An Indies Introduce Q&A with Carolina Ixta

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Carolina Ixta is the author of Shut Up, This is Serious, a Winter/Spring 2024 Indies Introduce young adult selection and January/February 2024 Kids’ Next List pick.

Ixta is a writer from Oakland, California. A daughter of Mexican immigrants, she received her BA in Creative Writing and Spanish Language and Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and obtained her Master’s degree in Education at the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently an elementary school teacher whose pedagogy centers critical race theory at the primary education level. 

Erin Rivera of The Frugal Frigate in Redlands, California, served on the bookseller panel that selected Ixta's book for Indies Introduce. Rivera said of Ixta's debut, "This book broke me and put me back together in the best of ways. I want to lean my forehead against Belén’s and feel the empathy flow between us. I love her like I love my younger self — flaws and amazingness all together. Our futures were and are bright.”

Here, Ixta and Rivera discuss Shut Up, This is Serious.

Erin Rivera: Your novel beautifully portrays the experiences of Latina characters in a large city setting, highlighting issues such as teen pregnancy and mental health. What inspired you to delve into these themes, and how do you believe they resonate with young adult readers today?

Carolina Ixta: Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say. I wanted to write a book that celebrated and critiqued the Mexican American identity, because there’s lots of room for both. I also wanted to work against tropes I’d seen for Latina girls in the media. The trope of the pregnant Latina girl is one I’d seen many times before, but I hadn’t really seen anyone discuss the why behind the pregnancies. So much of it can be attributed to the long aftershocks of colonization and its offering of Catholicism.

I also wanted to dive into uncharted territory I hadn’t seen in young adult literature for Mexican American youth. Specifically, how profoundly racist and anti-Black our culture can be. I’d read a lot of books where racism was perpetrated toward Mexican youth, but I wanted to write about how we often are the people who are perpetrating it. And it usually begins within the confines of our own culture before permeating elsewhere. Colorism turns to racism turns to anti-Blackness with swiftness.

I think young adult readers will find these topics nuanced and layered and worthy of their attention. I wanted to write something fresh, but challenging. I firmly believe in creating literature for young people that doesn’t underestimate their intelligence and doesn’t negate their experiences. Holding both in simultaneity is possible, and I hope I achieved that here.

ER: Therapy plays a significant role in Belén’s journey, offering a unique perspective on mental health. How did you approach the portrayal of therapy in the story, and what message do you hope readers will take away from it?

CI: I think the conversation around therapy has become a lot more normalized in young people’s lexicon. So, I wanted to make sure this approach seemed as organic as possible. I consulted with friends who are counselors to help write the therapy scenes for authenticity’s sake. They walked me through many exercises around the scales of compassion from Paul Gilbert, which helped me identify what Belén was exactly struggling with from a professional’s perspective.

I wanted therapy to be a lightbulb moment for Belén. She’s not able to identify what it is she’s struggling with, or really that she’s struggling with anything at all, until someone sits down to ask her. Which, I think, is the reality for many young people. I wanted to showcase how powerful a simple question can be, and the difference it can make in a young person’s life. I hope young readers are able to walk away knowing there are trusted professionals you can speak to when you’ve gone through a challenging time. In fact, I think you should speak to one if you are able to.

There’s lots to say about obstacles put before young people to accessing mental health care — specifically a relentlessly racist and classist health care system. Additionally, for young Latinx people, our culture usually doesn’t embrace therapy with open arms. It can be cast as a symbol of weakness or whiteness or both, and I hope our culture can move away from that to witness the growth therapy can offer.

ER: The Bay Area serves as a rich backdrop for your story, and I loved the details about the geography and visuals as the characters move through the story. How did the setting influence the narrative, and how did you incorporate the unique cultural and geographical elements of the Bay Area into the lives of your characters?

CI: Thank you for that. I was raised all over the East Bay, but the biggest ties in my childhood trace back to Fruitvale. So, when I thought about writing a book, there was no other option for me than to set it there.

