It’s a busy day at Augie’s coffee in Redlands. Amidst the crowd of people trying to get their morning coffee, a woman in pink hair stands out. This is Isabel Quintero, author of “Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.” Previously on The Strange is Beautiful, I wrote a book review on her novel and consider Gabi’s body image issues, living in a traditional Latino household and surviving high school as an authentic experience of what many teenagers face on a daily basis. We sat down to talk about her book, writing, mind obstacles and anything and everything in between.
How did you come up with the idea for “Gabi, A Girl In Pieces”?
IQ: I was taking a Young Adult Lit class at Cal State San Bernardino and before I took that class I really didn’t think about YA as something besides sparkly vampires. And so that class really opened my mind to possibilities of what YA could be. I went through a crisis where I didn’t know what the heck I was going to do with my life. I wanted to be a high school English teacher and that went horribly wrong. I started writing and thinking about my life and how I got to that point. I started writing Gabi. A lot of Gabi is me and a lot of it is not me. Readers always ask me if this book is about my life and the answer is yes and no. Growing up I did have a father who was an addict. So that part of Gabi is me. My dad, thankfully, is alive and sober right now. But it was something I constantly had in the back of my mind growing up, like, “will my dad overdose”? When are we going to get a call that my dad is dead? [ I had these thoughts] especially as a teenager. And with body image issues, I’ve always had those issues. So I wanted to write a book about a Chicana/Latina who was facing those issues because a lot of the books that I have read and portrayals of Latinas in the media is one dimensional. It’s a one story kind of thing. Especially Mexicans. “We’re all undocumented, all of our parents apparently worked in the fields and we all want to join gangs”. That was not my upbringing. Yes my parents were undocumented but they’re not anymore and they didn’t work in the fields, they weren’t migrant farm-workers when they came to the U.S. And I wanted to write about addiction and sexuality. Two big things that we don’t talk about in the Mexican community. I can’t generalize but it’s been my experience that we don’t talk about those things.
What was the hardest topic to tackle in the book? Would you say it was the addiction then?
IQ: I think so. I think that was tough. There were parts that I did try to pull back from my memory. What does that mean? To grow up like that? So I think that might have been tough, writing the father.
In your interview with Teen Services Underground, you state that a lot of the body image struggles that Gabi goes through came from how you used to feel about your body. Tell me about that.
IQ: Growing up, my mom was always concerned about my weight. It was a constant topic in our household. That I had to lose weight. I would hide food. I went through phases that didn’t last very long where I wouldn’t eat. I made myself throw up. It was tough being a teenager and constantly told that “you need to lose weight”. For my mom there was a lot of worry. Even though she raised me to be independant and not need a man, she was still concerned that I would never get married. One of those requirements [for marriage] was being thin. Like you want to be as good looking as you can be for a potential partner. She would say that it was about health. But for a teen, it’s rough. You’re already going through all these changes in your body. As I got older, throughout my twenties, it was a constant struggle. It still is because we’re bombarded with all these images and these expectations of how we should look. But once I hit thirty, I was like “I don’t give a fuck anymore”. [laughs] I don’t care. I’m fat. That’s just the way life is for me. I’m okay with that. I also find inspiration with fat activists like Virgie Tovar and Yesika Salgado, who I constantly look up to who completely accept their bodies and talk about the struggles of what that means and what that cost sometimes is. As a society, we’re not used to people loving themselves, especially not fat people loving themselves and seeing themselves as beautiful. That’s a struggle, but I think we’re moving in a good direction.
Do you have any affirmations or self care routines to help combat that?
IQ: With the body image issues, I would also have anxiety. [The anxiety] came from being in an unstable household. I have generalized anxiety and depression so hiking is a big thing for me. Hiking or running. I love to run. Those things make me feel better. It’s not about losing weight. It just calms my anxiety, which in turn helps with the body image issues. I’ll read things that Virgie Tovar writes, stuff that Yesika Salgado posts on Instagram. I’ll buy myself a shirt. I tell myself things in the mirror. Sometimes I’ll look at myself when I’m naked and I’ll be like, “I’m pretty happy. Yeah it’s fine. I’m cute.” I try to be positive. When my friends start talking about dieting and how they “need to lose weight”, I try to drown it out or do something else. Because [that talk] will get you sometimes too.
How has writing helped you?
