I want people to know my city by its books.
I want to know the people in my city.
This book review series will cover the books I’ve read and recommend. These books will be poetry, fiction, non-fiction, weird, experimental, and purposeful. The reviews will only recount a fraction of the book’s whole greatness. The books will be intended for a San José that I know – one that wants people to read the word and the world, and to own that process as one of creativity.
I write these reviews, as an author, writer, and a lover of books. I have wanted to write books ever since I was in elementary school. I wanted to read books with characters I could relate to ever since I started to seriously ask myself, “Who am I? How am I different?” I wanted to keep firing questions at the world when I read more books, and especially when a high school teacher doubted my writing abilities. I wanted to keep going with critical writing, reading, and thinking even when I doubted myself in college. All of this constant conversation with and against the world – this literacy in training – is why I write.
I want to read people the way I read books.
I want people to read more books.
“Every time I go out with a guy, my mom says,
'Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas'.”
– Gabi Hernandez
Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is an important young adult novel of our time. The narrator, Gabi Hernandez, is a high school student who writes and learns that she wants to go to college and work to become a writer. She doesn’t want to become a writer to be famous, rather she writes and creates a zine because she discovers how it becomes a lifeline, a way to survive and cope, and think critically about her layered stories, which are largely autobiographical. In this book, we have a book within a book, and it is beautifully representative of the ways in which brown girls like Gabi embody multitudes.
Gabi shares with us readers her stories in the most intimate, simple ways – through her diary. The device of a diary is purposeful on author Isabel Quintero’s part, in a no holds barred narrative where Gabi is truthful, emotional, and so real with her true audience: herself. Gabi’s letters to her father are heartfelt, and her scripts of how school days go down are hilarious. Gabi is an astute storyteller who allows us first-person glimpses into her life that reveal good things like academic achievements, dreams, and foods that make her happy. Reading her diary, however, also reveals some sad things, like her mother’s traditional Mexican family values that misfit her Mexican/American identity and life; her father’s drug addiction and subsequent absence, the troubles of her friends worrying her – Cindy, who becomes a pregnant, young, single mother; and Sebastian, who is a closeted young, queer, boy who comes out to his family – but these summaries are the shortest stories. Gabi also introduces us to her mother who is pregnant; her brother, Beto, who acts out and misses their father; the crushes and boyfriends she’s had whether her family knows or not, Joshua, Eric, Ian, and Martin; her frenemies or bullies like Sandra and Georgina. These young people and their families are more like what most American families really are: complicated and trying really hard to get it or keep it together.
There are two things that instantly point out that this story is unique and non-traditional from the start: 1) the cover reveals a collage filled with symbols of the book’s themes, and 2) the dates of diary entries, and not chapters, that divide and organize the book. The cover by Zeke Peña is worth as much discussion as the stories inside. In the center of the cover, you’ll find a tube top ruched into what looks like a ring or labia above a skeleton frame, above a leafy skirt and legs. This dismembered body topped with a right eye roll and eyelashes above a semi-smile with a full set of teeth could hint at Gabi’s diary entries where she writes against white beauty standards, and writes about her body and relationship to food (which is never really just about the body or just about food), “Never ask the fat girl is she is hungry. She’s hungry. She’s always hungry. Even if she is not, she is because food is safe and controllable and soothing and salty and sweet, and it doesn’t scream at you or make you feel bad unless you are trying on clothes.” This explains why there’s also a bag of chips and a chocolate sandwich cookie on the front cover. Gabi, as a fly girl in pieces, is open about her struggles with love, food, her self-esteem, and is writing to make her world brave for herself and her friends. This isn’t a selfish act, more than it is what brown girls have always had to do to live.
It is our privilege to get to know Gabi this way. She allows us entry into her life to see the pain she carries, the everyday experiences she is present in but also keeps at an arm’s distance. Gabi illustrates how learning to be comfortable in her body, experiencing love on her own terms, and navigating family is a process of self-discovery and can be one of self-empowerment. Young adults and children who’ve had to grow up quickly may love this book.
Cinco Puntos Press, 2014
Janice Sapigao is a daughter of Filipina/o immigrants. She is the author of two books of poetry: microchips for millions (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2016) and Like a Solid to a Shadow (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2017.) She is a VONA/Voices and Kundiman Fellow, and the Associate Editor of TAYO Literary Magazine. She co-founded Sunday Jump. She earned her M.F.A. in Writing from CalArts, and she has a B.A. in Ethnic Studies with Honors from UC San Diego. View more of her work at janicewrites.com
Follow Janice at janicewrites.com