Gabby Rivera (Salon Talks)

Inside Gabby Rivera's joyful, queer Marvel revolution

Salon talks to the "America Chavez" comic writer about hope, mentorship and diving into the X-Men canon


Mary Elizabeth Williams
June 3, 2019 8:00PM (UTC)

Gabby Rivera is a superhero. The storyteller, public speaker, editor, poet, and author wrote the solo series for America Chavez, Marvel's first queer Latina star. Her TED talk on radical craft has been viewed over one million times. And now, her acclaimed 2016 debut novel "Juliet Takes A Breath" is getting a new release in September from Penguin Young Readers.

"Salon Talks" sat down with the multitasking author recently for a conversation about creativity, identity and the revolutionary power of joy.

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Your debut novel is one of the things that helped put you on the map. Now it's coming out again in a big release from a different publisher. How did that come about?

"Juliet Takes A Breath" is the little book that could. It's got some wings on it. It came out of me writing in my mom's basement apartment. I can't believe it's made it off of that old computer I had and here, out into the world.

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I was with a print on demand publisher, so I did most of that getting it out into the world on my own, sending copies out into the world, buying my own copies. Penguin now has come along saying, we love this book so much that we want to make sure that it gets into as many hands, to as many young people as possible. They scooped me right up, and we're on the move to publish September 17, to get Juliet into all those hands.

A fall release, also beginning of the school year.

Get ready.

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Get ready. Three years ago, we were living in a different America, in a culturally different country. Is this book different now? Do you feel like the audience and the conversation around it are different now?

I think there's always room for a story about a kid trying to find their way. No matter the climate, no matter the politics, there's always room for that — a story of self-discovery and understanding. Juliet, she's Puerto Rican from the Bronx. She is a baby dyke. She's thick-bodied. All of these different things. That's where I think the relevancy of today's climate really hits. Because people are pissed. People want the stories that reflect them. People are tired of false narratives and liars. People are furious. So this is the kind of book that can bounce into your lap, bring you a little joy, and also help you rage against the machine.

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This is about a young woman finding her own identity, as opposed to having some white person just tell her what her identity is. That feels also more relevant than ever.

Totally. I feel like from the beginning, it's patriarchy. It's a man or your father or somebody dictating the rules of your body and what you can do. Religion, all this stuff. Then with "Juliet Takes A Breath," she has to combat this idea of white feminism and white privilege and the ways that it impacts her. That's something that probably before she goes on this adventure she may not have had the language for. That's what I wanted to offer too. One model, one set of language that can be used while you're exploring yourself, in a world that often tells you it doesn't want you here.

The character's journey comes from this place of defining herself early on by that external language and really thinking about, "Well, am I a feminist, but is feminist too white-lady? Because I think my mom is a feminist person, but then she's not. How do I develop that language for myself"? That is a real through line in the story that's so interesting to watch in any young character.

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Because sometimes there is no one guiding you. Especially if you're a young, queer person navigating the world of color. If you're disabled. All these different identities. Where is your story? Where do you see it? There are sometimes no models of that existence that are joyous, that you survive. That is what I was putting into Juliet as well. Here's this way for you to thrive in the world.

This is a story very much about a young woman who finds not just the one central mentor relationship in it, but the mentorship of the other women in her family, of her peers. Now you are in this place, Gabby, where you are a mentor. You have, in a very short span of time, become your own elder statesperson. You go around the country, you talk to colleges. That is a huge part of what you do. You are bringing up these other people who are coming right behind you.

What a gift. What a joy.

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It seems like it's always been a priority for you. As soon as you could, you flipped it around to become that mentor figure.

That's what I'm trying to do. I feel like I have thrived in this world because of my mentors, and literally all my mentors have been women. Women that have worked hard, that are hustling — starting with my mom and my grandmas who worked their way up in this world and became professional educators. One of my mentors, the Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, taught me how to speak in my authentic voice while navigating a relationship with God the divine. Then there are my Latina writing mentors and the other queer women writers have fostered me. That is something I've always wanted to offer to anybody else.

When I go out there and I speak to young folks on the joy that I experienced being a Puerto Rican dyke from the Bronx, sometimes they are just overwhelmed that someone has joy in those identities. I love being able to share that with them, and be like, this is for you. This joy is yours. Run, flourish.

I always feel whenever you talk to younger people you just learn so much from them. You learn as much from them as you can give. Are you seeing a difference in this young generation coming up than what you were experiencing as a young woman?

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To a degree, yes. I think because younger folks now have more access to vocabulary they can specify their needs. I love when young people pull me aside and say, 'Okay, 'Juliet Takes A Breath,' we love that she's Puerto Rican, that she's a baby dyke. In your next work, can you highlight young people that have disabilities? Can you highlight mental health more? Because we need this." They're always lovingly, demanding what the next move is and what they want to see in art, media, literature. It's so great. Yes. Tell us. Tell us. Demand it, and also go out and create it.

Let's talk about America — not just the country, but America the character. You were not necessarily a big Marvel person before this opportunity came along.

No, but my family, yes, big comic book folks.