IQ: Writing is a good form of control. For me, my anxiety makes me feel like I don’t have control over anything. I’ll have moments when I can’t even decide on my nail colors. [She shows me her nails which are each a different color]. Which is why I’ll often have multiple colors. Rather than just sit there and have the manicurist get frustrated with me, I’ll just pick a lot of colors. It makes it easier for everybody. That feeling of lack of control is gone when I write. I can do anything I want to a character. I can organize my thoughts. Flannery O’Connor talks about not knowing what you’re thinking until you write it. And I really feel that way. I like to write things out by hand. I semi-keep a journal. When things are really out of control, I just write through them. That’s a way that writing helps.
Do you see it as a form of self care?
IQ: Oh yeah. I think without writing I’d lose my shit. Without writing, I don’t know what I’d be able to do. Even if I wasn’t publishing, even if I didn’t have books out, I would still be writing. I’ve been writing for a while. Initially, I started writing poetry. I wasn’t publishing but I was writing. It was necessary for me so I could keep things at bay.
Gabi writes a zine and it seems to really sort her feelings out. What draws you to the idea of zines?
IQ: I’ll be straight forward, I do not consider myself a zinester. That zine was the first one I completed. There’s a bunch of zines that I have started but I had not finished. Recently my friend and I put together an anti-Trump anthology as a zine. It’s a collection of pieces from writers and artists across the country. What I like about zines is that they give immediate power to the writer. You don’t have to wait to traditionally publish. You have an idea and you can put it out immediately. You can pass it to as many people as you want. However many copies you make, is however many you can pass out or sell. I like that it’s subversive. For example, the anti-Trump zine. All the funds we get, minus the printing, goes to the Dreamers Resource Center at Cal State San Bernardino. A zine gives us power to do that. We don’t have to wait to find a press that will be interested in our project. We can do it immediately.
Do you also see creating zines as a form of self care?
IQ: For me, I’m working on this anthology as well as an anthology about bad sex stories. What I like about the zines, is the process. There’s a step 1,2, 3 and so on. While it’s stressful putting things together, deadlines, and trying to organize chaos because you have to think things through, it works for me. I like making lists. I like being organized. It gives me order and purpose.
Gabi challenges societal expectations on how women and girls are supposed to act in this book. Are there any real life or fictional counterparts that you would recommend that are similar to Gabi’s attitude towards these expectations?
IQ: Even though I talked about my mom having these expectations, I think that she’s a very strong woman. She does question these expectations. My mom left her country in her early twenties by herself. [She] came from a small town in Mexico. My grandparents pulled her out of school when she was in third grade, so she could be a “woman”. So she could learn how to be a wife. But she’s a fighter and strong. I’ve seen her talk back to police officers, she doesn’t keep her mouth shut. Yeah, there’s this side of her that’s constrained by these expectations but she’s constantly defying them. I’ve seen her help women in the community learn to drive when their husbands told them they weren’t allowed to. She would be like, “Fuck that” and she’d teach women how to drive because she’s like [to the women], “You’re going to be stuck at home?” So I think my mom is very strong in that way. I see her as a counterpart to Gabi.
Do you think that the slut-shaming and body-shaming that occur in the book have any correlation with each other?
IQ: I think so because the question there is, “Who owns a woman’s body?” That’s what it boils down to. Like who owns my body, who gets a say in what happens to my body or what I do with my body. With slut-shaming and with body-shaming, those two things are telling women “You don’t get to decide what your body looks like and you don’t get to decide what you do with it.” Those two things are definitely connected. I think when women start saying “No it’s my body and I get to decide what to put in it anyway I want. I can be fat. I can be thin. I can be whatever I want to be. You don’t get to decide,” it can start making people feel uncomfortable. So yeah they are definitely connected.
What difference have you personally seen in how body shaming and eating disorders are perceived in communities of color versus white/ affluent communities?
IQ: Yeah. We get mixed messages. A lot of my black female friends are told being bigger is not an issue. That’s accepted although white culture does permeate into communities of color and we get those ideals placed on us. In the Mexican community, for example, we’re generally curvier people. But because we have these European ideas of what beauty should look like as well as assimilation. [Assimilation] is another thing too. You want to look white, you want to act white. Because then you’ll be accepted as white. But no that’s not okay. But I do think those ideals do come into our communities. I remember getting mixed messages, and I still do from my mom. “No has comido nada”, you haven’t eaten anything. And then she’s worried about how much I’ve eaten. It’s like a constant back and forth. “Here is plate of tortillas”, and then “maybe you shouldn’t eat that many tortillas”. Like you just served me all this food. So it’s a constant battle.
