Ophelia Rojas knows what she likes: her best friends, Cuban food, rose-gardening, and boys – way too many boys. Her friends and parents make fun of her endless stream of crushes, but when she finds herself thinking more about cute, quiet Talia Sanchez than the loss of a perfect prom with her ex-boyfriend, seeds of doubt take root in Ophelia’s firm image of herself. Add to that the impending end of high school and the fracturing of her once-solid friend group, and things are spiraling a little out of control. Who is Ophelia, after all?
We chatted with the lovely Racquel Marie on heteronormative expectations and celebrating differences in identity.
First of all, absolutely loving the constant reference to Hamlet. Have you always known you will name your character Ophelia? Same for Hamlet being a constant feature in the book?
When I started writing the first draft of Ophelia After All during my second year of college, I had just finished studying Hamlet in a Shakespeare class and had to put on a very vulnerable performance of her “mad scene” for everyone. I tried to pull from the courage it took me to do that and put it toward writing about queerness and coming out, since I myself was still working out my sexuality at the time. As I continued revising the book, I was able to better work Hamlet references into the story—most notably with Ophelia becoming infatuated with flowers and gardening. But yes, she was always named Ophelia after the Hamlet character!
And of course, as seen from the cover, roses are highly featured as well. You poetically coined them as “contradictory cliches”. Is that why you pick roses instead of other flowers? How does this fit in with the complicated simplicity regarding self-identity?
Roses really beautifully tied together a lot of Ophelia’s character. They’re highly romanticized symbols of love and she’s a hopeless romantic, they’re linked to her namesake and she’s struggling with the legacy and expectations that have been placed onto her from a young age, they’re something Ophelia has developed a reputation for loving and she’s questioning who she is and what she really likes (broadly, and regarding her sexuality). So they did become a helpful symbolic tool for exploring her identity, in large part because she and roses simultaneously fall into some cliche pitfalls that she’s working to recontextualize.
And please tell us more about why it is important to differentiate between acceptance and erasure, especially for those who are facing similar struggles.
I think people conflate accepting differences in identity with ignoring differences in identity, with the latter often resulting in the erasure of the marginalizations and struggles that can come with said differences. True acceptance means acknowledging that society treats people differently based on their race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender, disability, etc. and working toward combating that unequal treatment. We cannot fix the problems of bigotry if we cannot even acknowledge that they exist.
Instead of being a sapphic romance, Ophelia After All focuses more on the relationship with friends, family and most importantly, oneself. Why did you decide to focus on these?
I used to feel a little robbed that going through the experience of realizing I was queer in a society that doesn’t exactly love queer people hadn’t initially resulted in a happily-ever-after romance. I wanted a consolation prize! But queerness has granted me community and freedom from a lot of my internalized, heteronormative expectations of what a happy life has to look like. I wanted to explore and celebrate these things through Ophelia for anyone else out there who shared a similar, less romantic coming out experience. (I do love sapphic romance though, and am releasing one called You Don’t Have A Shot in May 2023!)
Following that, the portrayal of friendship is also very realistic, such as the bumps from merging of friend groups, and the acknowledgement of how some friendships might fade after college starts. Have you always known you don’t want to create a “high school friends are friends for life” happily ever after?
I started writing this book when I was nineteen and still in the early months of my second year of college, so I was seeing in real time what distance and aging can do to high school friendships. I wanted to commemorate the importance of those friendships during that period of your life, even if they dont always last, while tying their temporary nature into the broader themes about growing up and embracing change.
And finally, we also get some really heartfelt moments between Ophelia and her parents. We don’t often read about the parents’ thoughts and feelings in YA novels. What do you hope for readers to take away from understanding Ophelia’s parents’ perspectives?
My parents played big roles in my teenage years, so it felt imperative to me that Ophelia’s parents play a similar role in hers. I wanted to humanize them for readers, showing teens that even their parents don’t always have it all perfectly figured out, while still validating Ophelia’s pain when it came to their misunderstandings. My goal is always to write interesting, multi-faceted characters in my books, and I don’t think parents should be exempt from that, especially in stories about their kids.
Get your copy of Ophelia After All here.