November 18, 2018

This review sucks but this book was worth it.

Last night I read this tweet thread about writing as a POC.  Here are two of the tweets:

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You can read the thread for the gist, but the writer was discussing hearing Lori Ostland talking about writing for yourself vs. writing for society, publishing houses, or editors. What Brandon said hit home for me because this is an experience that I haven’t had as a white woman.  I write about my experience without the baggage that comes from knowing I’m also writing for the people that came before me who weren’t able, or writing for the movement, or writing for the opportunity to continue building towards equity.  I just write because it’s what my hands do when my thoughts are too much to be bottled.  (Writing this does make me want to mindmap all my writing purposes in my journal though because I’m sure there’s baggage and lines leading to baggage).

chains_novel_coverI’ve promoted diverse literature since I could read.  My parents both pointed me towards books that taught me about the wholeness of the world and didn’t feature characters who looked and sounded just like me.  When I quit reading suddenly and drastically in high school, I think it was because the only literature that I could find in the school library was Charles Dickens or The Notebook.  There wasn’t much between idealized romance and the dead white guy classics. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her Ted talk “Danger of a Single Story,” she was only given the opportunity to read about British children.  The world of “ginger tea” in books did not match the world of Africa in sounds, spirit, lifestyle, function. I knew this in high school, it was an undercurrent of my reading habits as a middleschooler and teen.  I read Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson over and over again because it was the only book I could find on the story of my nation without a white narrator. However, Anderson is a white female author.

Sometimes though,  I think that my need to promote diverse literature doesn’t come from the seed of social justice sprouting in my childhood, but comes from a selfish place to be on trend.  Like Brandon was saying, he feels that he’s afraid to be tokenized and without his marginalization then his success would look, feel, or be different.  Right now, the hashtag #MSWL features agents and editors who are constantly looking for POC both in story and telling.  This makes me feel closer to satisfied that my students will have more literature that they can see themselves in, connect with, and learn from, something that wasn’t even there, truly, when I was in high school. It also makes me wonder the effect of publishing a marginalized author has on the book itself and the narrative.

I believe in the cause of promoting authors with every race, sexuality, political stance, income level, geographic location, culture, background, upbringing, and belonging, but I don’t want any of those reasons to define why it’s getting published.

20702546This brings me to the book Gabi, A Girl in Pieces.  I really wanted to like this book, and it wasn’t because of lack of connection, or not a strong enough voice as to why I didn’t like it.  Until I saw Brandon’s tweets, I couldn’t even put my finger on it.

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is about Gabi, a Mexican-American girl from NYC in her senior year of high school.  It’s written in journal format.  Side note, I’m extremely tired of this for YA literature, but this book had a narrator who was also interested in writing poetry so unlike other teens, she probably would keep a journal.  It turned out to be an interesting plot choice because not only did Gabi have to write about her feelings after an incident, but also the effect of those feelings on the incident, herself, and whoever else was involved.

I have a few reasons why I didn’t love this book.  The first is that every single high school problem imaginable (-suicide) is within one degree of separation from our narrator.  Here are the things that she deals with in a year: pregnancy, coming out, sexuality (both boy on boy and girl on boy), drug addiction, jail time, suspension, abortion, body image, rape, religious expectations, weight, societal ideas of what boys can do vs. societal ideas of what girls can do, lying, cheating, death, being an American immigrant, and mother-daughter relationships.  That’s a lot for 284 pages.

While all of these things definitely go on in a normal high school, I’m not sure they’re all so close to one person.  It happens, I’m sure of it, but I felt like this novel stigmatized the experience of this character a little bit.  Because she’s ____________, she’s also got to deal with _____________. Nat and I have done this lesson with our students a few times to prep them for Slam Poetry.  “Just because I’m ______________, doesn’t mean I’m ________________.”  This novel for me went a little against this exercise.  Even though, Gabi is constantly telling her mother this phrase, “Just because I’m best friends with the pregnant girl, doesn’t mean I’m jumping in bed with Josh.”

There were moments in this novel I did love.  Gabi’s voice is perfectly done.  Her reactions to experiences like those mentioned above were completely believable, especially for a girl who’s a senior in high school.  She was also just a character that you want to hug by the end of the book.  Towards the end, and what I would argue is a sort of climactic event, she creates a zine on body image for girls.  The Female Body should be created and  published by  Cinco Puntos Press to go with the book (or at least be a separate book entirely).  Booklist called Gabi “universal” and not “defined by ethnicity, class, weight, or lifestyle,” which I completely agree with.  None of these things would give us Gabi on paper, and she’s so easy to love and cheer for.

Quintero really tried to give the reader genuine and real experiences of teens everywhere.  I enjoyed most the beginning of each of these stories.  When Sebastian comes out and is telling Gabi that “he started at boobs and tried,” or Cindy and Gabi cry together over Cindy’s backseat pregnancy.  I loved these small details that made what was happening less fiction and more true to teendom.  What was missing for me was tracing those narratives through.  There was so much going on that by the time Gabi experienced death, I wasn’t worried about how Sebastian’s dad still refused to let him come home and how he was going to gay conversion therapy.  By the time we found out about the rape, it got three pages and we had to move on to the next life-altering moment.

