Welcome to the many vibrant worlds of award-winning writer Daniel José Older.
In his "Bone Street Rumba" fantasy series for adults, protagonist Carlos Delacruz is half dead and half alive, negotiating a world in which the dead speak and walk among us.
In the "Shadowshaper" series for young adults, artist Sierra Santiago reclaims the power of bringing art to life, a legacy of spirit that gives power to her work as a muralist.
In his most recent novel for middle-grade readers, “Dactyl Hill Squad,” heroic young people battle evil forces at work during the Civil War — and do it all on the backs of dinosaurs. And watch out: Those dinosaurs will be heading to New Orleans in the next book in the series, due out in May. A novel for adults, “The Book of Lost Saints,” an epic tale of a Cuban-American family, will be out this fall. (Entertainment Weekly presented the cover reveal last week.)
Mick Jagger and Katy Perry will help blow out the candles on the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s 50th birthday cake this spring.
Older fell in love with New Orleans almost 20 years ago.
“When I was 18, I took a year off from high school, bought a beat-up Toyota and drove to California," he said. "I took my time getting there, and my third or fourth stop was here. I came here and fell in love with the city.”
After years of back and forth, he moved here for good in December 2017. “I was in Brooklyn for 14 years, and I love Brooklyn deeply, but it was just time,” he said.
He and New Orleans are a good match. He brings an embarrassment of creative riches with him: He’s a writer of blazing, inventive talent, a musician (check out the music on ghoststar.net) and a committed human rights activist.
His writing is urgent and action-packed; it is easy to see imagine him as the paramedic and bike messenger he once was. His novels are often praised for their diversity — all of his protagonists are people of color — well, except for Han Solo, in the Star Wars novel “Last Shot.”
He is a supporter of the We Need Diverse Books movement, the goal of which is “to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”
“Dactyl Hill Squad” is a fascinating mash-up of Civil War history and dinosaurs. It began as a single detail in a history book, Leslie Harris’ “In the Shadow of Slavery,” which mentions a family of Cuban girls who were left at an orphanage in New York and years later reclaimed and returned to Cuba.
That is how Magdalys Roca, the protagonist of “Dactyl Hill Squad,” came into being. She discovers her powers as dinosaur wrangler, and she and her fellow orphans rise up to fight against the evil Richard Riker (based on a real historical figure) who kidnapped some of her fellow orphans to sell into slavery in 1863.
Here is the complete, day-by-day lineup for the 2019 New Orleans Jazz Fest, a celebration of the festival's 50th anniversary.
“People were literally kidnapping New Yorkers off the street and sending them down South to the slave trade,” Older said. “The history is so rich. And a resistance was taking physical action, organizing, and there were Underground Railroad stops. That’s what we see in ‘Dactyl Hill Squad,’ digging up those histories that white supremacy has buried.”
And the dinosaurs? Pure creative license. “I’m a fantasy writer, first and foremost,” Older said. “I see things through the lens of myth and magic. When I added dinosaurs into the mix, I got excited. … I kind of tricked myself into writing this historical novel. I was adding the dinosaurs to give myself a little wiggle room. If anyone ever challenged me and said, ‘Gettysburg was actually a month ago,’ I could say. ‘Whatever. Were there pterodactyls there?’ ”
In the Squad’s next outing, “Freedom Fire,” Magdalys and her friends of both the human and dinosaur variety join forces with the Louisiana Native Guard and eventually come to the Crescent City. Older promises there will be giant turtles pulling streetcars along St. Charles Avenue.
Many of his protagonists are young women, like Sierra and Magdalys, who are flexing their muscles, acquiring real power in their lives.
“They have to be! We don’t see that enough,” Older said. “Lots of times, female characters are often diluted into just being badass. That’s not really a character, it’s just an opposite. It’s an attitude. If we just do the opposite of a stereotype, it’s not enough. ... A lot of these stories are about young people taking a step forward into adulthood, finding a way to raise your voice in the world and make a difference.”
His work is informed by a deep spirituality, which also puts him in sync with the Crescent City.
“I was raised Catholic and Jewish — so that’s a lot of spirit right there. But I’m a practicing santero. That’s a part of my family history that I had to go find out more about and explore. That’s what spiritually spoke to me more than either tradition I was raised in. I’m still Catholic and Jewish in certain ways, but my spiritual life is really as a santero. We have a deep and conversatory relationship to the ancestors in our work.
“For santeros, in our houses, we have altars for our ancestors. When we cook, we put down food for them. When we’re confused, we smoke cigars with them and we hang out with them. It’s not like they’re jumping out of closets to eat our brains. It’s talking about what’s going on in life.”
That conversation with the ancestors continues in his “literary” (“I always put quotes around literary,” Older said) novel, “The Book of Lost Saints,” coming in November.
Writing, of course, is work of the spirit. “Writing is a lot like prayer in that you’re in conversation with the universe,” he said. “Prayer is also listening, not always asking for something. Sometimes it’s just saying, 'Thank you.' That’s the most powerful prayer I know, just to be grateful on a daily basis.”