by Eva Marquez
Isabel Cruz was fifteen years old when she met Tom Stevens. She was 15 when they started dating, and 16 when she lost her virginity to him. By the time she turned 18 and went to college, everything had fallen apart. This hadn’t been an ordinary love, though. Not a love between two dear friends, or even high school sweethearts. This had been the most taboo sort of love there was: a relationship between a student and her teacher. Isabel started her high school career as a normal student, but set her sights on Tom Stevens as soon as she met him, and pursued him with an intense – and sometimes reckless – fascination. When he finally approached her after swim practice and told her that he shared her feelings, it was the start of a forbidden and dangerous relationship.
I realized suddenly that I had gone from one extreme to the other in a few weeks. That was a mistake, and people were bound to notice. I couldn’t backtrack now, though – the damage was done. What was I supposed to say? “Yeah, I'm staying away from Mr. Stevens because I don’t want anyone to know I’m making out with him after practice” would never do.
“You know, he was pretty cool at first," I replied as nonchalantly as possible. “But one day I was late for practice and he made me go to the diving pool to swim laps. I’m not going to hang around with him if he’s going to be such a jerk, you know?”
That answer must have been good enough for Vicky, because she lightly tapped my shoulder and then jumped into the water to swim off. I laughed as I watched her swim away; she was doing the butterfly – badly – and bumping into other swimmers as she shimmied from side to side down the crowded lane. My smile faded, though, when I realized that she was probably voicing what everyone else had noticed as well. My sudden change of attitude had been just that – sudden and unexpected – and people were going to wonder why. I had to come up with a better story, and quick, or change my behavior again and hope that no one else said anything.
I wasn’t sure which option was best, or which would cause me more pain. Our late- afternoon rendezvous were becoming more and more intense, and my senses were becoming fragile. When I walked toward his classroom, now, I knew that there would be more physical contact, with less clothing. We hadn’t gone all the way yet, and Mr. Stevens was always very careful about my feelings – he asked me if I was okay with what we were doing every five minutes, it seemed – but we were both getting braver, and closer. I didn’t know if I could be close to him without really wanting him, but I was afraid of getting hurt.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was also starting to fall in love with him.
Q: Relationships between students and teachers is a really controversial issue in the media today. What inspired you to write about this in your debut novel?
A: I grew up as an immigrant in a lower-to-middle class Southern California suburb. So I tapped into that experience in ‘Sweetest Taboo’, which chronicles the love affair between a young Hispanic schoolgirl and her much older, married teacher. I drew from my experiences growing up to develop several plot ideas. Romantic experiences are universal. Provocative, illicit and risqué contexts do not take away from the experience of love, and that’s what this debut book sets out to communicate.
I was also intrigued by the news of one of my former teachers being convicted of [sexual] misconduct with a minor. Since I can remember, I have always been fascinated by similar stories making the news, but like many people, wondered about how these relationships originate and how they flourish under the radar. In Sweetest Taboo, I got to unravel one of these clandestine relationships, one exciting page at a time.
Q: Is there an instance where you feel that such a relationship should be taboo?
A: Even as I developed what I felt to be a very powerful and emotional love story in ‘Sweetest Taboo’, I do feel that such a relationship is and should be taboo. The fact is that young students should be free to attend classes without worrying about advances by their teachers and/or coaches. For the most part, I believe that to be the case in our society. However, in ‘Sweetest Taboo’ it was evident that Isabel was the one pursuing her coach and not the other way around. So is that relationship taboo, even though she instigated it. Well…yes. Mr. Stevens should have warded off her advances and he should have been the ‘adult’ and professional that he was hired to be. Perhaps this was a case of love at first sight and Mr. Stevens was swayed by what he sincerely felt was love for Isabel so the relationship was warranted? That is up to each reader to decide for him/herself. I did not include judgment in ‘Sweetest Taboo’, therefore each reader can develop their own judgment about this love story. Back to the question, though, I think student/teacher relationships should remain taboo and if a student/teacher pair finds love I believe it’s most prudent for the teacher to hold out and wait until the student has graduated and is of legal age to consent.
Q: What is the on thing you want readers to get from your book?
A: Because my books deal with controversial topics, cross and intersect genres and do not fit into neat little boxes, I ask my readers to be prepared for the journey. My novels are not for everyone, and those who are disturbed and bothered by stories that push the envelope or challenge societal norms would likely not find my literary work appealing. So in essence, this is a bit of a warning to potential readers and/or followers. I do not intend on writing for all audiences, as that is almost impossible to do. What I can and have committed myself to doing is writing about what I know, writing about my own contexts, environments and experiences and pushing those to the limits to create controversial stories that inspire people to perhaps think out of the box, which is very much what Ms. Adichie and Ms. Alvarez have done with their literary work. To my future readers and followers I also say, thank you! For every reader and follower I have, I am that much more enthused to write and develop characters that challenge our existing comfort levels and perceptions. I would also ask any future readers or followers to contact me if they have any questions about anything I have written, or about my future work. Many of my ideas for character development and plots come from discussions I have with friends, colleagues or people I’ve met casually at a lounge, bar or book store!
Q: Did you write with a playlist in mind?
A: I wish I were that clever! Actually, as I wrote the book I was inspired by songs that meant a great deal to me as I was growing up, songs that inspired me, songs that made me emotional, and songs that reminded me of past loves and heartaches. Since this story is about the love and heartbreak of a high school girl, I thought it would be most appropriate to tip off the reader with a song title in order to foreshadow the contents of the upcoming chapter. It made perfect sense to me, and because songs evoke such strong emotions, especially as we first discover music, love and freedom during our teenage years, I couldn’t help but title each chapter after a song that had some sort of impact on me, emotionally.
Q: Plotter or panster?
