Author Donna Barba Higuera’s science fiction fantasy novel, The Last Cuentista (Levine Querido, 2021), delivers a fierce, authentic, and kind protagonist named Petra Peña, who must face the end of the world and do the unimaginable. Set years from now, it leaves you wondering about the present and future of storytelling, and more.
YVONNE TAPIA: Donna, it’s so great to interview you again, and this time for your second novel, The Last Cuentista! Que gusto. The female protagonist, Petra Peña, is a very strong contrast to Lupe Wong (Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, 2020). Who inspired Petra Peña?
DONNA BARBA HIGUERA: Thank you, Yvonne! I want to pay homage to the folktales that my grandmother told me when I was little and show how a child in the future would tell these stories. For Petra, the way she was asking things while her grandmother told her folktales is how I would feel sometimes. I think that my generation was constantly told that we had to be lawyers, doctors, or work in the sciences, and the same thing happens to Petra where she is constantly told that she should follow a specific career path, when she is a storyteller at heart. There is a sort of therapeutic aspect when it comes to writing, you can’t help but bring parts of themselves that need to grow and heal. I believe everyone else does so too most of the time. It also goes back to the topic of how stories are told.
Many cultures tell universal stories of very similar topics, etc. For instance, the ancient folklore on the flood has been told among many cultures, including the Aztecs in Mexico and Maasai and others in Africa, and they are two completely different continents. Even La Llorona was based on truth at some point, until it began to be changed by the storytellers. The story belongs to the storyteller, and Petra responds to her environment—in this case the bad being, The Chancellor—to shape her own stories. I had the opportunity to include [a story I heard when I was little], like Blancaflor, and change it.
YT: This really resonates with how I grew up listening to and reading stories as well. It also gives a nod to what author Daniel Nayeri references in his own debut novel about who owns the truth. What are the reasons you decided to write a science fiction fantasy novel?
DBH: The story came from a short story writing prompt. “Take a traditional fairytale and make it sci-fi.” I immediately thought about The Princess and the Pea, where we see that the princess is tested through sleep. I wanted to place value in the girl’s mind rather than how the original story is set up…
You’ll want to read this book twice, I love it!
P.S. that book cover art is out of this world! (unintended pun)