by Indigenous authors. Add on the fact that when she entered college, everything she read was academic, and it’s little wonder that she fell a little out of love with the hobby. But it was starting her Bookstagram account “to talk about books and see what other people are saying about them” that changed her access to different and diverse books.
In today’s publishing landscape, diversity and inclusion have never been more important, especially when both the industry and the Bookstagram community are oversaturated with white creators. Oftentimes, the most high-profile Bookstagramers are white women and it’s not uncommon to see them only uplift books written by white authors too, further diminishing BIPOC authors who already face mistreatment and erasure. As a result, both then and now, Trujillo has made it a priority to center the Indigenous and Latinx communities in her content. And in that way, reading was her greatest teacher when it came to writing her novel.
“I read books when I need to know what I’m doing wrong or if I need to see an example of something I’m trying to describe. I read to find it out,” she explains. “Reading has taught me so much in general about writing, but also about how to build unique characters.”
At the same time, however, reading was also her greatest challenge when it came to trying to find books that were similar enough to hers to be considered a “comp.” Short for “comparisons,” comps are used in publishing to compare new books to ones that already exist so potential readers know what to expect, if they’re the target audience, and how likely it is that they’ll enjoy it. However, Indigenous representation in publishing remains low, even more so for lighthearted, contemporary romance stories. Even though stories about what the Indigenous community has been forced to endure throughout history and present-day are important, she finds that they can be traumatic for her to sit through, whether it’s a book or movie. She wasn’t afraid to touch on themes of grief and loss in her novel but ultimately, she wanted romance and joy to prevail.
So while she made it a point to look to popular romance authors like Alexis Daria, Priscilla Oliveras, and Jasmine Guillory as guides with this goal in mind, it was ultimately up to her to use her real-life, personal experiences as an Indigenous archeologist to create a one-of-a-kind story.
“On its own, archaeology is unique but for us, it’s pretty important. We’re the first peoples of this land and so much of our archaeological history is not told by us,” she says. “I worked in archaeology in the Southwest, so writing our own story, being in control of our own cultural artifacts, our own museums, the profits going to us, that was all something I wanted to explore and say, ‘This is possible. You can be an Indigenous-led museum and Indigenous archaeology company.’ We can retain our own culture and do it ourselves and have it benefit us. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.”
In that spirit, Trujillo made it a point to self-publish the book in order to have full control over the story and publication process with occasional help from hired editors. The cover art was done by artist Marcus Trujillo which she says led many readers to not know it’s self-published. But ultimately, it was her collaborations with her husband and her online Bookstagram community that made Lizards truly come to life.
“I call my husband my little idea machine,” she jokes. “He loves to listen to me talk about my books and ideas, and then come up with his own. Especially with dialogue, he’s a huge help and was definitely a big inspiration for a lot of the things that Callahan does because that’s what I find romantic.”
From there, it was several of her followers on Bookstagram, whom she considers her close friends, who helped out with general feedback as well as little details for the book like Spanish grammar and Canadian currency. Without them and their feedback, she knows “I wouldn’t have finished it.”
“Their critiques are what got me through. They gave such good quality feedback to polish it up, get it to where it needed to be, and reshape and form the story to where it is now. That kept me going because they’re seasoned readers who read critically but also for fun, so if they’re saying my story is good, I’m going to believe them. So they will definitely be doing this for the rest of their lives.” From here, she’s excited to continue what she sees as a completely collaborative writing process.
With the publication of Lizards under her belt, Trujillo is looking ahead to writing two more contemporary romance novels as part of an informal trilogy. Each book in the series will be standalone but feature characters from previous books to create a larger, shared universe of love stories centering Latinx and Indigenous characters and cultures. Because as opposed to other writers who add to a legacy that already exists in the publishing world, she felt like “there was a kind of a hole that I was trying to fill” as she was writing, like she was an answer to what she’d been searching for in stories since her early days of reading: characters that share her cultures, characters that look like her and live happy, fulfilling lives. Hopefully, she’s not the end-all-be-all for the Indigenous romance genre but only the beginning. She notes:
“I always wanted to see people like me and my friends on screen. And that doesn’t happen. When I’m watching Hallmark, they’re always white. When I read romances, they’re always blonde and white. And as great as that is, it’s hard to connect and envision yourself in this romance, to see it as happening to you. I dreamt about being the love interest in a book or a movie, and we deserve to be able to actually envision ourselves in it. We’re not of the past, we’re very much alive. We hold on to our culture and our past as much as we hold on to growth and change. So it’s really important to see us in all facets of the world doing normal things like being an archaeologist or working at an urban Indian center or being a teacher or the mayor. We can do the same things as everyone else and I want us to be able to see that.”