Five questions with Marvel Comics writer Gabby Rivera ahead of VU visit

Gabby Rivera, the award-winning writer of Juliet Takes a Breath and the Marvel Comics series America, will visit the Vanderbilt community Sept. 24-25 for a keynote and Q&A, meet and greet and writer’s workshop presented by the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. “We are honored that Gabby Rivera will visit our campus to share about the power of telling your own story,” said James Page, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion. “It is critical that we amplify diverse voices and deconstruct false narratives that so often marginalize and render people invisible. I hope the Vanderbilt community will join us for what is sure to be an impactful program.”

Rivera’s keynote, titled “Inspiring Radical Creativity: Empowering Young, Diverse Voices to Tell Their Own Stories,” will be on Sept. 24 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in Sarratt Cinema. On Sept. 25, a meet and greet with Rivera at the Wond’ry is scheduled from 8 to 9:15 a.m. followed by a writer’s workshop from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Advance RSVP is required for the writer’s workshop event.

Before her visit, MyVU had the opportunity to speak with Rivera to learn more about her writing process, discuss how she incorporates her voice and experiences into her work, and hear her advice for aspiring writers.

MyVU: You are the writer of America for Marvel Comics, which features Marvel’s first Latina lesbian character, America Chavez. In what ways have you infused some of your own experiences into America Chavez’s narrative?

Gabby Rivera: The voice that I’m bringing is young, queer, Puerto Rican, from the Bronx. I think that’s also something that’s different for the character—we share identities, and it isn’t that often you have characters that are being written by people who share those experiences. I think with my perspective, what I bring to the table is a similarly bouncy energy. I want to flip the perceptions of what it means to be a queer person, a Latinx person. I just want to be able to tell fun stories that also connect to the real stuff going on in the world around us. That’s why with America there are elements where she gets to be this fantastical superhero, but she also has to navigate things like racism, immigration and corporate takeovers. 

MyVU: In your preface for Juliet Takes a Breath, you write that a book Juliet had read was a “refuge” in many ways. In what ways have you seen your writings become a refuge for readers?

GR: You know, there are a lot of folks, a lot of young Latinas out in the world, a lot of young LGBTQ youth and a lot of parents, too, that have come to me saying that my books, and Juliet specifically, not only helped them figure out themselves, but helped them relate to somebody that they love. I’ve definitely had moms say, “I read Juliet so that I could understand my daughter better,” and I’ve had daughters come up and say, “I read Juliet and it helped me understand how my mom has reacted to my queerness and my coming out.” So that’s what I think is like a refuge—you want to be able to see yourself more clearly. I think when it comes to Juliet, the refuge is, there is a place where you can be queer and Latino and young and from the hood and still be a gentle, soft, beautiful human being. The story and the narrative doesn’t have to reflect what you see in the mainstream media. You don’t have to be this tough, unfeeling woman that takes the brunt of everything, you can be soft. I think if there is a refuge in my work and in Juliet, that is what it is—there is a softness there, there’s a gentleness.

MyVU: What does your writing process look like, and in what ways does writing a comic differ from writing a novel?

GR: The writing process for writing America Chavez versus writing Juliet is like two totally different worlds. Writing a novel, for me—I’m just kind of running with my ideas, filling up pages, long paragraphs, description. I have all the time and space in the world; I’m going to dump it all out, and then edit it and make it pretty. With a comic, you have a lot of very specific constraints, so the writing process becomes more, “How do I fit my ideas that normally have an entire page to run free into panels and into columns and into tiny, tiny little word bubbles?” So it’s like shifting the message of how you tell a story.

MyVU: What are the underlying values or themes that you try to communicate through your work?

GR: In everything I do, I just try to make sure that there is a model for how we can be in better community with each other and a model to showcase different ways of being in love and in friendship. I really just want to make sure there’s a space for people, especially young people, to know you have the right, and it is your duty, to fully investigate yourself and to love on yourself and to explore all of the things that you want to do. And while you are doing those things, you must remember to be gentle and respectful of everybody around you. I think that if there is any message in my work, that’s it.

MyVU: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to create literature that resonates with people from diverse backgrounds and identities?

GR: Make sure to write people first and not what you imagine a Korean person sounds like or what you imagine a lesbian from the Bronx sounds like. You should always just write people—people that are interesting and complicated. People that you could love and hate. And then the details come in, and by details, I mean identities and all that stuff. You should look at it that way and not like, “Oh wow, I’ve got to make sure I stick a person of color in here.”

I think that just goes back into the work that you are doing in your life, right? No matter what color you are, are you invested in the work of communities of color? Are you reading books and are you making friends and loving people outside of your basic community? Are you making efforts to bring other folks and other cultures and experiences into your life in an authentic way? Not to then take on their story and their struggle and tell it, but to remember that your characters are compelling because they are real people that you know and love.

“Gabby Rivera: Inspiring Radical Creativity” is sponsored by the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center; Latino and Latina Studies; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Life; the Office for Inclusive Excellence; The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons; the Office of the Dean of Students; and Immersion Vanderbilt.

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