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