You mentioned Sandra Cisneros as inspiration and your next project involves Graciela Iturbide, a Mexican photographer. It seems like Mexican and Chicana women are something that you like to spotlight. Are there any Mexican /Chicana women you wish more people knew about?
Michele Serros. I was introduced to her before Sandra Cisneros. She passed away a couple years ago but she’s this Chicana poet. She’s one of the reasons I write. I was writing [before] but she gave me permission to be as Chicana and Mexican as I wanted to be. Before that I only wrote in English. After reading her work, I realized I could write in Spanish too. Like, oh I could write about chicharrones. I could write about the body. I could write about sex. Just so many different things. She has this collection it’s called “Chicana Falsa and other stories of Death, Identity and Oxnard“ and it’s essays and poems. It’s really short and you can find it online. But there’s this poem called “Dead Pig’s Revenge” about a girl eating chicharrones and that poem completely changed my life. Gloria Anzaldua is another. I take it for granted that I think that everyone knows Gloria Anzaldua and not everyone knows who she is. But she was another feminist theorist that I really admire and wish more people would read. Because in her essay, “How to Tame A Wild Tongue”, she talks about language and the importance of keeping your language. How taking someone’s language is almost akin to genocide. Like you are eradicating people by taking their language. Her words I always keep. I always have “Borderlands: La Frontera“ at home. There’s also new and upcoming writers like Lilliam Rivera. She just wrote “The Education of Margot Sanchez.” It’s another YA novel. Recently I got into music from Chavela Vargas. I am smitten. Sometime in the future I’d like to do a project about her life for young people.
On that vein, are there any works about women or people of color going through body issues or societal/family pressures?
Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera. What I like about Margo Sanchez is that she’s dealing with what it means to be Afro-Latina. She’s light-skinned but she’s Puerto Rican. She has curly hair but she straightens it. The difference between staying true to your roots or being more acceptable, more palatable. Like a person of color being more palatable to white folk. I think Gabi goes through that too. “Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend” by Erika Wurth. The protagonist is native. I met Erika, we’re good friends now, when Gabi came out because her book came out at the same time. Her press and my press has us do a dialogue because there’s so many similarities with the characters. Margaritte, her protagonist, doesn’t live on a reservation. She lives in Colorado but she’s struggling with all of these issues– poverty, her dad’s an alcoholic, it’s a really good book. So I always recommend that book to people. Benjamin Alire Saenz’ book “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe“ is about two young men who are queer. I think that’s a really important book to look at. His other book “Sammy and Juliana In Hollywood,” that book also looks at the body and what it means to be Chicano/Latino in a white world.
What advice would you give to young readers about the topics covered in the book? I.E- body image issues, double standards against women, growing up in a traditional household.
IQ: It’s really cheesy but be yourself. Try to be as true to yourself as possible. If you’re doing something that is making you feel uncomfortable when you do it, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Gabi decides to go to college even though her mom wants her to stay home. When I was going to college, I only applied to Cal State and Cal Poly Pomona, those were the only two because I was not allowed to leave until I got married. That was the rule. As I got older, I realized “What would my mom have done?” There’s nothing she would have done. She would’ve been mad. But I don’t think she would’ve stopped talking to me. Sometimes we have to make choices for ourselves and for our well-being. Our parents often do the best they can, but often they’re tied down to roles that they were given They’re not sure how to maneuver around new roles. So I think it’s our job to be able to move forward and to change things. So do what you want and what makes you really happy. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable but that’s okay, you’ll get through the discomfort.
What are some topics that you would want to explore next in your writing?
IQ: I like looking at families. A book that I’m working on right now is looking at families. Hidden families. I like looking at the past. I’m really interested in looking at the history of Chicano people and Mexican people and Latino people in Southern California, not in LA, but specifically in the Inland Empire. There’s so many orange groves here. My grandfather was a bracero, so he worked out here. I would really like to explore that Chicano history in the Inland Empire.
What can we expect to see next from you?
IQ: I have the graphic novel coming out next month. The second Ugly Cat and Pablo should be coming out this year or early next year. I’m working on a few picture books. Then another young adult novel and poetry.
Written by Kelly Duarte.