A: Definitely a plotter. My inspiration for ‘Sweetest Taboo’ came in spurts, but those spurts were carefully jotted down in a notebook as chapter titles and brief descriptions of what I wanted to include in each chapter. Plots, characters and timelines were all carefully plotted which made the writing process flow. Because of the comprehensive outline, I was able to develop each chapter at one sitting. However, as I wrote I also became somewhat of a panster, weaving new plots, characters and climaxes into each chapter. In essence, my writing process can be described as highly organized and plotted, with room for creative ‘interventions’ when the inspiration hits.
Q: What are some authors that have influenced your writing?
A: There are dozens of authors I admire, but two that have captivated me with their work are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Julia Alvarez. Ms. Adichie is Nigerian-born and now living in London and I think I had an instant connection with her work because I lived/worked in Nigeria for two years and was able to really get to know the southern Nigerian culture and context because of my work in the communities. Her first book, Purple Hibiscus, resonated with me because of my experiences in Nigeria and her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun, was so expertly written and wove four amazing human and social stories that I fell absolutely in love with her prose and skill for telling complex stories. Ms. Adichie writes about what she knows well, Nigeria and Nigerian culture, history and society and because she does so, her books include incredibly sincere stories. Julia Alvarez is a Dominican-American who writes primarily adult fiction, although she has also written young YA fiction as well, which are characterized by fantasy-type series. My favorite all-time book from Ms. Alvarez is In the Time of the Butterflies, which is a uniquely narrated book written in the perspective of four sisters growing up in the Dominican Republic under the dictator ship of President Trujillo. It’s superbly narrated and the story just tells itself effortlessly, it seems. Another book I very much enjoyed was How the García Girls lost their Accent, which is a story about Dominican immigrants to New York and their journey into mainstream American life. What these two authors have in common is that they are strong, confident and experienced women writing fiction about their natal lands, writing about their contexts and weaving extraordinary stories of strength and love in times of adversity.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Although I did not intend on ‘Sweetest Taboo’ being part of a series or trilogy, I decided that my next literary project would embark upon the story before the story, so to speak. Readers really want to know what Isabel was thinking when she became intimate with her school coach, they want to know how she could have gotten herself into such a mess, a mess that involved the authorities and potential prison time for Mr. Stevens, the man she loved most. So what I am doing is writing the prequel to ‘Sweetest Taboo’ that explores Isabel’s childhood and early adolescence as an immigrant in a Los Angeles suburb. Readers can expect complex and somewhat disturbing revelations, some violence, and definitely some tears. Then of course, there will be a sequel to ‘Sweetest Taboo’, where readers will learn about Isabel and Tom’s journey and what their relationship had in store for them. The stories I weave will always include trials and tribulations, but they will also include redemption and hope.
Coach Stevens and Vicky were waiting for me outside of the girl’s locker room. As soon as Vicky saw me, she gave me a nod and ran ahead toward the swimming pool, leaving Mr. Stevens and me to walk alone. This should not have been an awkward moment for either one of us; he was my coach and I was a swimmer on his team. Time spent alone before a meet should have consisted of some last words of wisdom or encouragement. Perhaps we would have discussed the races I was to swim, and my chances against the other team. We may also have talked about the classes he taught, and whether I would be using them to pad my transcript in the next two years.
Instead, though, we said nothing, and the thirty seconds it took us to walk to the poolside were slow and tense. I searched for words that would break the silence, but came up with nothing. This was the chance I had been waiting for – Mr. Stevens was walking next to me, with no one else around. I could have said anything I wanted. But my mind stubbornly refused to tick, and my lips remained glued together.
I noticed instead the confident momentum of his walk, and the proximity of his body to mine. He was close to me – almost close enough to graze my hand with his own. Certainly closer than he should have been. He seemed to tower over me, although he was only about 6 inches taller than I was. That height comforted me; I felt protected in his presence.
He must have felt the awkwardness of the silence, too, because he stopped walking and turned toward me. I stopped in turn and looked up at him.
“Isabel, are you nervous?” he asked quietly.
I had been so preoccupied with my thoughts and fantasies that I replied without thinking. “No, you don’t make me nervous.”
He drew back, confused, and I felt my cheeks flush crimson. I had misread the situation, and grasped for a way to save the conversation.
“Um, what I mean is, are you trying to make me nervous about my event?” I asked quickly, smiling. “If you are, it’s not working,” I forced another bright smile and ducked my head, looking up at him through my lashes.
He laughed and placed his hand on the back of my neck, pressing his fingers softly to my skin. I stopped breathing, reveling in the feel of his fingertips caressing me. He leaned forward to speak closer to my ear.
“You’ve got nothing to be nervous about, young lady. And you certainly don’t need to be nervous about me.”
I blushed again, and he released me. He had understood my statement, then, and seen through my attempt to cover the mistake. I looked up at him and smiled, then turned and walked toward the pool. As I put my cap on, though, I turned to look at him again, and caught the smile that lingered at the corner of his mouth. My heart hammered at my ribcage and my knees grew weak, but I forced myself to turn away and focus on the upcoming meet.
AUTHOR Bio and Links:
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, daughter of European immigrants, Eva Márquez has spent most of her life outside of her home country. At the age of five, Eva accompanied her parents to the United States, where the family settled permanently. After graduating from university, she went on to complete graduate studies in International Relations in Spain. Eva received her Master of International Studies degree from the University of Sydney and went on to work in the global health field in Sub Saharan Africa and South East Asia. Eva currently resides in Southern Africa.
www.SweetestTabooBook.com (website AND blog)
www.facebook.com/Sweetest.Taboo.YA.Book (FB Book page)
http://youtu.be/flff2TcA4AQ (Official Book Trailer on YouTube)