“My Writing is My Activism”: An Interview with Isabel Quintero




UPON ITS PUBLICATION in 2014, Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces (Cinco Puntos Press) was named one of Kirkus’s Best Books of the year, as well as a “Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers” by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). The novel has also won a number of awards, including the William C. Morris Award for Debut Young Adult Novel and the 2015 Tomás Rivera Book Award, and has been placed on reading lists in high school and college classrooms.

Gabi tells the story of a teenage girl coming to (messy) terms with the pressures of a complicated life: body image, teen pregnancy, coming out, rape, drug addiction, love, death. The book has been variously described as a “fresh, authentic and honest exploration of contemporary Latina identity” (Kirkus), as “sad, honest, raw, bold, and hopeful” (Teen Librarian Toolbox), and, I think most notably, as “joyous” (Booklist).

I’ve known Isabel for over 15 years, since she was a first-year student at CSU San Bernardino, sitting in almost the back row of my composition class. Then, as now, she was curious, almost shy, and more talented than she knew. Over the last six months, we’ve been emailing questions and answers for this interview. It’s hard to catch up with her, since she’s busy writing, and helping coordinate readings for the nonprofit organization PoetrIE in California’s Inland Empire. Until recently, she was also teaching part-time at a community college and working as a library technician. These days, she’s reviewing galleys for her upcoming children’s book from Scholastic Press, Ugly Cat & Pablo, and writing a YA graphic novel for the Getty.

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JACKIE RHODES: So, why Gabi? The name, the book … 

ISABEL QUINTERO: Growing up I often felt alone in a lot of my experiences, for many reasons. One of the reasons, I’ve come to realize, is that oppression by omission worked really well in my public school experience. There were barely any women writers taught in my English or history classes, and definitely less non-white folks. When I started writing Gabi, it was during a moment of crisis — I had just failed as a high school teacher and needed to look closely at myself and who I really was. I thought about those experiences, about expectations of me as a woman, as a Chicana, as a wife, a daughter of immigrants, and a lot of it made me angry. I thought about the conversations I had had with other women my age and how they had gone through similar things and how we had felt alone, and how we weren’t alone. At the same time, I was taking a Young Adult Literature class at CSUSB, and Gabi just started talking to me. This was in 2007. The name Gabi just felt right. It didn’t mean anything extra special, except that I went through a list of names and Gabriela was the most fitting.

I grew up in Corona and Riverside. My grandparents lived in Corona and since they were the ones who watched me and my brother, we went to school there, but we lived in Riverside. My mom worked in the kitchen of a convalescent hospital until I was in junior high, I think, and later as a teacher’s assistant at a private preschool for children with special needs. My dad worked installing cabinets in new tract homes. Whenever I drive on the 91 going toward Orange County, and I see the homes on the hills, I think about how much my dad worked in homes we could never afford. It’s strange to think that some family in some suburban home, most likely a white family, opened and closed doors in kitchens and bathrooms where my dad worked relentless hours, while we sometimes had to collect cans to get by. That is a strange paradox in which to exist. For a long time we struggled. One year, we even got a Christmas basket and a voucher to the Salvation Army to buy clothes. That same year, Mr. Alfred, my sixth-grade teacher, gifted me the entire Goosebumps collection (it was the early ’90s, so it wasn’t very big yet). We were the poor kids. I still have a stuffed bear that I keep from all those gifts, as an artifact of where I’ve been. My parents worked hard for my brother and me, but we had our own kind of dysfunction.

When I was in high school, things were a little better, but attending a mostly white school in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with mostly white teachers will definitely do a number on your self-esteem and sense of belonging. I used to joke that I didn’t know I wasn’t white until I got to college. I mean, I knew I wasn’t, my parents are Mexican, but in school there was no acknowledgment of our different cultures and how we are all part of the social fabric of this country. We were taught to assume that we were all descendants of British colonizers and that our history was one of brave resistance. And I guess it is, we do have a history of resistance, but we were not all resisting the same oppressor. This negation of our existence, and the omitting of our stories and histories, is one of the reasons I write — I write to exist. We cannot escape our past; our past determines what choices we make for the future. It determines how we act, how we see ourselves. Of course, I’m not only speaking about familial pasts, though those definitely inform our behaviors. I was talking to a poet friend and she was saying how past traumas — our parents’, our ancestors’ — affect our lives and the lives of our descendants, and we don’t have a say in this.

What’s been the reaction of your family and friends to Gabi?

My family has been great. I don’t think my mom has read my book, and my dad won’t,  and I am happy he won’t be reading it to honest. But both of them are proud. My brother has also shown a lot of support, as well as my now-former husband and in-laws. As for my friends, I couldn’t ask for better friends. I couldn’t have done it without them.

Do you know why your mom hasn’t read your book?

