Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pittsburgh author's debut novel tracks two Peruvian-American teens on a 'search for clarity'

For bringing two mismatched characters together, there are few narrative schemes as time-tested as the road trip. In Pittsburgh-based writer Angela Velez’s debut young adult novel, “Lulu and Milagro’s Search for Clarity,” the twist is that the road buddies are a pair of high school-aged Peruvian-American sisters from Baltimore on cross-country bus tour of colleges.

Lulu’s the studious, careful one, with an interest in conservation biology and National Geographic podcasts on her phone; Milagro, though older, is the more impulsive sister, and her main project when we meet her is “Operation Don’t Die A Virgin.” Add a third sister, Clara, who’s already away at college, and their mother who fears losing more daughters to far-flung institutions of higher learning, and you’ve got the basis for a memorable coming-of-age story from this Peruvian-American novelist.

Velez, 33, did grow up in Baltimore, and is the daughter of immigrants. She said she was always more of a Lulu, though with aspirations toward free-spirited Milagro-hood. She came to Pittsburgh several years ago to get her master’s degree in creative writing; her advisor was Angie Cruz, a Dominican-American author whose own debut novel, 2001’s “Soledad,” was one of the first books by a Latina woman Velez read as a teenager.

“Lulu and Milagro” is published by Balzer + Bray, a young adult imprint of HarperCollins. It covers a lot of ground figuratively as well as literally, from setting life priorities to navigating family dynamics. Velez comes by its collegiate themes and scenes honestly: After graduating from Columbia University, in New York City, she worked as an admissions officer there, and took a lot of work-related road trips herself.

In the novel, “I wanted to really look at how college admissions, the conversations about college are maybe slightly more nuanced or different within an immigrant household,” she said. “And for these three daughters who have seen the sacrifices that their mom has made to put them in private school, to send them to college. Clara is the first sister that goes far away for school, and from the outside it doesn’t seem to be quite going so well, and so the mom is trying to recalibrate, and both Milagro and Lulu are feeling the ramifications of whatever’s going on with Clara.”

The novel alternates chapters narrated by Lulu with chapters in Milagro’s voice. This excerpt, from Lulu’s narration, encapsulates some of the drama:

But even as we get busier and busier, we were still a bonded atom, the Zavala sisters. In quantum theory, chemical bonds keep atoms in line, keeping them from turning into bombs or floating away. If Clara were here, she’d tell Milagro to leave me alone, and then we'd work together to figure out whatever Milagro had up her sleeve. But Clara is at college in Iowa, leaving Milagro and me unstable. We are electrons buzzing around for reckless energy that can't be contained. Occasionally we collide, and sometimes I even think we're finally bonding. Until Milagro says, “Can you please stop talking about nuclear fission? It's very boring.”

Velez lives in Lawrenceville and teaches writing at Pitt (which makes a cameo in the novel in the form of Monongahela University, a fictionalized version of the school the girls visit).

“Lulu and Milagro” was published Feb. 8, and Velez said she’s already gotten a strong response.

“It's been really it's really incredible,” she said. “I didn't let that many people read it before it came out. So to finally see my friends going through it and laughing has been really remarkable, but also just perfect strangers who I’ve never met before who are tagging me on Instagram or on Twitter and are saying, ‘This is this is something that I went through or this is what my family was like.’”

She said she is working on a second novel – another young-adult venture.

“I love, I love writing about teens,” she said. “I think there's something so powerful about....the first time you go through something, whether it's a first kiss, whether it's the first heartbreak, or for those authors that are writing dystopian novels, like the first time you take down a totalitarian government! … And I think when you are 15, when you're 16, is the first time you're really seeing and feeling a crisis of faith, and a realization that the institutions around you, the government, your parents, the church, school, might not be serving you and might not always know what's best for you. And whether you choose to make your own path, that choice is fascinating, and it's so raw and angsty, and I just I like to linger in that.”

She is particularly excited to be making strides as a Peruvian-American young adult author.

"I've gotten a lot of tags from Latinx readers, but I also so many Peruvian teens who have said, ‘I don't see that many Peruvian authors out there,’” Velez said. “Right now. It's me and Natalia Sylvester, whose writing is incredible.”

“I have this dream that there will be more of us, as I think when you can see yourself in a story, you know that it's possible to write your own story, and you know your story has value and worth, and it shouldn't take seeing it in print for you to feel that. But sometimes that's what it needs,” she said. “And so this idea that I could possibly inspire a Latin teen, a Peruvian-American teen to start telling their story, is like the things dreams are made of.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: