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.)
You said at your book release party that many readings were held from the screenplay and one of the first was done with actress Michelle Rodriguez. How did those readings come about, and how did they help transform the screenplay?
The very first reading I ever had of Interstates was at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, and Michelle Rodriguez—who had just filmed Girlfight but it wasn’t schedule for release until months later—played Jackie. That reading was sponsored by Fifth Night. The best thing about that night was that I met my dear friend and business partner Elisha Miranda with whom I co-founded Chica Luna Productions and Sister/Outsider Entertainment. I did a rewrite, and Chica Luna produced another reading at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. With each rewrite, I tried to make the story less “plotty” and focus more on the young women. Now that I’ve turned the story into a novel, when I tackle the next rewrite of the screenplay, it will be harder to do but the result will be much better than any draft I have written to date.
You started writing this story during the Latin pop explosion of 1999, and that you were looking for roles for Latina women outside of Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek. Do you have a particular issue with those two women or is it the lack of opportunities for Latina women in Hollywood?
My issue is primarily the lack of opportunities for Latinas in the mainstream film industry although I can’t say I’m a fan of Jennifer Lopez. Now I have a lot of love for Salma Hayek who doesn’t think twice to use her celebrity to champion social issues and has used her access to the industry—as limited as it may be for a women of color who wasn’t born in the United States—to create opportunities for other Latinos in the industry. Rosie Perez has done that as well, and I can see Rosario Dawson doing it, too.
Has the publishing world been more open to Latina writing than the film world is to Latina actresses/producers/writers or are there just more opportunities to publish books than to get a film out into the world?
My book was one of three mainstream novels written by and about Latinas that hit bookshelves in March 2006, all published by major houses. When’s the last time you saw that happen in the film industry? Or even on television? Yes, it may be more expensive and therefore risky to produce a film, and many less films are produced in a year than books published, but I think even if you account for the uniqueness of each industry, the publishing world is more proactive about pursuing Latinos readers than the film industry is about reaching Latino moviegoers. And my experience with both has been that the publishing industry is more willing to let Latinos tell their own stories. If you look at the few films released in the past few years set in Latino communities, you’ll find two things. One, they’re independents. Two, the directors are White and usually male. When a Latina filmmaker wants to make a movie like Girlfight, Raising Victor Vargas or Maria Full of Grace, she faces more skepticism about the universality of the story and its commercial viability. I’ve found that a film executive is more likely to try and tell me how to be Latina than a book editor. I have yet met a Latina writer who told me that her editor complained, “You have to put a White girl in your story.”
Speaking of Hollywood, if you were in charge of casting, who would you want playing the roles of Jackie, Hazel, Lourdes and Irena, and why?
It’s been almost seven years since these characters first came to me, and while there thankfully more Latina actresses to choose from, I still don’t think anyone notable is perfect for the role. Even when the talent is there, something is missing. Jackie’s a tall, athletic Afro-Latina. She’s attractive yet not by European standards. I like Zoë Saldaña and Rosario Dawson, and I think each has the chops to strike the balance between that character’s feistiness and vulnerability, but I doubt anyone would believe that either questions her beauty. There was a time when I saw Jackie as Gina Torres, but she’s too mature to play her now. Physically, Hazel’s a Jessica Alba-type, but she’s on this I’m-not-Latina kick. Besides, it’d make my heart sing to breakout a gorgeous, out lesbian to play her. It’d be a dream come true to see Alexis Bledel play Irena. She’s gone on record saying that she would love to play Latina and even auditions for Latina parts but won’t get considered because of her appearance. Well, the part of Irena would be hers just for the asking. Even though I can’t think of an actress off the top of my head to play Lourdes, I bet she would be the easiest to cast.
I’ll probably get a flurry of emails saying, “Check out So-and-So who plays This Girl on That Show.” I have no doubts that the actresses exist to play any of these characters, and if I produce the film, I would cast talented unknowns in a heartbeat. The problem is the industry is fixated on casting “bankable” actresses despite the fact that there are few actresses of colors thanks to its own narrow-mindedness. It’s an ugly cycle. The decisionmakers don’t want to cast anyone they don’t already know, but once they discover someone, they stop looking because, as far as they’re concerned, we’re interchangeable. So only a handful of actors of color reach bankable status at any given time, and, once there, more likely than not, they obsess with crossing over and avoid playing characters of colors. And now we’re back to the reason why I wrote the screenplay in the first place.
Divas, along with an anthology you contributed to, Friday Night Chicas, is part of the fast-growing genre of Chica Lit, which broke out with Dirty Girls Social Club by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, who blurbed Divas. Valdes-Rodriguez has also organized the upcoming Chica Lit Club Fiesta, which you, along with your fellow Friday Night Chicas authors Mary Castillo, Berta Platas, and Caridad Pinerio are participating in. Firstly, what's the difference between chick lit and chica lit? Is there a pressure on you as an author or these books generally to have a political element beyond telling a story?
