Interview: Sofia Quintero

Welcome to the 2010 Winter Blog Blast Tour!

Sofia Quintero is the author of Efrain’s Secret (Random House, 2010). Quintero’s works for adult include Divas Don’t Yield (One World/Ballantine, 2006) and stories in the collections Friday Night Chicas (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005) and Names I Call My Sister (Avon, 2007). Writing as Black Artemis, she has written Explicit Content (NAL Trade, 2004), Picture Me Rollin’ (NAL Trade, 2005) and Burn (NAL Trade, 2006).

From my review of Efrain’s Secret: ” I started this book a bit reluctant because I was afraid. Afraid of liking Efrain, afraid of getting angry as he took the wrong path, afraid of what would happen because these things never end well. I was right to be afraid; I liked Efrain, rooted for him, understand (but disagreed) with his choices, and was so caught up in his family and friendships that as Efrain’s Secret worked its way to the end, I was hesitant to read the final pages. One of the teen readers I know likes books that make her cry. I’ve found the perfect book to hand to her. . . .  What I like about Efrain’s Secret, what I am thankful for,  is just how Quintero resolves Efrain’s dilemma without being melodramatic. It rings true, it is satisfying, and it breaks your heart. I was right to be afraid — but I was wrong to let that stop me from reading this book.”

Liz B: I loved “Efrain’s Secret,” especially how Efrain’s two worlds were depicted. His “good son” world, with his mother and sister, doing well in school, aiming for Ivy League. His other world, with Nestor, on the street, selling drugs. What type of research did you do for for “Efrain’s Secret“?

Sofia: First, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the novel.  Some of my understanding of Efrain’s “shadow” life came from my previous career that included a stint running two alternative-to-incarceration programs in the South Bronx created by the Vera Institute of Justice.  The overwhelmingly majority of our clients were drug sale and possession cases.  I also interviewed an attorney at the Bronx Defenders and occasionally tossed a few questions at my brother who is a vice detective. But to get the gritty details of the economic, psychology and even the sociology of that lifestyle, I read so many other books.  Of particular note were, Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Vankatesh and, especially In Search of Respect by Philippe I. Bourgois.  With the exception of shows like The Wire and The Corner, I stayed away from popular TV and films because they tend to sensationalize if not glorify the scene.

Liz B: One sentence from “Efrain’s Secret” that really touched me was when his mother said, “Your education and your home are investments in your future. They’re the only things you’ll ever own.”  This totally echoed what my own mother, and her parents, said to me growing up: Education is the one thing they cannot take away from you. This probably explains the alphabet soup after my own name – -BS, JD, MLIS. So I have to ask, is this something you heard growing up?

Sofia: It wasn’t what I heard explicitly as much as I what I saw repeatedly.  My parents never said this to me, per se, but what they did say and do got the message across to my siblings and me. They were (im)migrants who never finished high school, and that is precisely why they impressed upon us the importance of doing well in school.  College was not an if for us but a when despite the fact that they never had the opportunity to go.  My grandparents owned their own home and so did my aunts and uncles, and my parents are now retired with two homes so homeownership is something we saw modeled in my family. 

Liz B: Each chapter starts with a SAT word. The word is meaningful to the chapter, but is also a constant reminder to the reader how focused Efrain is on his studies. In your writing process, what came first, the chapter or the words? I just have this image of you going through an SAT guide with post-its!

Sofia: Definitely the chapters, and I had something better than an SAT guide. On the Internet, I found a PDF called The 1000 Most Common SAT Words. And index cards instead of Post-its! At one point, I had an outline where I listed the word followed by a 3-5 sentence summary of what happens in that chapter. I changed that all the time as I would revise the manuscript.   In fact, there were quite a few times when I found a better word than the one I had originally chosen to capture the nuances and subtexts of a chapter.  I’m glad that the titles delivered on my intention for them.   Even though I did want the novel to have educational value, my primary intention behind the SAT words as chapter titles was to remind the reader why Efrain was enduring these tribulations. So much happens to him once he makes his choice that I worried readers might lose sight as to why he made that choice in the first place so the chapter titles were meant to serve as a constant reminder.