I wanted to create a book for Oakland and Bay Area locals to understand. We have impactful stories about the Bay Area and East Oakland — Fruitvale Station, Sorry to Bother You, Nightcrawling, Blindspotting — and one of my favorite things about consuming those stories is identifying locations I recognize. When locals read my book, I wanted them to be able to say, “I know exactly where that is.” Every setting, spare one or two, is a real place. Some, I hold very near to my heart (shoutout to that Wendy’s, shoutout to those fruteros in front of that Bank of America, shoutout to Oakland Grill). There was no such thing as an insignificant detail — everything had purpose.

With that, there are elements of this book that I think only locals will understand. And that was purposeful. So much of Oakland culture colors these characters — Belén is not just from East Oakland, she’s from Fruitvale. There’s a difference there. Alexis is not just from Oakland, he’s from Montclair. There’s a huge difference there. These are distinctions that I had to explain in the book, but real locals would know them without a second thought. My dedication in this book says: For Fruitvale, forever. And I mean that wholeheartedly. It is for people from there, first.

ER: Your book provides a platform for diverse voices and experiences. Can you speak to the importance of diverse representation in young adult literature, and how do you hope your work will contribute to a more inclusive and empathetic understanding of the issues your characters face?

CI: There’s a lot to say about this. I’ll start by saying that I’m thrilled to see that the market has taken a turn in the last decade to include so many enriching stories from diverse voices. But I want to say that it’s really disheartening that this feat has taken this long. And it’s doubly disheartening that these new additions are often the same books that face the brunt of book banning.

I’ll underscore that I think there is still a lot of work to do. Because, although there’s been an uptick in diverse characters in YA, I worry often about their mishandling. I’ve read a number of books that include an ensemble cast of diverse characters, but that do not give them the depth that they deserve, or that push them to the periphery to create a heroic story arc for a white protagonist. I’d encourage all authors to look into sensitivity or authenticity readers to create holistic diverse characters.

I’ve seen what publishing diverse stories can do for myself and for my students. We can talk windows and mirrors and sliding glass doors until we’re blue in the face — but to me, the crux of it all is that not publishing diverse stories, at its best, is negligent. At its worst, it’s insidious. And honestly, the terms can reconcile as synonymous.

I hope my work serves as a platform to understand the diversity of stories that can exist within one ethnic group. I strayed from a lot of the tropes expected for Latina women in media because tropes are created, not born. The large archetypes for Latina women don’t happen because these are the types of things Latina women really do, but rather, because there’s a larger system (typically one rooted in whiteness) deciding that these are the stories worth producing and reproducing.

I hope this book, in some small way, demonstrates that Latina women are worthy of nuanced stories that stray from prescriptive pathways. My larger hope is that it inspires other Latina women to tell their stories, however nuanced, because they are more than important — they’re needed.

ER: The relationship between sisters Belén and Ava in your book is complex, especially given their shared experience of an absent father. How did you approach portraying the dynamics between these young women, and what do you hope readers will take away from their relationship’s arc?

CI: I really wanted Belén and Ava’s relationship to detail how one traumatic experience affects two people very differently. Nature and nurture often have very similar roots, but very different branches. I wanted to discuss how these sisters split off in their experiences, even in their similarities.

Without spoiling too much, I also wanted to highlight the parentification of eldest siblings, and wanted to discuss the natural consequences of those unfair positionalities. I think Ava is struggling as is with the departure of her father, but has the added layer of caring for her sister atop it. Mexican culture often sees the oldest daughter as the second mother, and it comes with ramifications that I can’t understand as the youngest daughter, but that I can identify are burdensome.

Positive relationships with women is a central theme in the book, even one that’s mentioned in the epigraph. Although Belén is able to confide in characters like Ali and Quentin, some of her strongest moments of growth happen within sisterhood — blood-related or not. Having a sister and having women as my closest friends have shaped me into a better and stronger person. I wanted to give Belén the same nourishment those relationships have given me.

Shut Up, This Is Serious by Carolina Ixta (Quill Tree Books, 9780063287860, Hardcover Young Adult, $19.99) On Sale: 1/9/2024.

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