36-year-old "Ivy League homegirl" Sofia Quintero is an author, activist, and businesswoman who has transformed her passion for social change into her fiction, most recently with Divas Don't Yield, a touching road trip novel featuring four outspoken, daring and diverse women-—Jackie, Hazel, Inez, and Lourdes—who travel across the United States to celebrate their graduation from Columbia. In the process, they confront each other on multiple levels, coming out about various secrets, learning each other's foibles, and culminating in some powerful confrontations and friendships. Touching on issues of class, race, sexism and sexual orientation, Quintero roots all these issues in the personalities of these bold women, who force their friends to contront often painful truths about themselves.
Part of the burgeoning and successful genre of chica lit, Quintero has also contributed to the anthology Friday Night Chicas, with more stories in the works. Her first two novels, Explicit Content (about two women in the underground hip hip scene) and Picture Me Rollin' (about a female ex-con inspired by Tupac Shakur), were published under the name Black Artemis, though Quintero makes no secret of her authorship of "bona fide hip hip fiction." She started out creatively in the world of film, and began Divas as a screenplay, Interstates, and has also written several short films, including Corporate Dawgs and Blind Date.
Quintero also has numerous activist credentials, currently focused on creating more entertainment and media opportunities for people of color, with an eye toward the mainstream (and the big screen). She is the co-founder of Chica Luna, an activist group currently sponsoring an anthology writing contest and various film projects and co-owner of Sister/Outsider Entertainment, which is developing film, theater, television and book projects (including a play called "Mini Skirt Mafia"). Raised in the Bronx, where she still lives, Quintero has moved from a life of professional activism (and was named by City Limits "New School of Activists Most Likely to Change New York") to one of written activism, incorporating her visions for change into a range of fictional output. A passionate defender of the written word, Quintero has argued for the slogan "Real Men Read" on MySpace. Here, she discusses the roots of her novel (think pop music), the lack of roles for Latina women in Hollywood, the importance of chica lit, art and activism, and fiction as a tool for changing the world.
Divas Don't Yield began as a screenplay called Interstates, about four Latina women going on a road trip. What was the initial inspiration for it, and why did you choose to start with a screenplay?
Believe it or not, Interstates was inspired by the Latin Pop Explosion. You know . . . those six months in 1999 when Latinos were “in.” Again. It annoyed me how the mainstream industry was patting itself on the back for acknowledging a handful of entertainers who represented such a narrow part of the Latino community. If a role in the film called for a Latina, and Jennifer Lopez passed because she was trying to crossover, the film didn’t get made. I was thinking, “They don’t confuse Julia Stiles and Kirsten Dunst, but one Latina can play them all.” So I decided to write a screenplay that would break out not one but four new Latina talents of different nationalities, races, and even sexual orientation. And they would be political. You know . . . care about something other than getting some papi to buy them a mojito at the club on salsa night.
Divas alternates viewpoints among the four highly-opinionated, diverse, outspoken friends, who all come from different backgrounds and have different life goals, and your novella "The More Things Change" in Friday Night Chicas also features four friends. Was this necessary for you to highlight the diversity of the communities you wanted to talk about? Was it a challenge to write them all (for Divas) in the first person without going overboard on any of their personalities?
A friend of mine who read an early draft of the screenplay on which Divas was based teased me about all that I had going on it. She called it the “bible effect,” and explained that when people who come from marginalized communities attempt to tell our stories, we often try to address too many issues at once because the opportunities to represent ourselves are so rare. Characters, I think, are my biggest strength as a writer, and so I’m naturally drawn to ensemble pieces although there’s always one character who’s the lead among equals, so to speak. I don’t find it challenging to write in the first person when I’m writing chick lit. I initially tried to write Divas it in third person, and honestly? I was boring the hell out of myself. I couldn’t get the story going. Switching to first person was liberating, and, yes, it made it easier to highlight their diversity and address multiple issues.
In both of these four women stories, you've included a lesbian character who comes out and is received with mixed reactions by her friends. Why was it important to you to include a queer woman and, if you've gotten feedback, how has this gone over with your audiences, because homosexuality, aside from the gay male best friend, isn't often seen in traditional chick lit?
Well, in a sense, Hazel and Lisa are actually out albeit at different stages. Hazel initially identifies herself as bisexual, and her journey is about recognizing that her sexual liaisons with men did not mean she wasn’t a lesbian. In Lisa’s case, she came out between college and medical school, but never had the opportunity to tell her college friends because she had fallen out of touch with them. I have a transgender character in my next Black Artemis novel Burn. Ironically, I’ve received no reaction to my queer female characters, and I actually think that’s a positive thing. No one writes me complaining, “What’s up with all the gay chicks?” Maybe that’s because so far they’ve all been femmes, and that’s safer, but I like to think it’s more because my readers see nothing unusual about having a queer women among the circle of friends. It mirrors their own lives. And that’s the main reason why it’s important to me to include queer women in my “chica lit.” It’s for the same reason I depict Black women and working-class women because not only do they exist in our communities, they’re holding it down. They deserve to be seen, heard, respected and celebrated in all their complexity.
The women all learn a lot about each other during the course of the trip, and about themselves. Is there an overriding lesson you feel they learn, or is it individual to each one of them?
Each of the women learns that in order to have satisfying relationships with others—be it her friends, partner or relatives—she first has to learn to accept herself. Divas starts with each character grappling with a particular aspect of her identity or self-perception. As the story unfolds, she struggles with that aspect of herself, and because she does, her relationships improve (although not without some adjustment first, and certainly without more work to be done in the future because that would be simplistic and unrealistic.)