Honestly, I’m not one to watch the Grammys, the AMAs, the People’s Choice Awards, or even the Oscars. But I do tune in religiously to the announcement of the winners of the Youth Media Awards every January at ALA Midwinter. As with any award, I am awful at picking nominees and winners (good thing I don’t gamble!), but I always have my favorites.
I was able to attend Midwinter in Chicago in 2015 (during a rather spectacular blizzard) and meet Isabel Quintero, whose debut novel Gabi, A Girl in Pieces was up for the Morris Award that year. And Gabi won! We are really excited to have Isabel on TSU today to talk about Gabi and the writing process.
P: Gabi talks a lot about the accusation that she’s “trying to be White” or “not Mexican enough” when she’s just being herself. Was that something you experienced and used for her character?
I: Well, there are two things that are going on. The first is that Gabi’s mom is constantly worried about Gabi being a good girl–a good Mexican girl– and her mom has a clear idea of what that means. A good girl is pure, doesn’t question cultural, gender, or societal expectations, and she doesn’t talk back. Even though Gabi is technically an American, her mom doesn’t see her that way. For her mom, Americans are white and Gabi is not, and any behavior that deviates from what Gabi’s mom expects from a good Mexican girl means that Gabi is trying to be something she is not. Being bicultural is a tough road to navigate sometimes, and that is definitely something that I experienced growing up and even as an adult. My mom definitely had good girl and bad girl outlined, and I was usually not a good girl. Now that I am older, she and I can have discussions and talk through things and I can assert myself and tell her, “Look, this may not what you expected of me or how you think a woman should behave, but this is the kind of woman I am.” I think that what we ignore is that there is no one way to be Mexican or Chicana, however stereotypes reinforce single narratives which in turn people take as fact.
P: The body positivity and and love of food that Gabi has is so refreshing to read. What was it like to write that aspect of her?
I: Funny you should ask. It was both easy and difficult. Easy because that part of Gabi was very Isabel. I’ve struggled with body image issues my whole life and it wasn’t until after 30 that I started really loving my body. I look back and think of all the time I had spent hating it and punishing myself for not being thin, and it’s heartbreaking. When I wrote the book, I was having Gabi tell herself things that I wish I would have been able to tell myself before, in the hopes that young women reading it would realize that we need to love our bodies, all of our bodies because they are the only one we have. And it is tough to undo years of family and society telling us that we need to look different, but it can be done. Sure, sometimes I still struggle but for the most part I’m okay and happy in my skin. The food part, that was super easy because I love to eat and always have. Food is always on my mind.
P: Did you ever get any pushback for including two teen pregnancies and a coming out in your story?
I: I’ve heard and read some folks say, “It’s too much stuff,” “That can’t possibly happen in one year,” and I’m like, “Yeah. It can.” Again, when we stick to a single narrative of what it means to be a teen, in this case a Chicana, an American teen, we don’t allow space for the plethora of experiences had by teens across the country.
P: Gabi is one of the most real books I’ve ever read–and when I booktalk it to teens, they always take it. In fact, I rarely see it on my library’s shelves. What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten from teens about the book?
I: This is a tough one. I’m glad to hear that your teens keep the book circulating. I don’t like hearing teens say, “I hate reading,” but it makes me feel good when they say, “I hate reading but I love your book and now I want to read more.” Or when I get emails from readers that tell me that it’s the first time they’ve seen themselves in a book, that it’s like I’m writing about their life, that makes me feel like I’ve done my job.
P: Gabi’s Boys Will Be Boys list is something I’ve read out loud to coworkers and teens. To me, it’s the teen feminist version of Amy’s “cool girl” monologue in Gone Girl, only with fewer homicidal tendencies. A lot of adults underestimate how much teen girls have simply accepted men’s sexist behavior. What role do you see YA literature playing in changing this narrative?
I: (Hides face in shame) I haven’t read Gone Girl, but thank you for reading “Boys Will Be Boys” out loud. I am particularly proud of that section. I think YA can definitely combat what is acceptable in regards to sexist behavior. Folks underestimate the power of YA and young people. When I think about how much Michele Serros’ Chicana Falsa or Sandra Cisneros’ Loose Woman helped me see myself in a more complete way, as a young woman who could be sexual, who had a voice, who had something worthy enough to say and to be heard, I know that there is a great power in literature. Those books were not YA but I think the same reasoning can be applied to YA; if feminist literature is put in the hands of young people (not just young women) and the work is discussed, it can surely change the narrative of misogyny. I mean think about YA that has romanticized the idea of a boy coming into your room at night to watch you sleep and how that idea has been proliferated. Yeah, YA definitely has a role in changing the sexist bullshit we are taught to accept.
P: Carne asada or hot wings?
I: Oh man. This is a tough one. It depends on where the carne asada is from and what kind of tortillas are used. Nothing ruins a delicious carne asada taco more than crappy tortillas. If wings, lemon pepper and buffalo. With beer, always beer. Or ginger beer.
Thank you so much, Isabel! If you haven’t read Gabi, A Girl in Pieces, I strongly urge you to check it out. And be on the lookout for three (yes THREE!) new books from Isabel in the next year!