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2015 Morris Award: An Interview with Finalist Isabel Quintero

Each year, YALSA’s Morris Award honors a debut book published by a first-time author writing for teens and celebrating impressive new voices in young adult literature. The award winner will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media (YMA) Awards on Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. Join us for a live webcast of the YMA Awards press conference or follow I Love Libraries on Twitter or Facebook to be among the first to know the 2015 winners. The official hashtag for the 2015 Youth Media Awards is  #ALAyma.

Isabel Quintero is a 2015 Morris Award finalist for Gabi, A Girl in Pieces:Gabi 2

Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity. 

I am so happy you and your book are one of the Morris finalists! Gabi, a Girl in Pieces is one of the most realistic books I’ve read. It reflects what I saw as a teen and of teens I know, now. Was it your goal to give voice to Mexican-American teens?

I think it was my goal to present a different narrative of what it can mean to be Mexican-American. Living on the hyphen is a complex cultural existence at times, and we’re often pulled in many directions where allegiance is always demanded. It is a fractured state of being, though I don’t think it’s necessarily bad; at least the having multiple ways of looking at life-the Mexican and American/the male and female. Where that goes awry is when we want to make one way of approaching life, The One Way. That’s where things begin to disintegrate, loyalties are questioned, and patriarchies are born. Back to the narrative though, so many times in media and pop culture we get one narrative of what it means to be Latino/a, specifically in my case, Mexican or Mexican-American. And of course we need the subcategory, the hyphen; we can’t possibly be “real” Americans, and thus we need a story to go along with what makes us part of this country, but at the same time what makes us outsiders. The story of belonging, and not-belonging, that we’ve gotten is that we are housekeepers, landscapers, and migrant fieldworkers-all very necessary jobs to keep society moving, but yet always subservient roles in which we have very little opportunity for autonomy. That’s the story we’ve been given. We see this on big screens, small screens, and in books. And it’s romanticized too. Sure being a landowner, inheriting a farm that your great grandfather owned, has a bit of romance. But being a worker on that land from sun up to sun down, exposed to injury, violence, and rape-not so much. So with Gabi, I wanted to present a different story; one that is just as real, and just as American as that of a migrant farmworker. Because really, I believe those narratives and Gabi are stories of America, unhyphenated; and I wanted to give voice to those characters.

I was also glad to see teen pregnancy handled in such a matter-of-fact way. I went to a small high school and there were six babies born by the time we graduated. Why did you decide to include that storyline?

Because it happens. It has always happened, since the beginning of time, and I’ve gotten tired of adults saying, “In my day, that didn’t happen.” A few years back I read, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade, by Ann Fessler, in it she recounts story after story about young women, teens, forced to give up their children, forced to marry, forced to be ashamed. I think this is all part of the sex-shaming we impose on young women, but not on young men-though neither should be shamed about a natural part of life. Obviously, I am not advocating, nor am I judging, promiscuity or getting pregnant at a young age (I have to say that because I read a comment someone wrote about the book implying that that was what I was doing). I am simply telling a story based on some of the realities that I have experienced. But I do have to wonder, what would happen if we taught self-love, respect of your partner, consent, and responsibility instead of only abstinence-which again, abstinence is not a bad thing either. But it’s not a very realistic expectation for everyone.

To me, Gabi is a representation of real girls. Girls who don’t have everything, who struggle with their weight and trying to become their own person. Why was it important to you to have such a strong female character?

I always say that Gabi is a lot like me but also a lot braver than me. Recently, I said that at the Kweli Conference, and a young high school girl asked me what I meant by that. It was the first time I’d been asked a follow up to that. What I told her was that I wish that I had been less afraid to question the expectations that had been placed on me. That I had been brave enough to question the double standards and act on them-to not be afraid of boys. I was totally boy crazy in high school. I had a crush on so many boys but as soon as one showed interest I’d be scared shitless. I couldn’t believe that a boy would like Isabel, the fat girl. Why would he? It wasn’t until college that I realized it was okay to think about sex (I was normal!) or to like so many boys or that I was pretty awesome and guys were interested-for reals. So, to me it made sense to have a character who embodied this idea earlier on.

Families are usually missing in YA Lit and in Gabi, the families are very present. I can’t imagine the book without them since they shape so much of all the teens lives. Why did you choose to include the families?

I think for that very reason; because families shape our lives. Whether we like it or not, they shape our lives. For Gabi, her family is incredibly important, no matter how much they break her heart or how much they frustrate her. They also have taught her how to be accepting and strong. An example of this would be her mom. Mom is a hot mess, but still she works hard and takes Sebastian in when his own family rejects him, and can’t fathom what kind of so-called “loving” family would kick their child out for being gay. Also, a lot Mexicans are very family orientated; to exclude the family wouldn’t be an accurate representation of that reality.
What advice can you share with aspiring writers?

Write a lot. Join a writing community, you’ll get a lot more done (at least that was true for me) than if you sit and weep at your desk by yourself. You’ll at least have some folks to comfort you as you sit and weep together. Also, remember that rejection is part of the job and don’t let them get you down so much. And don’t be afraid to revise and cut-know when it’s time to let go of a section, or form. Writing is not for the faint of heart and comes with a lot of sacrifice. But if you’re like me, and writing is your life, and you pull over on the road to write a poem, or keep journals, and you know that inspiration is a myth, so you create your own muses, or you are okay with people saying bad things about you and your writing, or are always looking for ways of improving your writing because there is nothing in the world that makes you feel as whole and as empowered as writing, then really you have no other choice than to deal with those sacrifices and write until all your ink is gone.

 

– Faythe Arredondo, currently reading All The Rage

3 Comments

  1. What a fantastic interview! So thoughtful, so insightful. We always like to read the Morris nominees, but this bumped GABI IN PIECES right up to the top of our list! <3

  2. Esther M Esther M

    This is my favorite YA book. Isabel Quintero, I hope you’re working on your next book! We need more books like Gabi, and I’m hungry for more!

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