Liz B: Efrain’s Secret” includes music references. I confess, I didn’t realize Chingy was a real pop culture reference to a rapper — I thought it was a rapper created for the story. The music references makes me wonder, do you have a playlist for this book, of songs you listened to while writing? Or songs that you think Efrain and his friends listen to?

Sofia: I usually do have a playlist when I’m writing a novel that includes songs that the characters would like or capture their emotional experiences as well as songs that reflect the story’s larger themes and issues. Efrain’s Secret being a contemporary young adult novel in an urban setting, Efrain and his friend were pretty much listening to anything that was current at the time I was writing. But when developing these characters, I also give though to how their tastes might be different.  There are a great deal of artists that Efrain and Nestor would both enjoy, but being distinct individuals, there are also artists that one would like that the other would not. So I definitely use things like songs, books, television shows and films to help me give each character his or her distinct voice.

When I write, I much prefer to use current popular culture references. I’m aware that it can date the book, but then again, I think if a story is compelling, that will not stop a reader from returning to it again and again. If anything, I’m drawn to the novel being at once a time capsule of the time it was written but also a testament to the things that do not change, particularly about the human experience. That’s how I feel about the work of YA authors that I still reread at my age like Judy Blume and Marilyn Sachs to name just two, and maybe that’s a bit of arrogance on my part to think that anything that I will write will ever have that kind of lasting impact, but, hey, you can’t achieve if you never aspire to it.

Liz B: Efrain doesn’t receive much guidance from his guidance counselors at school (something I also found very familiar!)  What advice do you have for the real-life Efrains out there? And any advice for the adults in their lives, the parents, teachers, librarians, guidance counselors?

Sofia: Thanks for affirming that experience. Some people believe that the most incompetent advisor would still know about the things that Efrain eventually discovered on his own too late, but that skepticism misses the point. Mrs. Colfax is not so much incompetent as she is condescending. She’s blind to this though, believing that she is helping Efrain by telling him to lower the bar for himself. I myself went through what Efrain did when I was in high school. That was my experience, and you are not the only person – adult and child – who told me they know or experienced a Mrs. Colfax. Luckily, I also had wonderful teachers who encouraged and helped me to go for it.  To the real life Efrain’s I say there is plenty of information out there and people who are chomping at the bit to give it to you. Seek them out and start your search in your junior year of high school. Talk to your librarian, ask your favorite teachers and approach anyone else you know who went to college. Visit the admissions office of a nearby school or two regardless if they are places you think you want to attend. If someone at your school is trying to discourage you, make it your business to prove them wrong and find the people who will delight in helping you do that. They do exist.

To adults in the lives of the real-life Efrains I would say look out for the Mrs. Colfax among you. You’d be surprise at who the dream-killers are in the lives of the youth that you are trying to encourage and champion. Sometimes they are the very people who are paid to help them! Confront these people.

Liz B:  At the YALSA YA Lit Symposium, I learned about your “other hat” as author Black Artemis, writing Feminist Hip-Hop Noir. Could you explain what Feminist Hip-Hop Noir is? And your inspiration for writing it? For someone (like me!) who hasn’t read your grown-up books, which one would you recommend starting with?

Sofia: Among other things, the novels I write as Black Artemis are a form of cultural activism for me. I often say that I write them for women who love hip-hop even when hip-hop fails to love them in return. Although one cannot always separate the two, there is a distinction between hip-hop the subculture and hip-hop the commodity. Hip-hop the subculture has always been and continues to be a location of creative resistance, and in writing these novels I hope to contribute to that. Because of the misogyny in hip-hop, many women who once love it have given it up. I can understand and respect that, but I choose to carve out a space for myself and other women in hip-hop by writing the Black Artemis novels. Our support – as consumers, practitioners, the mothers, partners and sisters of the men in the culture – was and is integral to the survival and success of hip-hop as both a grassroots culture and a multibillion dollar global industry so I’ll be damned if we’re driven out of it! So these stories are both critique and affirmation.

