For some teens, there is a very clear path to the future: Finish high school, go to college, get a job, start a family. But, novelist Michelle Ruiz Keil asks, “What if you weren’t able to do that path and you were on your own and trying to create your own meaningful rites of passage?” What does it look like to create your own life from scratch when you’re barely out of childhood?
That’s the central question of Keil’s debut, All of Us With Wings. Fleeing trauma and loss, 17-year-old Xochi, who is queer and biracial (Mexican American and white), finds herself in San Francisco working as a governess to Pallas, the precocious child of a group of polyamorous rock stars. Keil jumps among perspectives as Xochi—and the nature spirits she and Pallas accidentally summon—upsets the balance of this unconventional family. “My stories’ bones are made of fairy tales,” Keil says, and she doesn’t mean the Disney kind. The book casts an uneasy, but nonetheless magical, spell on the reader.
But the story never feels too far from reality. “For me, magical realism is kind of an everyday Tuesday,” Keil says. “It’s reflective of how I experience the world.” Despite their unusual lives, the characters are recognizably, and stubbornly, human.
Xochi is challenging in exactly the way a teenager with no supervision and a lot of sorrow might be. She gets a tattoo, tries drugs, and has ill-advised sex. “They may not be perfect choices, but things can feel really empowering and even be empowering to you at 17 that you look at later and think, that was more complicated,” Keil says. It was important to Keil to empower Xochi to chart her own course.
For a reader today, the most surprising part of the book is probably its depiction of a San Francisco where punks and pagans outnumber yuppies and tech bros. “I wanted it to be in the time before the city changed,” Keil says. She didn’t settle on an exact year, but the prevalence of cassette tapes, the lack of cellphones, and the post-punk vibe suggest the late ’80s.
That was the version of San Francisco Keil fell in love with when she left home for the city at 17, much as Xochi does. “The city itself had a healing power for me,” she says. “There was something about how beautiful it was and the way the sky looked and the buildings and the way you could be anonymous but not feel alone.”
Keil had a long and unconventional journey to publishing a novel. She met her partner at 21, went back to school, had two kids, finished college, worked with nonprofits, and started a small indie theater before she ever considered writing a novel. She never thought then that it was something she could pull off. But she was inspired to try when she agreed to teach a class at her kids’ school for National Novel Writing Month and thought her participation might help motivate the students. That book eventually became All of Us With Wings.
All of Us With Wings counters the idea that an unconventional path is necessarily an undesirable one and that bad decisions necessarily lead to bad outcomes. “That path doesn’t always lead to destruction,” Keil says. “Sometimes when we are at that edge we learn how to catch ourselves and pick ourselves back up.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.