EPISODE 62. Writing in Two Worlds: How a Peruvian American Novelist Embraces Her Bilingualism

Natalia Sylvester’s newest novel for teens, Breathe and Count Back from Ten, was a 2022 Today Show Pick, and just recently won two awards from the American Library Association. Her newest novel for adults, Everyone Knows You Go Home, won an International Latino Book Award. The audio version of Breathe…, narrated by Frankie Corzo, won an award from AudioFile magazine. “I just love her work,” Natalia says of Frankie. “It’s such an incredible process when I listen to her narrating, to feel like someone understood it so much.”

And clearly, many readers love the work of this Peruvian American writer, who can immediately tell you why she writes.

“I really do feel that being bilingual is the reason I became a writer,” she says.


In this episode, Natalia shares how her home language of Spanish and her dominant language of English shape both what she writes and the words she chooses. From the age of four, when her family immigrated to the U.S., she has felt the power that words hold. She imbues that power in many of her characters.

For Breathe and Count Back from Ten, Natalia found an unlikely source of inspiration in David Copperfield, with the character who took command of words by writing his own dictionary. The young protagonist in Breathe…decides that she, too, will redefine words that are defining her.

Natalia takes command in her own way, through her bilingualism. Although she drafts her book in English, as she’s writing she will often reach for Spanish, which for her is “the language of the heart.” In balancing Spanish and English, she bridges these two worlds, making language an instrument for empathy.

As she told Steve, “I think there’s such beauty to say, ‘I’m going to dedicate my art and my efforts to capturing as best as I can this feeling or experience with words’.”


Listen on Apple Podcasts here: America the Bilingual by Steve Leveen; on Spotify; or wherever you listen to your podcasts.


Here’s an audio clip that is not in the episode but one we thought you would enjoy. After all, it isn’t every day that you can learn about mermaid myths.

In her conversation with Steve, Natalia explained how Veronica, her main character in Breathe, dreams of becoming a performing mermaid. As she was developing the idea, Natalia decided to explore mermaid myths. She uncovered several of them in
Peruvian literature, which you’ll hear about in this clip. Dive in!

A 2022 Today Show Pick. Recipient of two American Library Association awards in 2023: the Schneider Family Award and the Pura Belpré Award.

Winner of an International Latino Book Award

Natalia also spans two other worlds: she writes for both adults and teens. This is another novel for teens.


Thanks to members of the America the Bilingual Project team for this episode: Fernando Hernández and his production house in Guadalajara, Mexico, Esto No Es Radio, which provides sound design and mixing; Mim Harrison, editorial director of the project, who also wrote and directed this episode; and Karla Hernandez at Daruma Tech, who manages our website.

Music selections in this episode include in order of appearance: John Bartmann with “Umlungu”; Kevin Macleod with “Quasi Motion”; Monplaisir with “A Good Start”; Loyalty Freak Music with “Shoepop”; Komiku with “The Tablets”; Monplaisir with “Brother”; and TRG Banks with “Daybreak in a New Town“.

Meet the entire America the Bilingual team—including our bark-lingual mascot, Chet—here.

We welcome your comments here, on our new America the Bilingual Review page of Medium, and on Facebook.

Be sure to check out our Book page to see to see why one grateful reader calls America’s Bilingual Century “a must-read for every parent.”

Enjoy the book in your favorite format. Click here.


2023-03-01T09:06:06-05:00By |Episodes|

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