You know, I’m not sure if she’s read it. If she has, she hasn’t told me about it. Part of it might be because she prefers to read in Spanish, but also maybe, since she knows what some of it is about, she just would rather not. I’m okay with that.

How did you come to writing?

Writing is a way for me to control things — emotions, narratives, outcomes. In 10th grade, I read E. E. Cummings, and I learned that language could be manipulated in so many different and beautiful ways. It’s interesting how it took a dead white guy to teach me that but that’s how it happened. I started writing shitty poems and then just never stopped. Sophomore year of college I took a Chicano lit class, where I read Michele Serros and realized that I could use all my languages — Spanish, English, Spanglish — in my writing and that my experiences and reality were worthy of poems. But fiction, that took me a few more years to get to.

I’ve only ever taken poetry workshops. After reading Cummings, I was smitten with poetry. It was an awakening of sorts. I saw myself as a poet before I saw myself as a fiction writer. Later, I started reading novels in verse in a YA class I was taking at Cal State San Bernardino, and I realized that I could write both fiction and poetry. Initially, Gabi was a novel in verse. Along the way, an agent said she wanted exclusive opportunity to consider it if I would switch from verse to prose, so I did. She never got back to me. But poetry is still fundamental to my writing. I am part of a poetry critique group, and being in it has helped me grow as a writer. I cut a lot of things from my writing because I am constantly asking, “Do I need this? How could an image work better here? Word choice?”

Being part of a writing community has been one of the most efficient ways I have learned to write; we are honest with each other and push each other to do better. I have an MA in English Composition, but I didn’t go through an MFA program. I was lucky enough, however, to make friends with people in MFA programs who would look at my work and give me critical feedback. These folks are amazing; many of them have published poetry collections. I’ve learned how to write from so many people — authors, teachers, workshop community, and even from friends and family who are excellent storytellers. For example, one thing I learned from taking poetry classes at CSUSB was discipline and revision. Revising in a way that we shouldn’t be scared of: burning it down and working with the ashes. That was huge for me.

Could you talk a bit more about that? How do you revise? Do you have disasters that will never see the light of day, or do you manage to always salvage something?

Revising is a lot like love: sometimes you don’t want to let your manuscript out of your sight and you work on it and work on it, trying to make to stronger. And other times you want nothing to do with it, and you can’t even stand the sight of it. I just realized that maybe I have an unhealthy perspective on love. Ha. But it’s true. Revision also depends on what I am working on. If I am working on poetry, usually I have some poet friends look at my work and they’ll make suggestions. If it’s children’s or YA fiction, my editors at Scholastic — or, now, the Getty — will look at it. Zeke Peña, the cover artist and book designer for Gabi, is also pretty good at guiding. I like to read my work out loud and revise. I ask myself, does this sound right? Does this make sense? Are there extra words here? I think the poet in me really helps with the fiction because I can cut extra shit out. At least, I like to think so.

What’s surprised you in the last couple of years — about your writing? About yourself? About Gabi?

So many things. One, that maybe I am a better writer than I originally thought. Or better yet, that I am a writer. For some, this may seem like one of those situations where the statement, “You can be anything you want to be!” would be appropriate to insert, but that is not true for everyone. For someone like me, who never saw her culture reflected in K–12, never knew there were Chicana authors writing about our culture, our lived experiences, our American realities, it was hard to see myself as a writer. Thankfully that changed at CSUSB. I used to think that only white folk could be writers; I mean, that’s who we read. That’s who still pretty much has a hold on the American canon, right? I remember looking through an anthology for a lit class, and Juan Felipe Herrera was categorized with writers from Mexico. I couldn’t believe it. Here was this Chicano, this American poet, now our poet laureate, othered.

Sometimes it feels like we’re constantly othered until it’s convenient to fulfill some sort of diversity quota, and editors and publishers can say, “See, we included so and so; we’re diverse,” as if they’re doing us a favor instead of actually representing the whole landscape of American literature like they should be doing. This also means that I’ve learned how white the publishing industry really is, and how uncomfortable it is with our presence and the shift that we are making happen. It’s cool, though — no sweat off my ovaries. I’ve learned that I am not here for other people’s comfort — that I am as ocicona, as my mom feared. Sometimes I just can’t keep my mouth shut, but I’m getting to be okay with that.

I think, overall, that Gabi has taught me how to love myself and find worth in my voice. Worth that I hadn’t acknowledged. Also, I learned which book festivals have the best food in their greenrooms. So there’s that.

On the heels of the awards for Gabi, I’ve noticed you’ve done a lot of traveling to conferences, given numerous readings, et cetera. Can you talk a bit about a day in the life”? What keeps you going? What gets you up? What gets you down?