This is also why I stopped watching Glee.

funny-glee-memes-santana-7

And why Brandon is right.  I just felt like the book didn’t give enough to all the stories it wanted, it probably needed, to tell.  I still highly recommend it for what it achieves across barriers, and very real difficulties, but I worry that I only feel that way because of its “diverse” label.

 

16 comments so far.

16 responses to “This review sucks but this book was worth it.”

  1. Elisa says:

    No matter what I do. I cannot be what I am not. For me, I found out that trying to read ‘not-white’ came from a racist idea that there was a thing I was not that if I had it close to me that I would be it, understand it…another version of my one black friend (or fill in the blank). The idea for me now is, I exist. I walk alongside other human beings all having a human experience. It is not mine to ‘own’ them, to try to ‘be’ them. To alter my identity to what it should hold. I just suit up and I show up every day and I get to Live. 🙂

    • Cassie says:

      I’m reading Empathy Exams right now and it said a very similar thing. That Empathy isn’t taking something that happened to someone else and projecting it on to yourself to see if it fits. I read “non-white” because I’m interested in other cultures, ideas, norms, histories, stories. It’s not necessarily about understanding although I think reading gets you closer to understanding in some ways and farther away in others. I read this one because I liked the idea of the plot, but it just wasn’t what it could have been for me and I had this immediate feeling of “oh here’s another white chick who’s calling out a diverse author.” It made it really difficult to review it honestly.

      • Elisa says:

        what if the idea of ‘white’ is a untrue stereotype? 🙂

        • Cassie says:

          Is there even a ‘white culture?’

          • Elisa says:

            is there a black culture? a muslim one? a male one? perhaps ideas adopted however for me, these ideas are only perceptions i can accept, reject, observe and express my own experience and choose how I wish to act on these, if any action at all. I don’t have to attach to them.

          • Elisa says:

            Also! Under these things, who gives ‘us’ the idea that we must belong and in that belonging a conforming to a set of ideas that teacher is attached to, as an egoistic idea of who they are?

          • Cassie says:

            There’s a GREAT book on this, it’s called .
            “In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong.” I used it to discuss this whole concept of identity and how we ascribe titles and attributes to ourselves from within and from outside.

            The opposite of this though would be belonging to nothing, right? And I don’t think I can believe in that.

          • Elisa says:

            No 🙂 And binary thinking creates a false trap of choosing one or another, if a mother offers a red shirt and a yellow shirt and behind her hanging in my closet are ten other colors, I think to myself well I’d like that Purple one and I would really like her to get me a hot pink sweater from the store to go over it. A thing the questioner might be attempting to avoid, or some other thing that I am unaware of unless I ask 🙂
            I am having a lot of fun talking. I get it that you may have other things to do 🙂

          • Cassie says:

            Haha actually I am just sitting on the couch in my pjs this morning. It’s a slow one! 🙂 I’ve always wanted to study whether other cultures look at dichotomies as closely and strongly as Americans tend to. I think it would be interesting!

          • Elisa says:

            see you did it again right there
            americans tend to..fill in blank 😛
            did you really mean: cultural dichotomies fascinate me!…? hehe and ps. a dichotomy is an example of Binary thinking, there are other options available 🙂

          • Cassie says:

            That’s where my assumption would start? How can I even begin to think about that question without first looking at my own bias (as an American). So, I meant what I said. Binary has been frustrating me as of late because it’s a “trendy” word. I know that’s not the intention, but it’s being thrown around like a flame all over the place.

          • Elisa says:

            it’s not trendy for me I’m a druid 🙂 it’s a very old thing and way of thinking

          • Cassie says:

            Okay, now I TOTALLY want to know more.

          • Cassie says:

            Thanks for the vocabulary edu though! 😊

  2. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book as much as you wanted to. I loved this book, but you caught on to a couple of issues I didn’t pick up when I read it last year. I do agree that Quintero seems to tackle on a lot of issues rather than focusing on a few. Like you said in your review, some of the stuff that does occur gets a few pages written about it and then we’re on to the next thing. Despite all of that I think the strongest point about this novel is that not only is it “own voices”, but it still manages to makes it make itself relatable to a wider audience.

    • Cassie says:

      I’m so glad you responded! I was thinking about you when I wrote this. I think this was a timing thing, maybe AND that I was so hyped up on it. I don’t know. When your primary reading isn’t YA sometimes it can throw you off when you’re judging it against a stack of adult books? I think your so right about ‘own voices,’ Gabi was one of my favorite narrators in a while. She seemed like a kid I’ve taught before, and I loved reading her perspective because it was so natural.

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Cassie Mannes Murray (@fromcass) is a writer and educator living on the coast of NC.

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