Lila Quintero Weaver
When I met Lila Quintero Weaver, two things struck me. Her quiet energy and her sweet Alabama accent. Not what you immediately expect from a rising talent among Latino authors, but that’s yet another reason to get excited about this new talent on the scene.
Her memoir, Darkroom, stands out for me for both her good sense of illustration and for her tact and honesty in describing the Jim Crow south through the eyes of a Latina girl in small town Alabama. MM
Why did you ultimately choose the graphic format for memoir? (Or, conversely, the memoir genre for your interest in graphic novel?) Was there something about graphic format that called to you?
Honestly, it seemed custom made. My drawing skills far outweigh my writing abilities, and the graphic format allows the creator to distribute the proportionality of text and images any way she wishes. You’ll notice that Darkroom is light on text. It can be a quick read, unless you pause here and there to ponder the images, which is exactly what I hope readers will do.
Darkroom began as an undergraduate project. I was surprised to read that you had a circuitous path through college. Can you tell us about that, and also about the assignment that became this book?
In 1976 I dropped out of college after my junior year because my major wasn’t working for me and money was tight. That bit of unfinished business hung over my head for decades and I finally did something about it. I returned to college in 2004 through a program at the University of Alabama designed precisely for non-traditional students. One component of the program is the senior project. To satisfy that assignment, I created a graphic-novelette memoir. By a series of fortunate events, my project came to the attention of acquisition editors at University of Alabama Press.
I admire the layout of so many of your pages. In designing the book, what were some of the considerations and strategies you used in creating each page? In other words, how do you “compose and edit” visual storytelling?
I design page layouts the same way that I decorate rooms: by trial and error. Think of the drawings (which I scan and save as digital files) as furniture and the backgrounds as wallpaper or paint. Using a digital page-layout program, I scoot elements around until the page achieves a certain logical and aesthetic flow. Most of this is instinctive, but I’m also conscious of certain principles of design, such as pattern, movement, unity, and variation.
Do you have favorite spreads in this book? What are they?
One spread that I enjoyed putting together depicts our arrival at Miami International Airport. The background behind our figures is a trompe l’oeil replica of my passport at that age (5). Another spread that I had fun assembling appears in Chapter Four and shows me at the optometrist being fitted for eyeglasses. I’ll cite one more example: In the chapter that covers the local Civil Rights protest marches, I used a background of bare winter trees in the opening spread. At end of the chapter, the trees reappear, but now they bear tiny buds, a symbol of emerging hope.
Your memoir outlines one of our country’s saddest chapters – and one of its most violent. What were some of the considerations you gave to telling that story to younger readers?
My purpose wasn’t to be didactic, but I had to offer context for what my family experienced and also provide readers who were born long after the end of Jim Crow a fuller sense of that world. It’s hard to convey just how oppressive things were. My job was to render as much of that as possible in the images and to make the images realistic enough that readers wouldn’t equate them with comic-book fantasy.
Shame about your Argentine heritage is something you explore in your work. What was the turning point in your thinking about your identity as a young Latina?
There was no precise turning point. My attitude adjustment was a gradual turn that involved experiencing more of the world and losing a childish preoccupation with being like everybody else. This had to happen without proud Latino role models, since as a kid I certainly didn’t see my parents in that light. And who else was there? Even in the wider American culture, there were few Latino achievers in the public eye, unless you counted baseball players and a handful of Hollywood sex goddesses! Actually, the era of racial conflict that I witnessed helped me value my distinction because it tarnished the appeal of the society I was trying to blend into.
Has there been any reaction to this work by the people who lived through these events alongside you in Marion, Alabama?
I recently heard from one of my old classmates. He was among the few white kids that welcomed desegregation. In an e-mail, he wrote that he was deeply moved by Darkroom, which of course made my day.
Looking back, what do you think gave you the ability to question what was around you as a girl? I’m thinking, for example, of the excerpts from your fourth grade social studies textbook.
The short answer is family. In the first place, my parents instilled in us that racism is wrong. I also received early exposure to certain non-conformist ideas through my oldest sister. This was the beatnik era, and her books, magazines and LPs touted a counterculture far removed from our traditional white-bread surroundings. At home, I often overheard adult conversations that let me know what my parents and sister really thought about current events. This built in me a healthy skepticism toward whatever official sources were saying.
Are there next projects in the works?
Yes, it’s too early to say much, but I’m considering several ideas for illustrated fiction, including a graphic novel or two and maybe a picture book. I have much to learn about storytelling and illustrating, but that’s okay. The reception to Darkroom has been terrific, and this spurs me on toward bigger challenges!
Finish this sentence for me. Strong girls…
aren’t born fearless; they just get a kick out of facing down their fears.
You’ll be able to meet Lila Quintero Weaver in person at the James River Writers Conference, October 20, Richmond, Virginia.