“Everything changes when you move to a new country. Doctors become cabdrivers. Lawyers become waiters. My mom, who was once a glamorous TV star, became a maid.” Or so Camilla de Valle (Cammi), teen narrator of Veronica Chambers’ YA novel The Go-Between,would have folks believe.
Cammi’s mother, a Mexican telenovela superstar, has chosen to flee her paparazzi-plagued life for the relative obscurity of Beverly Hills—and she only plays a domestic on TV. But when Cammi’s fellow students at posh Polestar Academy assume she’s the “poor kid of some hard-working maid,” Cammi embraces the chance to escape her stifling ultra-privileged Mexican American Princess life and step into the role of “cultural undercover crusader.”
Chambers, whom we reached by phone at Stanford University where she’s currently a JSK Journalism Fellow, says The Go-Between explores the unsettling perception gaps faced by immigrants. “As someone who traveled to the U.S. from another country when I was small, I feel very familiar with this gap—between who you were in another country, and who you are perceived to be in this country,” Chambers says. “Then there’s an additional gap between who you’re perceived to be and who you aspire to be.”
The Go-Between also examines stereotypes accompanying the immigrant experience. Chambers says she’s often been “the only black person, the only Latin person or the only person of color—or some combination of the three—in a lot of circumstances. I was writing about the kinds of interactions that I’ve had and the kind of things I’ve heard.” Her exploration exposes a lot ofassumptions and insensitivity, especially when Cammi’s new Polestar friends Willow (who is biracial) and Tiggy (who introduces herself as “a garden-variety white girl”) try to draw her out during “Mexican Cultural Hour” (aka lunch period). “Did you ever date a drug dealer?” asks Tiggy, who justifies her line of questioning by reminding Cammi, “We let you into our country…the least you can do is engage in a little honest dialog.”
Chambers dedicated the book to her young daughter, who’s read and re-read it “about 20 times” which pleases (and slightly embarrasses) the author. But Chambers understands her daughter’s engagement.“She attends a bilingual school; she has friends from all different backgrounds. So it’s really a relevant question in her life.”
The author also finds it interesting how strongly her daughter dislikes the character Tiggy. “I really wanted to write something where it wasn’t so easy to say that one friend was racist and the other one wasn’t. In this book, everybody kind of makes mistakes, and everybody kind of grows up a little bit in the process. But each time I say that to my daughter, she says, ‘No, Tiggy makes unforgivable mistakes. And she didn't grow up at all.’”
Asked to distill a bit of advice for other young readers trying to engage in their own challenging conversations, Chambers pauses and offers this. “You know, we like to say there are no bad questions. But anyone who’s had an honest conversation about race and culture will tell you that there are a lot of questions that feel bad, both to ask and to answer.” It helps, she says, to know that “it’s sticky. That you may be curious and have the best intensions and still make mistakes. Knowing that doesn’t mean you shouldn't do it— but being aware of it makes you that much more of a compassionate, engaged person in the process.”
Jessie Grearson is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Falmouth, Maine.