When novelist Mario Alberto Zambrano was a little boy, his imagination was piqued by a colorful deck of cards. Loteria is a Mexican game that's a lot like bingo, if bingo was full of vivid imagery. Instead of announcing numbers, the dealer turns over illustrated cards while calling out a riddle that corresponds with the picture — a spider, a rooster, a mermaid, a bottle.
Zambrano tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that he used to wonder if those pictures were significant.
"I would ask my mother ... 'Are these tarot cards? Can we, you know, tell someone's fortune if we deal them in a certain way?' And she would laugh at me and sort of say no, you know, they're just a game. But I think as a kid I'd always wanted them to mean something more."
So in his debut novel, Loteria, they do. Each chapter corresponds to an illustrated loteria card, and the book also presents a series of riddles — episodes in the life of Luz, an 11-year-old, Mexican-American girl in the custody of the state. With her sister in intensive care, her mother missing and her father under arrested, Luz has lost the ability to speak about her situation. But with the help of her loteria cards and a notebook, she slowly reveals her story.
On how Luz's notebook and loteria deck shape the novel
"I tried to inhabit her mind and her voice, and I knew that I wanted her to be sort of mute and unable to speak about what had happened to her. And I wanted her to have a dialogue with herself and sort of with a higher presence so that she could have the freedom to evaluate who she was as a person, who her family members were as people and what her past was and what it meant and how she had gotten here. And I thought the cards were a great way to sort of direct her."
On Luz's relationship with her violent father
"I think it's a complicated relationship that she has with her father because, of course, she's a witness and victim of his abuse. But at the same time, she sees his circumstances and she empathizes with how hard it's been for him to move to America and to try to make a better life, not only for himself but for his family."
On finding the narrator's matter-of-fact voice
"There's a lot of who I was as a young boy in Luz, in terms of questioning God and also my questions on identity — whether I was American or whether I was Mexican. But then there was something in the terms of, like, I've never been in an abusive family and I don't, I can't really comprehend what it would really be like. But I tried to take on and empathize with her so much that I think when her voice arrived, from that moment onward I was just sort of tuning into her voice."
On how he transitioned from professional ballet dancer to novelist
"I am still trying to answer that question. I started dancing when I was 11 years old and I was so passionate about it and it went really well. But I think I went so fast through that career that I crashed, and so I quit. And I had no idea what in the world I was going to do.
"And I started taking classes of literature and I fell in love, because I'd always had a creative itch, you know, from the dancing. I wanted to be a choreographer — and I was a choreographer. But to be a choreographer, your instruments are people and you have to be very sensitive to them, and it's a completely different dynamic. And so finally I had found something where I could, in a sense, choreograph a ballet, but on the page, and I could move them around. You know, the words and sentences are like phrases of dance movement.
"But I won't ever dance again, that's for sure. It would be way too painful. And I'm happy with the idea that dancing was my youth."