It really depends on the day. Sometimes I’m procrastinating, visiting my parents or friends. Often, I’m just sitting in my living room/office or at my kitchen table, pantsless, hair unbrushed, with a mug of black coffee, typing, reading out loud, and cursing at my work for not coming together the way it needs to. Some days, I am at Augie’s Coffee in Redlands so as to not get distracted by things like laundry or dishes. I go for walks in the hills by my house or for a short jog at the gym. The school year seems to get busier; conferences, schools, and libraries begin to request visits and so I travel a bit more. 

You’ve done more than just read at your events — there’s been scrapbooking and zine-making. What inspires that?

I like the idea of getting the audience involved in the reading — it’s less boring that way. The scrapbook’s purpose was twofold: I wanted there to be a record of my travels and the folks that came to the readings, and also I wanted to take their voices to the different cities and states I visited. Sometimes I still take it but it also depends on the venue and the time allowed. Eventually, I’m hoping to update my website with it.

Why young adult literature?

Why not young adult literature? YA literature is literature. It’s about a universal topic: coming of age. Yes, the intended audience is young, but I think that a good story is a good story, and a bad story is a bad story, no matter who the audience is. I think we underestimate young people all the time. I’ve met folks who have trouble seeing YA as “real” literature because it is not for adults and therefore the assumption is that it cannot be complex or compelling. Fuck that. I’ve read books that were supposed to be for adults that I had to put down because they made my head hurt, they were so bad. One of my favorite books of the last few years is Jack Gantos’s Dead End in Norvelt (2011), a dark comedy for middle-schoolers. Though, you know, I understand some of those misconceptions because I used to have a similar attitude. This was, of course, before I read K. L. Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World (2003) and Juan Felipe Herrera’s CrashBoomLove (1999). I have repented and changed my ways and am a much better person for it. Or, at least, not so narrow-minded.

I think that (at least among my friends and colleagues), YA literature is really hot. Good stories, interesting plot twists, intricate characters. It really draws people in, if you know what I mean. But I’m wondering … what do you think makes good literature?

It’s easier for me to point out what makes bad literature: forced language, too much description, poor word choice, writing things just for shock value, shitty plots, clichés, lack of research, lazy writing, people who are trying to write “diversely” for the sake of diversity. Good literature is the opposite of that. The reader should be invested in the characters and in the world the writer has created. When the story is over, the reader should feel something — anger, sadness, happiness, dread, hope — something that suggests that the story lives beyond the page. Bad literature is a dead wet rat.

What are you reading these days? 

I am trying to whittle away at my TBR [to-be-read] pile. Trying to read more comic books and graphic novels. I am reading my first serial comic, Bitch Planet, right now — it’s so good. I’m also reading Pointe by Brandy Colbert, a YA novel about ballet, abduction, and eating disorders, as well as Herrera’s Notes on the Assemblage, a collection of poetry by our US Poet Laureate. Sooooo good. On deck are: Nepantla: Essays from the Land in the Middle by Pat Mora and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

You are known for posting portrait of a writer” pics on Facebook. Always fun. How do you see yourself as a writer, and do those self-aware photos help construct that?

I started taking those pictures because I think it’s funny that people have this idea that authors live some exciting or eccentric life. I had that idea, too. But it turned out to be me trying to get work done and wondering if the pool in my apartment building had been cleaned. So, not so eccentric. Also, I have to remind myself that I am writer. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that that’s what I am. For a long time I thought writers could only be white; the pictures are kind of like a “this is what a writer is, Isabel. You are a writer.” And, I try not to take myself too seriously.

What are you working on now? How do you make time for it?

I am currently working on the second book in a middle-grade series for Scholastic about a cat and a mouse who are friends, Ugly Cat & Pablo. That series is due out in spring 2017 (I just got the galleys in December). I am also working with Zeke on a YA graphic novel biography of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, which will be released fall 2017 with the Getty. It will be a very busy year next year. Also, a poet friend and I, Allyson Jeffredo, are putting together a Trump Zine. That should be fun. And poetry, always working on poetry.

Currently, I’ve been fortunate just to dedicate myself to writing, and not have two full-time jobs, so making time is easier. It’s also a bit tougher to manage my own time now that there is no one telling me when to come in and when to clock out. The good thing is that I make my own schedule and the office is always open.

What else do you want people to know about you and your writing? 

I don’t like bullshit or pretentious attitudes. Fancy literary events make me nervous. I mean, I’ll go, but I often feel out of place there. But the question is probably getting at something deeper. Ha. My writing is my activism. I had always talked about the power of writing and how it could change things, because it had changed my life. Other writers’ work changed how I saw the world and how I thought about things like patriarchy and white supremacy. It taught me to call those things by their name. Most importantly, their work taught me to question everything. I would like my work to do that; to have readers question things they had otherwise accepted.

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Jackie Rhodes is a professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University.



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