Of the three I’ve written so far I would say read Picture Me Rollin’. I think it’s the best one. I sometimes describe it as my feminist response to Hustle and Flow, but it actually takes the familiar felon-come-home trope and imagines how it might change if the convicted felon who returns to her community after a stint in prison was a young Latina woman. And at one point in the story she is introduced to feminist ideas and is mentored by a woman who was once a member of the Young Lords Party of the 60s. For that and other reasons, it tends to be the one that university professors most frequently assign to their students and invite me to campus to discuss. My company Sister Outsider Entertainment even produced a book trailer for it that I directed. But the stories are very different, and the synopsis, reviews and first chapter of each is available at so you and other readers can decide for themselves which they may want read first.

Liz B: What are you working on now?

Sofia: I’m working on my second young adult called Show and Prove that is set in the early 80s in New York City. That one definitely has one heck of a playlist! I am also a filmmaker and video producer. In March 2011 I’m launching a web series called HomeGirl.TV. My best friend and business partner Elisha Miranda (who is also an amazing young adult novelist ) are developing a television series called Sangria Street. We call it a Latina Sex and the City because the entertainment business likes its shorthand, but we being who we are, you can bet it is going to be something more than Carrie Bradshaw and her friends in brownface.

Liz B: What books have you read recently that you’d recommend to teens?

Sofia: Recent books that I highly recommend to young people are Jumped by Rita Williams-Garcia and Rikers High by Paul Volponi. Some that are a few years old, but I continue to recommend include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon.  For the most part, I prefer to recommend authors rather than just titles so among the ones I just mentioned, I also encourage them to try anything written by Angela Johnson, Coe Booth, Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake and Rene Saldaña. And that’s just for starters!

Liz B: Thank you! And this is why in the battle between me and my to-be-read pile of books…the pile of books always wins and never gets shorter.

The rest of the Winter Blog Blast Tour for today, with a round up of links and quotes at Chasing Ray:

Marilyn Singer at Writing and Ruminating

Jennifer Donnelly at Shelf Elf

Ted Chiang at Shaken & Stirred

Maria Snyder at Finding Wonderland


7 thoughts on “Interview: Sofia Quintero

  1. I just discovered that Picture Me Rollin’ and several of Sofia’s other novels are available in ebook versions here in the UK. There goes my whole weekend…

    I’m desperate to read Efrain’s Secret but it won’t be released here until some time next year!


  2. It’s not often that you read a novel in which you disagree with the protag, but root for the novel to finish well anyway. This sounds like a winner. Thanks for introducing the SLJ audience to an author that they might not otherwise have ever picked up. And thank you for asking what Feminist Hip-Hop Noir, and not being afraid to not know everything. 🙂


  3. I really really liked Efrain’s Secret. It is indeed one of those books in which you like the mian character but wince at his choices and are fearfully waiting for him to get caught up. It was plausible with a bit of hope.

    I love the descirption of Feminist Hip Hop Noir because I’ve always felt torn about hip hop, I love it so, but you’re right, it doesn’t love us back.

    Sofia Quintero is involved in so much! Activist, author, producer. It’s truly inspriring. Thank you for this interview Liz and Sofia 🙂


  4. Emily, I’m looking forward to reading Sofia’s grown up books. I look forward to hearing your response to Efrain’s Secret. I’m also curious as to how it may be edited for the UK audience, if at all, because I believe the university application process is different in the UK.

    Tanita, I hope I didn’t disappoint by admitting that I don’t know everything! LOL.

    Tanita & Ari, if you ever get the chance to hear Sofia speak, go! I was just blown away by her at the YALSA Lit Symposium.


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