I actually had been thinking of the story for a while. The thing is, that growing up, I didn’t really see myself or my reality in a lot of written work. And, as a grew older, I realized that it was important to see yourself in a text, if not as a method of connecting with the characters and with literature, as a way of having our reality validated as existing within the landscape of this country; another American experience. For me, it was important to let others, especially young women, young Latinas, know that they were not alone in their experiences.
2. Gabi is a girl facing a long list of personal problems – none of which you shy away from writing with honesty. What do you see as the pluses of writing about teen lives in this way? What are the challenges?
Well, the pluses are obviously that teen girls read it and say, “That’s my life!” Adults tell me the similar things, “That was my reality!” Some challenges I’ve faced are people saying, “That’s too much drama happening. It’s not realistic.” But it is! There are more than just our realities that exist in the world and sometimes it’s hard to see that. And that mentality makes it easier to dismiss experiences different from our own.
I also didn’t know how to write them any other way.
3. You are writing the story of a strong Latina straddling two cultures as she finds herself. In your opinion, what is challenging about balancing Latino culture and American culture as a strong girl?
I think, maybe accepting Latin@ culture (for me it was Mexican culture) as not separate from American culture. With that I mean, this is my culture and I’m American, so that culture, that “Mexicanness,” is also American. To separate the two, one first has to define American culture and that is quite a task, because, really, what is American? How do we define American culture? What are the components present in a person that we can point out and say, “XYZ makes them American?” Even assigning the word American to people from the United States is questionable. We are North American, but so are Canadians, so are Mexicans. Then there are Central Americans and South Americans. I know what you mean though, and I may being a bit facetious. But, it’s worth thinking about because how we, Americans in the United States, see ourselves in relation to other North Americans or to Central and South Americans, greatly influences how we construct our American ideal, as THE American ideal.
The myth is that to be American, real American, you need to leave your “other” culture behind. That we need to melt together and lose ourselves with each other. That seems like a power play to me. Truth is, “real” Americans, as singular cohesive beings, don’t exist. That idea of “realness” has been created to make cultural genocide palatable. To question our allegiance. It’s almost like a test to see if we are worthy of belonging, to see how bad we really want to be considered “real” Americans.
When my mom says, “Americanos” she means white Americans, not her own children. And that othering of ourselves is learned. But I think there is less fear now (think DREAMers) and that makes some people uncomfortable because when we erase the line that says, “Here is where the Mexican ends and the American begins,” we begin to break down ideologies that keep us oppressed. When we reject ascribed labels and expectations, and say, “No thank you, I’m good. I’m done straddling and I just want to be,” we reclaim our selfhood. But this is hard. It is something I constantly struggle with because there is no simple answer.
4. I love that poetry is part of how Gabi finally claims a space for herself. Was poetry a part of your life as a teen? Was there a particular reason you turned to poetry as the vehicle for her?
Poetry was definitely a part of my life as a teen and still is now. Because the book was originally a novel in verse, poetry was from the beginning part of Gabi’s life. I think that writing is empowering and that poetry, the art of language, helps us see the world through various lenses; it is a way to understand and interpret the world through words.
Were there any surprises for you with regard to how the novel was received – good and bad?
Yes! I didn’t think anyone else besides my close friends and family would buy it. I am so humbled and surprised by the people who send me emails or messages telling me that they love the book and that they relate to Gabi, or that they wish they had had this book when they were in high school. And also, the awards. Those really surprised the heck out of me.
Bad, well not really. I have had some reviews where folks mention the lack of a glossary or compare the book to a telenovela, and I feel those are easy, and tired critiques to make of the book because it is written by a Latina, and it has Spanish sprinkled throughout. But que le puede hacer? No somos monedita de oro.
5. What are the kinds of books you read as a child? What are some of your favorites now?
As a child I read Amelia Bedelia, lots of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. I must have read, Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself, ten times as a kid. I loved that book. I love books that could make me laugh and think critically. Some of my favorites now: East of Eden, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Citizen, Chicana Falsa, Loose Woman, Borderlands/La Frontera, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dead End in Norvelt...and lots of other ones. I could go on forever.
6. Finish this sentence: Strong girls are – everywhere and their strengths come from different places and have different purposes, however their strengths help make the world a more just and equal place.