With national recognition, Harrisonburg author NoNieqa Ramos extends her literary activism

By Charlotte Matherly, contributor

Being the author of a book that the Library of Congress will showcase might sound like the ultimate honor, but that’s not how Harrisonburg writer NoNieqa Ramos defines success.

Ramos views her job as something much more important: empowering young people.

Ramos’ book “Your Mama” — a picture book about a single mother and her daughter — will take its place in the Library of Congress on the “Great Reads from Great Places” list this September alongside books from each of the other 49 states, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Virginia Center for the Book announced June 9 it selected “Your Mama” as the commonwealth’s pick.

Sitting at a cafe in Harrisonburg, Ramos sat on the edge of her seat and talked emphatically with her hands. 

“Each book is a platform for me to be able to reach young people and to share a message,” Ramos said, choosing each word deliberately as she drove home her point. “Each book has a different opportunity for me to use my voice.”

And she has sought to channel that voice to lift up and advocate for those in marginalized communities. 

‘A playful lyricism’ 

“Your Mama,” illustrated by artist Jacqueline Alcántara, is an ode to Ramos’ own family. The child of a single parent, Ramos said she wanted to bring attention to a kind of family that has always existed yet not been adequately represented. 

Ramos’ style is simple, yet meant to be a bit provocative: She flips the convention of the “yo’ mama” joke as a way to celebrate different kinds of families. 

One page reads, “Your mama so sweet, she could be a bakery.”

“[I] take ‘your mama’ jokes and flip ’em around and smash the patriarchy and make a book that’s … celebrating brown and Black mamas and revering them,” Ramos said. “[I get to] sing those praises and kind of bring honor to all those hard-working parents out there who are gonna do it with no shoutout.”

Sarah Lawson, associate director at Virginia Center for the Book, said in an email that Ramos’ work will also be added to two permanent collections in the Library of Congress: the Virginia Humanities and the Young Readers Center collections.

“We love that ‘Your Mama’ is accessible to readers of all ages and that [it] embodies a playful lyricism,” Lawson said.

Ramos, who is Puerto Rican and uses she/they pronouns, said she prefers the gender-neutral term Latinx. She said she doesn’t see many joyful stories about people of color. While it’s important to acknowledge system oppression, she said, Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) deserve to be shown in happy narratives, too. So, she created her own.

“It’s powered in jubilation and joy and focusing on all the powerful parts of what it means to be a brown or Black person,” Ramos said. “It has nothing to do with struggle.”

Harnessing the power of story

NoNieqa Ramos (Photo courtesy of Ramos)

Ramos’ writing — and her literary activism — extends beyond “Your Mama.” She wrote two young adult (YA) novels, “The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary” and “The Truth Is.” Her YA novels tackle tougher subjects like homophobia and racism — things she’s struggled with for most of her life.

“We’re in a situation, all of us, where we cannot avoid being affected by racism or systemic oppression,” Ramos said. “No matter what your belief system is, we have all been affected by these problematic institutions.”

Ramos’ partner, Harrisonburg City Public Schools Superintendent Michael Richards, said she’s a “brilliant writer” with “gorgeous” technique. 

“To apply those talents to activism is a whole other dimension,” he said.

“Human beings are moved by stories,” Richards added. “We don’t tend to take action and make change to make the world better if we’re not moved to do so … Doing what she does through storytelling is very powerful.”

Ramos said she hopes her writing can help kids navigate childhood and growing up. 

She also said it’s important to acknowledge the messiness of adulthood and the difficulty of figuring out one’s identity. Her goal is to get “super uncomfortable” with her readers.

Her first book, “The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary,” came out in 2018 and follows main character Macy as she tries to make sense of her father’s incarceration and Child Protective Services taking custody of her brother.

“I wanted to reflect some of the kids that I was seeing that were good kids but a mess, just a hot mess,” Ramos said. “How can they not be [a hot mess] when we don’t talk about these things and we don’t get uncomfortable?”

Amy Fitzgerald, the editorial director at Lerner Publishing Group who edited both of Ramos’ YA novels, said she remembers coming across “The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary” while reviewing submissions. She said she was immediately gripped by the voice” and the main character, Macy. She convinced her boss at the time to buy the story, and two years later, Ramos’ first book was published.

During that time came countless back-and-forths of edits, notes and reviews. Fitzgerald’s job was to fill gaps in the narrative, making sure the characters and plot connected throughout. However, she saw something vital in Macy as a character, specifically her voice and what she was dealing with.

“I tried very hard not to do anything editorial … that would soften that or would sanitize it or would sort of gear it to be more palatable,” Fitzgerald said. “I tried very hard to respect the story that NoNi was telling and the character she created … even when that was emotionally difficult.”

Ramos’ priority is to make her readers feel safe, loved and cared for. If everyone is on attack or defense all the time, she said, it’s impossible to change. But if people can come together, talk about art and be vulnerable, humanity can begin to move forward.

“It’s about all of us recognizing each other and seeing each other and affirming each other and getting better and, you know, being the best people that we can be,” Ramos said. “The whole idea of honoring and respecting and loving each other … It’s not impossible. It’s just hard.”

Helping to fill large gaps

In addition to her books, Ramos extends her passion for activism for marginalized communities to the writing world. She said in an email that as of 2019, Latinx authors account for only 6% of books. Meanwhile, 83% of authors are white.

That’s why she’s part of Las Musas — “a collective of women and non-binary” Latinx YA and children’s authors. The group, which started in 2018, aims to celebrate and spotlight diversity within the industry. In her work with Las Musas, Ramos has written blog posts, organized online protests, managed social media, helped publicize members’ books and worked on panels and proposals about combining the craft of writing with social justice.

Ramos said she hopes to give other Latinx authors a leg up, just like Emma Otheguy did for her, and she noted that writing — and all kinds of art — are better in community.

“I think there’s the sense that there has to always be competition,” Ramos said. “We and our collective … are all about uplifting each other, and it’s just absolutely cathartic and exhilarating to know that success isn’t always about pushing hard, but rather, just helping each other up.”

Ramos said awards like Great Reads are fun, but that’s only a minuscule part of success in her eyes. For Ramos, success is being able to help her readers, other writers and her community. 

She said it’s been difficult to get narratives of joy and adventure in the publishing industry. She said one of her children is LGBTQ and came to her and told her there have to be books about the “potential trauma of coming out.” 

But do they all have to be like that?

Ramos raised her eyebrows and threw her hands up in frustration. 

“No, they don’t,” she said.

Ramos wants to take care of the kids who read her books, educate them and protect their mental health. But, she said, it’s important to also provide space to play and have fun. Making a difference in her audiences’ lives is the epitome of success, and it’s most gratifying when she receives messages from readers.

She recently received a letter from a young transgender boy who thanked her for writing the book. He said it saved his life. 

She believed him, Ramos said, because when she was that age, books saved her, too.

“If I am nurturing, and that doesn’t mean shying away from the tough topics at all, but if I am making them know in the end they are nurtured, loved, cared for and important, then that’s a massive success,” Ramos said. “If this book were to go up in flames and then that reader, he said, ‘That’s the book that made it so I went one more day,’ then that’s my purpose.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that Ramos said what she meant by a particular quote was that she hopes to empower children.

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