LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Not so long ago, there was another economic downturn that hit young people especially hard. In the Great Recession, it was hard to find a job, any job, if you were just starting out your career in particular. That's the setting for Elizabeth Gonzalez James's debut novel called "Mona At Sea." Nothing is going right in Mona Mireles's life. It's 2008. The recession has taken Mona's job away from her before she can even start. Her parents' marriage is on the rocks, and she spends most of her days trying her best to avoid other people. It's the story of how an overachieving millennial loses her footing and struggles to get her life back on track, which, let's face it, has some resonance today. Elizabeth Gonzalez James joins me now. Hello.
ELIZABETH GONZALEZ JAMES: Hello. Thank you for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a pleasure to have you. You started writing this book back in 2011. What inspired it?
GONZALEZ JAMES: It was inspired by my own experience of long-term unemployment. I went back to school in 2007 to get an MBA, and I graduated in 2008. And I applied to between 300 and 400 jobs, and I didn't get anything. It was awful. And my husband was lucky enough, fortunately, to get a job, and then we decided to start a family. So I actually started writing as a way to kind of not lose my mind, and the story was absolutely inspired by my own experience of unemployment. I was just really angry, and I had a lot to say about it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, let's talk about Mona. She is an overachiever. The way that she's described in the book is as someone who has done everything right. You know, she's angry, like you were.
GONZALEZ JAMES: Yeah. Absolutely. And I was a straight-A student, you know, like Mona, and I still was unable to get a job. And it's really frustrating because I think that my generation, millennials - I'm an elder millennial or, as I've recently learned, a geriatric millennial. My generation was told, you know, stay off drugs. Stay in school.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your payday will come.
GONZALEZ JAMES: Yeah. Your payday will come. Exactly. And then there just wasn't anything waiting for me. I don't want to sound entitled or any of the other negative things that get applied to the millennial generation. It - that doesn't take away from the frustration of living through that experience, and I think that's a really common thing that a lot of people are facing now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I mean, millennials are the biggest generation. And what I think the book captures really well through sort of the - some of the absurdities that Mona faces is this idea that, at the same time - and you touch on it there - there's this dual narrative about your generation that kind of coexists and is encapsulated by Mona's experience.
GONZALEZ JAMES: Exactly. I mean, when you're facing the economic circumstances that my generation has faced, which - you know, we lived through the dot-com bubble burst, the collapse of Enron, the Great Recession, and now whatever is going to come next after COVID - it's like, well, when were we supposed to build equity? When were we supposed to be able to save up to buy a house? It's just - it's disingenuous to apply the same economic principles that were at work for previous generations to my generation or to generations that come forward because life just isn't the same.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the other things in this book is Mona's mixed-race identity, like your own. It's woven throughout her journey. Would you mind reading about some of that to us? It is the part where she talks about the difference between her and her brother, Danny.
GONZALEZ JAMES: Sure.
(Reading) As Danny likes to point out when I decline picante sauce or come back from the beach with sunburned shoulders, our parents had one Mexican kid, him, and one white kid, me. Looking at a family photo, it would seem my father and mother independently budded us like hydra, Danny growing from a lump on our father's neck and me from our mother's. His gentle teasing is well-intentioned but underscores the truth that my skin tells a different story than my last name, a contradiction I wear into every job interview and family reunion.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is also based on your own experience of being half Mexican. You also converted to Judaism. And you wrote about finding a secret history of your own in the journey of sort of discovering your connection to that religion.
GONZALEZ JAMES: Yes. Absolutely. So in researching my second book, which is based on my father's side of the family, the Mexican side of the family, I did a deep dive into my family's ancestry, and I found out that they were actually Spanish Jews. They were Spanish Jews who fled Spain during the Inquisition and went to Mexico, where they actually faced a second inquisition. And they practiced Catholicism in public, but in secret, they were still, I believe, practicing Judaism.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's fascinating. I mean, that's a, you know, a sort of unknown chapter of Latino history. I guess, you know, knowing that about you and reading this book, what struck me is that, you know, America is a place that likes to pigeonhole you, and it's hard to have a mixed sort of identity. What was your experience with that growing up? I mean, has it been difficult to navigate?
GONZALEZ JAMES: I - when I was growing up on the border, I had blue eyes, and so kids at school and stuff would call me white. But then as I've traveled and lived in different places with the last name Gonzalez, people will tell me, you're Mexican. So which one is it, you know? And it's taken me a long time to be able to stake out my own identity and say, I'm Latina. I look white, but this is who I know I am. This is what's inside of me. And it's my right to be able to claim that. It's definitely something I still struggle with. I still feel like, do I have the right to write Mexican characters? Is it an authentic story coming from me?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is your first novel, and it speaks very much to your experience and how you have gone through the world as a millennial and the things that you've had to endure and face. I'm wondering what you think the impact of that will be. Do you think it'll change the narrative around, you know, your generation?
GONZALEZ JAMES: I certainly hope so. I count myself really lucky that I was the absolute last class to graduate from college before YouTube and before cell phone cameras became ubiquitous. In the book, you know, I talked about Mona's worst moment in her life going viral. That's something that - it's so difficult, I think, for people to have empathy for the subjects of these viral videos and to have empathy for a generation, the very first generation in the history of the world, where your every move, your every thought, everything is recorded and catalogued and preserved forever. You know, so cut us some slack, man.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think we should leave it there. Those are good last words.
GONZALEZ JAMES: OK.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizabeth Gonzalez James - her new book is "Mona At Sea." Thank you very much.
GONZALEZ JAMES: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.