Featured Writer: Isabel Quintero

Local author and poet Isabel Quintero touches hearts and touches upon what might be considered touchy subjects in her book Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. 

Here, Isabel talks about growing up in the IE, what it means to be a hyphenated American, and her book, hailed by Kirkus Book Reviews as “a fresh, authentic and honest exploration of contemporary Latina identity.”

Q: What inspired you to write Gabi?

A: One of the main things was that, as got older (I started writing this in 2007) and spoke to more women, I realized that while I felt alone in my struggles, I wasn't. One of the main issues for the character is her weight and self-image, two things that I have, since about fourth grade, been struggling with. Even though Gabi is a Latina, I feel her journey is not just a Latina journey, and I wanted to let other young women out there know that they are not alone. I also wanted to paint a different picture of what it means to be a Mexican-American teen. Oh, and not like people aren't aware of addiction, but I did want to show addiction as a daily lived reality from the perspective not of the addict, but of the addict’s child.

Q: Are you sharing this as autobiographical, semi-autobiographical or fiction?

A: It is a complete work of fiction with some semi-autobiographical elements. Gabi's insecurities, her outlook on life, her love of poetry, and constant search for herself are very much me as 17 year old, and even me now sometimes. She is a lot braver than I am though. I would have never been able to talk to boys in a romantic way at that age; it was very difficult for me because of all my insecurities. Whenever a boy would try and talk to me I always thought, "Why's he talking to the fat girl?" One time my friend tried to introduce me to this guy I had a crush on and I hid in the girls’ bathroom until the bell rang. It was tough. Now, I realize that those boys were genuinely interested. As for Gabi’s best friends, they have characteristics of many, many people all rolled into two friends. And while it is all fiction, it doesn't mean that it is not a truthful look into what it means to be a young person in Gabi's situation.

Q: Your characters are all dealing with very serious issues—teen pregnancy, coming out, body image, drug addiction. How did you manage to cover these topics and keep the rich humor of the novel?

A: There has to be humor in life otherwise we fall apart. I know people who have lived through serious traumas and if not for humor they wouldn't be able to face the world. Life is shitty sometimes, and if we give in and cry about it, and wallow in the sadness, we won't be able to move on. Gabi's voice is very closely related to my voice, and I have a habit for laughing at inappropriate and often serious things so it would make sense for her to view and interpret the world this way. And I want to note that yes, they are serious issues, but they are issues that a lot of teens deal with and have dealt with for a long time. They were dealing with these issues when I was in high school. So when people say, "Kids these days," they are imagining a fictional world. I also understand that some of these issues might not affect someone who is not Latino/a, or gay, or has never had to experience living with someone who is addicted, but there has always been someone who has, and I feel that it is time that we acknowledge that.

Q: You drop Spanish language into your work here and there, is this how you think or is it intentional?

A: Both I guess. It never crossed my mind not to have Spanish in there. When you write you are supposed to be as honest as you can be, and my honesty happens to be bilingual. 

Q: Tell us about growing up as a Mexican-American in this area and how that influenced your perspective on life.

A: That's a tough question because that is my only reality, so it has influenced all of my life. The Inland Empire has a big Latino/a population, and the majority, given that we live so close to the border, are Mexican. It's easy to find Mexican food, Mexican markets, Spanish mass, and Mexican doctors, but even with this presence we are seen as foreign, and not inherently American. As an American of Mexican descent it is tough to even be considered American; we are constantly hyphenated and othered. I feel that the American experience is plural and not singular, but we are often fed this idea of a unified American experience and that excludes a lot of marginalized people. Think Ferguson, think the Laredo border, think the Americans being asked for their papers in Arizona. Not to get too political, but the truth is that many times that hyphen that separates us from simply being American, is incredibly political, and that hyphen is where I live.

Q: Your character Gabi struggles with body image and teen romance but she also struggles with the fact that she looks white. What do you think this means in terms of identity and race?

A: Because identity is also worn on the outside, being a light-skinned Latina is problematic. Our Latina-ness is always questioned. People have an idea in their heads about what being Mexican looks like, and when you don't fit their idea sometimes they get confused. I have been told, "You're not what a Mexican is supposed to look like" followed up with an argument about why I can't possibly be Mexican. I always have to go into a history lesson, or explain my existence; it gets old after a while. I've also been told, "You can totally pass as white" and sometimes, inadvertently I do, and that leads to interesting scenarios like: being called a whore in Spanish, or being told racists jokes by people who thought I would agree with them simply because I looked like them, and they couldn't fathom a non-brown Mexican (Mexican-American in my case). For Gabi, it is a similar reality; she is plagued with constantly having to prove and assure others, and herself, that she really does belong.

Q: What drives Gabi? What keeps her trying to succeed and support her friends and please her parents?
A: Gabi is driven by finding truth. She equates being true to herself with having freedom. To her, honesty is a big thing. One of the reasons she has issues with her Tia Bertha, is because Bertha pretends to be someone she is not: celibate, religious, and honest. And though she does try to please her parents, by the end she realizes that she will only be happy (and free) if she pleases herself. Even as adult, that is a difficult thing to learn. 

Q: Who are you hoping this book will speak to?

A: While the book is written from the perspective of a young Latina, I wrote this book for all young women trying to figure themselves out. I think that even adults can relate to Gabi's struggle. Initially, I had written the book as a novel in verse, and the first person to read it was a Latino gay man in his fifties, and he kept telling me how he could hear his mom and his family in the story. So, while the book has changed form, I tried to keep the voice the same and feel that many readers can connect with the characters in various ways.

Q: What other writing projects are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel in the magical realism/fantasy vein. It's a story about a young woman on a quest to rescue her family who has been taken away.

For more, visit laisabelquintero.com.