I’ve thought about starting a “Women in Fiction” blog series for over a year now, and today it becomes a reality because really, why haven’t I started doing this already? Every time I’ve considered this concept and how I would approach it, one thing hasn’t changed: the first female character I’d feature.
Nola Céspedes is a character I connected with immediately. She’s the Cuban-American protagonist of two Joy Castro-penned thrillers, Hell or High Water and Nearer Home. Both novels take place in contemporary New Orleans, and neither Castro nor Céspedes shy away from post-Katrina issues of race, class, and gender. Céspedes herself is named for the city’s shortened moniker, something she doesn’t particularly relish since she’s critical of New Orleans. Though, to be fair, as a young reporter Nola applies a critical lens to almost everything.
In our first encounter with Nola, she’s investigating the disappearance of a tourist and takes advantage of her skills, her connections, and the city’s corruption to make headway. Castro brilliantly juxtaposes Nola’s investigation of the crime with details about Nola’s past, including traumatic events in her childhood she’s been attempting to repress through self-destructive behavior like overindulging in alcohol, bulimic tendencies, and sexually compulsive tendencies like picking up strangers at her favorite soccer field.
These things alone should ensure that Nola isn’t a role model, but there’s something compelling about her, about the way she finally confronts her demons and recognizes she needs help. In Nearer Home, we see Nola attempting to reconcile those behaviors, make her blossoming monogamist relationship work, and engage with her therapist. We also see her investigating a murder, and the victim is Nola’s former professor at Tulane. The second book is more personal, intimate:
she is more self-aware and less self-destructive, and she is a more reliable narrator. But she is also driven into emotional spaces that are uncomfortable for her, and it is when characters are most uncomfortable that they are most dynamic, when they reveal their truest selves or are capable of change (beware spoilers at source).
Nola is a character who is ambitious without being cutthroat or ruthless. As a young woman of color, she’s acutely aware of power dynamics and how they (typically) work against her. She’s tough but she isn’t impenetrable, and her childhood experiences demonstrate how women coping with trauma intertwine complex, sometimes conflicting feelings about their sense of self. I sometimes felt like Nola was battling against her emotions, her self-destructive and self-actualizing tendencies, society’s perceptions about who “she” was, and her own perceptions of how she fit into society.
Nola is beautiful, striking character who struggles and overcomes, not always in that order and not always through the means you’d expect (or want, or maybe even respect). She’s a far cry from the typical white guy detective/journalist, who’s all swagger and, compared to Nola, no substance. Her layers and choices make her fascinating, the kind of character I dream of writing (though one of my main female characters in my manuscript is named Nola, as an homage) and love reading.
If you love complex, dynamic characters and have an interest in intersectional feminist fiction, Nola Céspedes is a character with whom you should get acquainted.
Check back in this weekend – I’ll have a giveaway posted to win copies of both Hell or High Water and Nearer Home!
Thanks for reading! What do you think of Nola, and will you read Joy Castro’s books?