Chica lit is chick lit where the characters are Latina. The term Chica lit’s just a name that we Latinas authors use to acknowledge and celebrate that we’re featuring women like ourselves yet still universal stories. I don’t think what we do is anything different from, say, Jennifer Weiner. What I love about Jennifer Weiner’s books is that she doesn’t shy away from writing Jewish heroines, and yet her protagonists also deal with issues that resonate with women of all backgrounds. I feel that Alisa, Mary, Berta, Caridad and I and other Latina chick lit authors do the same with our sheroes. As for the issue of pressure, I can only speak for myself, and I don’t feel any pressure to “write Latina.” I write Latina character because that’s what I want to do.
There are some authors of color across genre whose primary characters are always “ethnically nondescript.” That’s their choice, but that does not interest me. And I raise the issues I do as a storyteller because I’m also an activist. My activism is an integral part of who I am and so it’s critical to my voice as an author. So any political “pressure” to do anything comes from within. But I also think it’s what makes my work at once unique and universal. Jackie may be an Afro-Latina, but Black and Latina women are not the only women made to feel ugly because they do not fall into narrow Eurocentric standards of beauty. Unfortunately, too many women like Irena have experienced rape, and these women are all races, ages, sexual orientations and classes. It’s because I deal with these topics is why I don’t feel I have to deracialize my characters to reach non-Latina readers. The readers who care about these things will crossover to me. They’re sophisticated enough to not think, “Oh, this book is about a bunch of Latinas. Guess I’ll put it back on the shelf.”
Where do you see the future of Chica Lit going, and what has its success meant for the next generation of Latina writers? One of the criticisms of chick lit generally is that it usurps opportunities for female authors of literary fiction, yet clearly there is a huge audience for these works, so I'm curious how this has impacted you and your peers.
I’m not sure where chica lit is going because so much of the success of anything in the entertainment industry depends on marketing. Publishers have high objectives for chica lit. They want both to capture the readers of Esmeralda Santiago and Meg Cabot. But that requires multiple marketing strategies, which demands resources plus experimentation and that equals risk. Meanwhile, the publicity budget for the average chick lit novel—especially if published in trade paperback—is miniscule. Chica lit has broken through, but is it here to stay? I sure hope so because I do feel that it will create more books for readers interested in the Latina experience and therefore more opportunities for Latina writers, especially those writing in English. Right now when one thinks of Latino literature they think magical realism and Spanish. Beautiful as they both are, they do not alone capture the full Latino experience.
As capable as I am, I have no desire to write literary fiction. I want to write entertaining yet smart commercial fiction with something meaningful to say. I want both the Latina studying at Barnard College and her favorite cousin who works the cash register at K-mart to be able to read and enjoy my stories. That said, I cannot say if chica lit usurps opportunities for Latina writers of literary fiction, the way it has been argued to do for non-Latinas, but what I will say is if that is indeed what’s going on, it’s not an effective response to attack the genre and its authors. I’m not a fan of street lit, but my biggest problem lies not with the genre itself or its authors. It’s with the publishing industry that’s saturating the market with street lit at the expense of other types of Black literature, as if the popularity of one makes the other irrelevant. It’s with an industry that tells literary authors who have earned critical acclaim and a loyal following, “I loved your last historical romance, but do you have a story about a stripper?” You best believe that if that’s going on, racism is a factor whether folks want to admit it or not.
Any time a singular image dominates the way a community is represented until it is presumed that all alternatives are somehow inauthentic, an “ism” is at play, and talk about supply and demand is a way for those who control the images to rationalize their misrepresentation and evade responsibility for it. Zane’s sales doesn’t render Toni Morrison irrelevant because the community of African American readers is diverse in its tastes, so to publish every erotica writer that comes across the transom while making a proven literary author beg for a book deal is akin to determining only a certain type of Black representation is authentic. If that’s not racist, I don’t know what is. By the same token, if the popularity of chick lit is compelling publishers to bypass talented female writers of other genres, then they are guilty of capitulating to and even promoting stereotypical views of women.
You also write hip-hop fiction under the name Black Artemis, publishing your first two novels, Picture Me Rollin' and Explicit Content, with a third, Burn, on the way, under that name. What are you trying to accomplish with these books?
I often say that my Black Artemis novels are for women who love hip hop even when hip hop fails to love them in return. They’re my contribution to the feminist response to the misogyny in hip hop culture. One of the reasons why I choose to write commercial fiction is because this kind of representation of women in hip hop needs should be just as plentiful in the mainstream media as are exploitative images. If Picture Me Rollin’ were to be turned into a film, it’d be the feminist response to Hustle & Flow, and through Sister/Outsider Entertainment, we are trying to make that happen.
