This summer, writer Isabel Quintero and illustrator Zeke Peña came out with their latest book, My Papi Has A Motorcycle. It’s a love story between a father and daughter and their city, Corona, California.
I’ve been excited about the work of Quintero and Peña since meeting them in 2017, when they published >Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide, a graphic biography, with Getty Publications. The book follows the life and legacy of Iturbide, the famed Mexican photographer. The book explores the places, people, and emotions that have shaped Graciela Iturbide’s life and photographic career.
Quintero’s background is in poetry; her first book, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces addressed topics including teen pregnancy, coming out, and drug addiction in a raw and real way. “YA literature is literature. Adults underestimate young people all the time,” she said. Her stories shed light on marginalized voices, giving agency to young women of color often missing from coming-of-age narratives.
I visited Isabel in her home in Loma Linda, California, as part of a multimedia story on the book, and we talked about her process as a poet and writer, her encounter with Graciela’s work, and what it was like to write her first-ever graphic biography.
Sarah Waldorf: You’ve just written a graphic biography about photographer Graciela Iturbide. How would you describe yourself, and the book?
Isabel Quintero: I’m the daughter of Mexican immigrants, a writer, and an author of poetry, fiction, young adult fiction, and children’s books.
The new book is a biography of Graciela Iturbide, but it looks at her life through the lens of her photography.
SW: How did Graciela Iturbide’s photographs influence the way you approached the book?
IQ: I wanted to tell her story in a way that reflected how I was feeling when I looked at her images and learned about her life. Graciela says that photography was a way for her to understand the world, and with that in mind I’d ask myself when looking at her images, “Ok, what was she trying to understand here?”
I think the photographs in the book focus on Graciela’s interest in in-betweenness. Sometimes I’d find myself in my living room pacing about, talking out loud to myself about her photographs and what it is she’s really trying to show the audience with her images. One of the things I find interesting in what she talks about is how photography doesn’t really document a real moment—to her, a photograph is more similar to an idea, and is just one perspective on reality.
I read about how she wanted to be a writer and a poet when she was younger and how poetry has influenced her work, and that really touched me because I write poetry. There’s a lot of metaphor—and I know as writers we aren’t supposed to say “hey, that’s a metaphor” and point to metaphor in our own work—but she uses birds a lot and so I wanted the bird to really pop out as a character in story.
SW: What do Graciela’s photographs mean to you personally?
IQ: I’m Chicana—Mexican American—and I feel this strong connection to my Mexican heritage. I feel as though I’m in this in-between space culturally. I’m constantly in the state of being both American and Mexican, and I think her work is in a state of present and past simultaneously.
Her work speaks to me in different ways about Mexico. Though her intent isn’t to be political, my viewing of them is very political. They really speak to me, of constantly being in between and searching for a place to stay or a place to exist.
SW: Birds appear several times in the book. Why? What do they mean?
IQ: Graciela is in two forms throughout the book—Graciela as a woman on the page speaking, and also Graciela as a bird.
In interviews, Graciela has said that to her birds mean freedom. A bird goes out, it flies, it can do all these things unattached from the earth.
The first time she takes photographs of birds is in a cemetery, and she’s photographing a child who has passed away. To her, the birds are an omen telling her “you’re free.” She had been mourning the death of her own daughter and was photographing funerals to better understand and process the death in her own life.
Zeke, the illustrator of the project, did an amazing job with all the different kinds of birds throughout the book.
SW: You are a poet. What is poetry to you—and how can a photograph have “poetic” qualities?
IQ: Julie Paegle, a poet and professor at Cal State San Bernardino, said, “Poetry is the art of language.” Evoking emotion through words. When I think of poetry sometimes—not always—there’s a lyrical quality to it. I think that is the same for Graciela’s images.
When you look at her images, you imagine what the subject is feeling, you try to put words to it. There is movement and exchange between you as the viewer and her images.
She has said that she doesn’t photograph things with the intent to be political or to make people feel a certain way. I think that’s interesting, because to photograph something is very deliberate. Just like writing a poem, it’s very deliberate. But you don’t necessarily want to tell people how to think, you want to prompt readers to bring their own experience to the work.
SW: Let’s talk about your process. This was your first time writing a book in this format—as a graphic biography. What was the experience like?
IQ: I’ll be honest. It was very hard for me at the beginning, and I’m fortunate that Zeke is very patient and that he’s had experience with the process before. He gave me tips, book recommendations, and helped shape how I was formatting the text. Writing a graphic novel is more like writing a screenplay—it was totally different than what I’m used to with a novel. With a graphic novel, I have to take into consideration the space on the page. How much room is there for dialogue? How much room for narration? Where can we fit the date or some sort of expository text?
If I’m writing a novel or short story, I can write the contextual cues of a place in a story. However, in a graphic novel, I had to give stage directions. I had to think, what would Zeke draw here? What is he supposed to draw here? I had to ask myself these questions.
I hope to collaborate with Zeke again in the future—because I’m certain I’d frustrate him less!
Who do you hope reads the book, and what do you hope they’ll get out of it?
IQ: I hope the reader feels transported into her photographs. Zeke did an amazing job of bringing her photographs to life. I think the book is really immersive and readers will feel as though they’ve gone through her life and to these places with her.
Interested in Graciela’s response to the book? Read our multimedia story on the making of the book, including a visit with Graciela in her studio in Mexico City.
Read our interview with Zeke Peña, illustrator of Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide on The Getty Iris.
Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide is available from the Getty Store.