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Ursula Villarreal-Moura examines sexuality, gender identity, and toxic relationships in debut novel, Like Happiness

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Ursula Villarreal-Moura — Photo by Levi Travieso  

Ursula Villarreal-Moura was born to write, though she spent many years doubting how much she had to say. Though she had written several short stories and published essays, she held on to self-doubt and feared she'd never gain the chops to become a full-fledged book author.

"In graduate school, I considered myself a born short story writer like Raymond Carver," she said in an interview with the SGN. "The prospect of writing a cohesive novel overwhelmed me. I doubted I had the necessary skill set."

Then, in the second year of her MFA program, Villarreal-Moura discovered a story within her that could not be contained. "I wrote a short story that outgrew its boundaries," she explained. "At some point, I had to admit I had a novella on my hands. A classmate gave me feedback on it that amounted to about a full page of questions. The only thing she wrote other than her questions was the statement, 'I want to know more.' I realized that if I answered all her questions — which by the way were all good ones — I would be writing a novel. Only then did I take the plunge."

That plunge would ultimately become her debut novel, Like Happiness. It is a complex look at the experiences of a young, Queer, Latinx person grappling with the destructive relationship that cost her ten years and left scars she was unable to process. At times a difficult read, Like Happiness explores the dynamics of imbalanced relationships, gender identities, and what it means to heal from past traumas.


Inspiration and exploration
The inspiration for the novel came from Villarreal-Moura's desire to express her feelings about the complex topics in the story. "I had a lot I wanted to say about gender, power, and sexuality," she said. "I found it challenging to write about social topics within the framework of fiction, but challenging in an intellectually satisfying way, so I kept at it."

Like Happiness also gave her the chance to explore how her sexuality and gender identity have shaped her own coming-of-age story through the lens of her main character, Tatum. "Bisexuality shaped my late teens, my twenties, and the beginning of my thirties quite a bit," she admitted. "My style was also androgynous, or gender-fluid, on and off for two decades."

Villarreal-Moura felt that writing her novel gave her a stronger connection to the LGBTQ+ community she is a part of, especially since she doesn't always feel visible in it. "Now that I'm married and working from home, I don't have as many outlets for Queer culture. Writing Like Happiness was a bit of a salute to my queerness. Creating a Queer protagonist solidified a part of my identity that some people can't see or chose not to recognize. I made her Queer, because representation matters."

Like Happiness is for anyone — except the close-minded. "[This book is for] people of color, Bisexuals, women, readers interested in learning about other perspectives or cultures," Villarreal-Moura said. "For people who have a conniption whenever they see a word in Spanish..., this book is probably not for you."

As for anyone on the fence about Like Happiness, Villarreal-Moura admits she's experienced similar responses from critics, but those who opened the front page with an open mind were pleasantly surprised by what they encountered. "A few early reviewers admitted to being skeptical about the novel but soon found themselves enjoying it. That seems like a promising sign."

In the future
While gender, expression, and sexuality are the buzzing topics in her first novel, Villarreal-Moura has much more to explore in the future. She is now drafting her next books, examining global politics, war, and propaganda.

"I'm working on two manuscripts right now," she said. "One is a memoir based on my father's draft into the Vietnam War and the physical and psychological repercussions that had on my family. The other is a novel about a writing instructor turned activist. It examines the relationship Americans have with the news media. Just as I once had plenty of ideas about gender, self-actualization, and sexuality, I'm eager to explore propaganda, media, and learned helplessness."

Like Happiness will be available to purchase on March 26, 2024.