Your background as an activist is extensive, from serving on the boards of We Interrupt This Message and other organizations, to your master's in public policy, yet you chose to leave your last job to write full-time. How do writing and activism mix for you, and do you feel people are more receptive to certain messages via fiction than through slogans/campaigns/protests and more traditional forms of activism?
I consider myself a cultural activist so writing fiction is another form of activism for me. We use a phrase at Chica Luna—commercializing consciousness. The average television show has as many social, cultural, and political messages as any news item on CNN, but we still have this erroneous belief that entertainment is apolitical as if the things we see, read and hear in the entertainment media do not shape our political beliefs and influence public policy. Cultural activism has always been a strategy for making change, and it supplements not replaces things like civil disobedience or community organizing. The power of cultural activism—particularly using popular media to raise awareness and inspire action—is the tremendous opportunity to reach those broaden the political conversation beyond intellectual elites and not preach to the converted.
Speaking of activism, the Publisher's Weekly review of Divas claims that you let your "agenda hamhandedly steer the book." How do you respond to this charge? Does Divas have an agenda?
The anonymous reviewer at PW specifically complained about my desire to “address Latino rights and homosexuality in a mainstream novel.” I can only speculate why this irked him or her so much, and when I read it, I almost saw the finger wagging in my face. “How could you give that homosexual character and her concerns equal time?” Funny, Hazel’s actually critical of the White leadership of gay rights organizations for not being more sensitive to class and race. Even funnier is that—except for a brief moment when Lourdes translates a chant against the U.S. blockade of Cuba—there are no discussions about Latino rights.
My characters—who are student activists, by the way—are involved in women’s rights. For example, Lourdes is a member of Catholics for Choice, and Irena volunteers as a peer counselor to rape survivors. Anyway, the bottom line is that the readers for whom Divas is intended do not agree. I receive emails all the time from women who have read the novel and say that it inspires them to get more involved in their communities or that they related to the characters and their concerns and to even thank me for writing a book where they saw women like themselves and their friends. So the ones who matter the most disagree with that assessment of that reviewer, and I’m not going to stop let alone apologize for being intelligent and political and outspoken. Hell, if everyone loved what I was doing, it wouldn’t be worth doing. You know the saying . . . women who behave rarely make history. All I can say is that this straight gal is proud to be accused of having a “homosexual agenda.”
You're one of the founders of Chica Luna, "an activist organization that seeks to identify, develop and promote socially conscious entertainment for, by and about women of color." What are you most proud of accomplishing with Chica Luna thus far, and what's next?
Chica Luna’s signature program is the F-Word, a media justice project that seeks to create the next cadre of socially conscious women filmmakers. We target young women of color ages 16-26 and teach them media literacy and filmmaking skills. They also build a community among themselves so that they can work on each other’s projects. That’s critical in the entertainment industry that gives so few opportunities to women let alone women of color and forces us to compete against one another.
You've also recently started Sister Outsider, with Elisha Miranda, where you offer script consultations, curriculum writing, "culture check" and other services to "create edgy but quality popular media that appeals to an urban audience."
The stereotypes of women of color in popular media won’t change until we seize control of our images. Elisha and I started Sister Outsider to produce some of our own projects, and our hope is that as the company grows, we’ll be in a position to produce the work of others with a similar vision. We also hope that the commercial success of Sister Outsider projects will enable us to continue to support Chica Luna. Eventually, we not only want to create work opportunities for young women of color but also to provide philanthropic support to community-based organizations seeking to use popular media to promote social justice so they do not become dependent on foundation dollars.
As if all these various projects weren't enough, you'll also be writing an erotic short story coming out next year and another novel along with a novella about sisters and their secrets. Can you give us a taste of what these will involve?
The erotic novella will appear in an anthology of Latina authors that will be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster. The theme of that anthology is holidays, and my story revolves around St. Valentine’s Day and is based on my stint as an independent consultant for Fantasia Home Parties. I team up again with some of my co-authors of Friday Night Chicas for the anthology Names I Call My Sister. They will be published by Avon/Harper Collins, and the ironic thing is that although it’s more chick lit than erotica, all the stories have very sexy plots. Mine even has an S&M angle!
Sofia Quintero will read from and sign Divas Don't Yield on Tuesday, April 18th at 7 p.m. at Bluestockings Bookstore, 172 Allen Street. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/sofiaquintero for more information on Sofia Quintero, and for details about her writing alter ego Black Artemis, visit www.blackartemis.com and http://blackartemis.blogspot.com. Get the latest on Chica Luna at www.chicaluna.com and on Sister/Outsider at www.sisteroutsider.biz Divas Don't Yield is available in bookstores now.