Imagine an ethereal performance, one full of captivating magic and fragile memories. Now imagine mermaids gliding in the water and fairies dancing in the shadows. Like other great fairy-tales, Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel The Weight of Feathers brings those enchanting fantasies to life.
But unlike other great fairy-tales, the idea for her story began with a photo shoot. “A couple years ago, a photographer friend had me out in the woods while wearing a set of wire and cloth wings, and the idea for the book snuck up on me. Women swimming in mermaid tails and winged tree performers. Those two images coming together fueled the story.”
The Weight of Feathers follows Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau, two teens caught in the middle of a long and continuously growing feud between their families. For the Palomas and Courbeaus are traveling performers. The Palomas entertain with a swimming mermaid show while the Courbeaus enthrall from the trees. When Cluck saves Lace’s life, the two slowly begin to fall into a love that is forbidden on both sides.
“Ever since my father told me about how, in his twenties, he saw a mermaid show, I’ve been taken with the idea of performing mermaids.”
At the beginning of the novel, Lace makes her debut in her family’s show, finally gaining a spot in the water alongside her female cousins. To resemble mermaids, the girls wear handmade tails. To differentiate the personalities of the performers, each costume is made with a different color.
Lace’s tail is pink, McLemore’s favorite color. But Lace’s tail color symbolizes more than that.
“In the cultures I come from, pink represents the space between being a girl and becoming a woman,” said McLemore. “For Lace, it marks her transition into life as a Paloma mermaid, joining her older cousins.”
Lace’s pink tail isn’t the only influence in the novel. Most of the novel is inspired by McLemore’s culture.
“I’m Mexican-American, and writing the culture I came from was important to me both because we need more Latinx main characters on shelves, and because it felt true to the story,” said McLemore. “The Palomas and Corbeaus aren’t based on anyone specific, but many of the Paloma traditions were inspired by my own heritage.”
For example, both families are very large – so many members are introduced throughout the book that readers could wonder how the author kept track of them all. And in the text, McLemore never specifies an approximate number of people in each family. “I didn’t specify the number of family members in the book because I never thought of a specific number,” said McLemore. “Off the top of my head, I’m not sure I could even tell you how many people are in my own wonderful, big, extended Mexican family!”
While McLemore is proud of her Mexican heritage, she also wanted to write from a culture hadn’t experienced first-hand. “Early on, I knew I wanted to write a Romani family. My personal reasons for wanting to write Romani characters is a long story for another time, but part of why I thought it was important is because there are so many misconceptions about Romani people, especially in [America].”
“Many people don’t know that the word ‘gypsy’ is a slur; it doesn’t mean someone who likes to travel. And many people don’t know the history of persecution Romani people have faced.”
In order to portray a Romani family accurately, McLemore researched extensively and consulted a Romani scholar. “Among the many things I’ve learned from [the scholar]are that Romani culture is as various as Latinx culture, and that the traditions I grew up with have far more in common with Romani tradition than I ever guessed.”
At first glance, The Weight of Feathers appears as a magical love story – and while it is, it’s one that contains rich details of cultures and characters of color. “I’m thrilled to be debuting and that [my novel]is being released in a year where there’s so much discussion about the need for diversity in literature. I feel blessed to be able to talk openly about being a queer author of color, and that Lace and Cluck, and their heritages, are coming to life during this conversation.”