What is the process then, of getting yourself up to speed on this world and these characters? Again, she's a character who has a mentor, multiple mentors, including Storm.

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It is huge. First of all, what a treat, to be the first Latina to write for Marvel comics. Wow, wow, wow. Then not only that, I get to write the solo series for their first lesbian Latina character, America Chavez. Right away, I was excited. You do your work, you dive right in. She already existed in the Marvel universe. So I read everything that they had already written about her. Marvel was excellent in sending me PDFs of X-Men comics from the '80s and stuff. Like, "You want to write about Storm? Here's how we can help you prepare for Storm in this."

Also I did my research. I talked to my friends deep in the comic world. There's a trans Latina writer, Mey Rude. She writes a lot of comics stuff for Autostraddle, and a lot of places. I reached out to her, and I said, "What do you love about America Chavez? What do you want to see in a comic written by me? What do you expect?" Because I reached to my communities first, that gave me a really good foundation to go wild with America's story.

Now you're a name in the comic book world. Has it changed the way now you have a relationship with comics?

Totally. I have fallen into that deep love with comics, and I especially have a soft spot for comics coming from Boom! Studios, where they do the Lumberjanes, they do Goldie Vance. It's all these comics about friendship and respect and love and different identities. Kids are gender queer and they're exploring themselves, and so I love that gentle, excitable, fresh, young person comic.

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That's coming at it with all this joy and curiosity and history. You're very, very grounded in, "We need to know our history. We need to know."

I'm trying. Identities aside, because we can talk identities til the cows come home, this is still the story of a young person. In "Juliet Takes A Breath," Juliet is exploring herself and she has questions about, "What does it mean to be Puerto Rican? Is it just this parade that I go to with my family? Who were the Young Lords? Why don't I know about Lolita Lebrón?"

I didn't know about Lolita Lebrón until I read this book. I had no idea.

We have ancestors that have been raging against U.S. politics forever, and so yes, it's a push. The same thing with America. I have one panel where I'm like, "Crack yourself wide open, forge your path, find your ancestors." So in "Juliet," it's the same thing. We have the right to explore ourselves and go into our histories, and say, "This is who I am. This is who my people were. This is what we demand for ourselves in the future."

In a culture where everything is so immediate, we forget what happened yesterday. You have this character give this example of, take that time to reflect, and take that time to look back and look at where any of us come from.

Totally. That's why I'm dropping in real folks. Even in America Chavez's story, she goes to the University of Sonia Sotomayor. Justice Sotomayor is this beautiful hologram that welcomes everybody into this school.

I am putting my real life heroes into the work that I'm doing, because a lot of times I do not see my heroes reflected around me in this world. I tend to see more of the people that were violent towards us made into heroes. We're literally in New York City where 59th street is Christopher Columbus Circle. We've got those monuments, with the statue and the fountains. But I put my monuments in my work.

We forget so much, but when you put it in your work, it's forever. So for [as long as] "Juliet Takes A Breath" exists, there will be a little piece of Lolita Lebrón, will be a little piece of the Young Lords.

Even talking to you right now, a word that comes up again and again and again in everything you talk about, Gabby.

Joy?

Joy is front and center in everything you do. You did this interview a couple of years ago, where you talked about how so often stories of Latina women have been rooted in tragedy.

You are extremely determined to make stories about joy, and to put joy and gentleness and softness and exuberance into these stories. I think every day about Harvey Milk saying, you got to give them hope.

Wow. Yes. Harvey Milk.

Because it's very hard to be determined in the world and go out and change things if you feel sad all the time.

Well, here's the thing, it's not just joy as a blank concept — I am joyful because they got my Starbucks order right, or I'm joyful because I threw away those old sweatpants. It is joy and revolution. I never want to say, "Put your pain away." In that pain and in that community, when we are together, we are joy. We build it. My definition of joy has tragedy. It has violence, it has pain, it has suffering. But it is beauty when we come together. I move with that every day because I feel like I have to. If there's any responsibility that I feel that I have, it is to move with love and with joy and to hold space, because there's so much pain and stuff.

That's what hope is. Hope is not being immune to tragedy.

I love that.

It's experiencing it and then moving forward anyway.

Totally.

That's really so much a huge part of what you do, creating these characters who have so much strength and also, it seems to me, really questioning that particularly Latino idea of machismo.

Machismo, right. For sure.

There is strength in your gentleness, and that's so much a part of the women in your life and the women in your family.

Honestly, look at me. When I sit somewhere on the bus or a train, no one sits next to me, no one wants to sit next to a butch dyke with tattoos. People tell me, "Oh my God, you're so nice in real life. I was intimidated." People have this idea of what it means to be me, to be in this body, to be in this gender presentation. It is exhausting, because literally I just want to hug your babies, play with your puppy, and run around in the sun with you. That's what I want to put out in the world. That's what I want to share and say, hey, it's OK. Be happy, be joyful. Don't be afraid of me, but also don't disrespect me.

Joy as a revolutionary act.

Yes. One million percent. Love yourself.

 


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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