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Artist Christine Suggs on their graphic novel 'Ay, Mija'


Christine Suggs has taken pages from their own life to tell the story of a 16-year-old, Christine, who takes a trip to visit their grandparents and aunt in Mexico. But they don't speak Spanish. They don't know the city, and they don't feel that they fit in - not in Mexico, not really back home in Texas either. "Ay, Mija!: My Bilingual Summer In Mexico" is the graphic novel from Christine Suggs and illustrator and comic artist who joins us now from Dallas.

Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRISTINE SUGGS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Is this you, Christine? Are you two Christines?

SUGGS: I mean, it is a trip writing about your teenage self. I mean, I'm definitely a different person from when I was then. And it was really fun to kind of dive back into that mindset.

SIMON: You seem to make a point of not translating the Spanish that Christine hears. Why is that?

SUGGS: So actually, my first couple of drafts, I translated everything down to the last hola. I was so paranoid that people wouldn't get it. And I think it's really hard to tell when it's a language you've grown up around, especially living in Texas. Everyone here knows a bit of Spanish enough to get by usually. And my editor actually pushed back and was like, You don't have to do that. Let your readers learn with you.

SIMON: Does it help us understand Christine's discomfort?

SUGGS: I think so. Like, it's definitely a culture shock. You kind of miss hearing English. After a while, you start to feel like - there's a line in the book that says, I feel like just a body without a voice. And you feel a little bit isolated, honestly.

SIMON: Yeah. Christine muses at one point to themselves, I stick out here just like I do at home. Help us understand why.

SUGGS: So I came up in the '90s and the early 2000s, and this was a time when I just didn't see anyone who looked like me on the cartoons that I so loved and adored. You know, this was the age of something literally called heroin chic. And I'm over here, a fat kid, a half-Mexican kid. And I really felt out of place from a pretty early age and, like, got bullied from a pretty early age. So going to Mexico, I still didn't fit in there either. You know, everyone is, like, tanner than me. Everyone speaks the language better than me. It didn't quite feel like home, but it still did, in a weird way. It's a very unique experience.

SIMON: Cristine sees things that were part of her mother's childhood. That helps, doesn't it?

SUGGS: Yeah. Yeah. I think getting to see your parents as they were as a kid is always interesting, especially when you see your parent being parented. And, like, I love meeting my friends' parents. I'm like, ooh, this is, like, a shortcut to all the knowledge of you.

SIMON: That's usually the sign to start cringing and scrunching down, too, isn't it?

SUGGS: I mean, a little, yeah. It's like, oh, this is where you get all those tics, huh? But seeing my mom interact with her parents is always a trip because, like, they have such a different relationship than me and my grandparents. They're much more affectionate with me. They spoil me like crazy. That's just kind of the culture there, is like, yeah, you take care of the grandkids like that. But with her, they're, like, a little more reserved, and they are a little more strict. Even now, like, as an adult, like, the scene in the book where they make her go change her shirt - like, that still happens today. Like, they have commentary on the fashion.

SIMON: We can feel that our children reflect us, where, as our grandchildren, oh, who cares?

SUGGS: Yeah. Yeah. It's like, oh, I just want to feed them good food and spoil them.

SIMON: Yeah. You were drawing from an early age.

SUGGS: Yes. I didn't start taking it seriously until maybe, like, early high school, late middle school or something and started copying some "Lion King" pictures and some bad anime. But my older brother would write these hilarious, like, James Bond knockoff stories. And so I wanted to be like him and everything. So I started copying him, and eventually, I started wanting to, like, draw what I was writing about. And it just kind of grew from there. But I've always been, like, very visual and just very into that.

SIMON: And what comes first to you, words or image?

SUGGS: I would say words. Whenever I write a comic, I always start with a script. And it's fortunate that I'm, like, mostly doing autobiographical work 'cause I know how to draw myself, so I don't have to practice that too much.

SIMON: Drawing yourself can be hard, though, can't it?

SUGGS: It can be. One of the things that was really difficult was going back and finding photos of the trip for research because I was the thinnest I've ever been. I was, like, roughly a size 8, and I felt the worst about my body I had ever had. So it was really a challenge to try to figure out how to depict that person and who they were then being honest to, like, my shape at the time, but also to, like, try to show that at that time, I was still struggling with my image, even though I'm much larger now.

SIMON: You note that you're much larger now, but how do you feel now?

SUGGS: I feel a million times better. I feel pretty hot.

SIMON: What changed?

SUGGS: Oh, man, a lot of things. I would say, namely therapy and buying nicer clothes for myself. But, you know, it took a lot of work, and it took a lot of sitting down and realizing that I don't have to go along with what other people consider attractive, and I can lean into what makes me feel good.

SIMON: Christine Suggs. Their new graphic novel for young readers, "Ay, Mija!: My Bilingual Summer In Mexico." Thank you so much for being with us.

SUGGS: Thank you so much for having me. This was very fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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