When novelist Meg Medina talks about her own experiences with bullying, the pain in her voice is still acute. “There's a shame to it,” she says, quietly. “You start to wonder if there really is something wrong with you.”
The title and first line of Medina's new book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, is taken nearly word for word from a threat Medina received as a teenager. “Someone approached me and said, 'So and so is going to kick your ass.' And I had no idea who that person was, no clue why I was targeted. It had a huge and terrible impact on me,” she recalls. “I started to skip school and try on all kinds of personalities, each more fierce and reckless, to try and make myself as hard as possible, so I'd be more fearsome. It didn't work!” Medina can laugh now at her past attempts to be tough. But “being afraid in a place that was supposed to be safe—that takes years to get over.”
Medina's character, Piedad Sanchez, tries the same techniques as Medina. A once-eager student, Piddy starts skipping school, falling behind and hanging out with people her mother disapproves of. Her aggressors are relentless and manage to make Piddy's life miserable. It's only the intervention of a new friend that saves her from making decisions that would have probably had a lasting negative impact on the rest of her life.
“What was important to me in writing the book was to present the experience honestly in terms of the fear,” Medina says.
Medina acknowledges that bullying today is different than it was when she was in school. While now there are more programs established to combat bullying, there's also the sweeping power of social media. “It's another level of humiliation,” she says. “What's being said becomes so public, you can't hide from it. And it's so easy for the person who's doing the victimizing—they're behind a keyboard; they can say whatever they want.”
Bullying isn't the only issue Piddy has to deal with: learning about her absent father; finding common ground with her mother; relationships that suddenly evolve beyond her control—the list of challenges is long. “I think that's the chief work we're wrestling with at that age,” says Medina. “We're trying to figure out desperately what our truth is, who we are as people, what our relationship is going to be with our parents as we try to pull away. It's such hard work! When bullying happens, or any other major life event, it doesn't stop the rest of your life from happening. It all becomes this murky soup.”
“It wasn't a conscious decision to include all that when I sat down to write the book,” she adds. “But I was writing in first person and sort of mainlined back to when I was a teen. Some days you write it white-knuckled because you go back to those feelings. It's hard.”
While Medina's book hits some pretty heavy pressure points (Kirkus, in a starred review, discovers “themes of identity, escapism and body image” while calling the book “far more than a problem novel”), it's still a hopeful read rather than a depressing one. One particular point of brightness is Salon Corazon, where Piddy sweeps hair for tips every Saturday. In addition to the money she earns, she gains an understanding about her mother, her family and her community.
Medina’s mother emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba and worked in an electronic transistor factory in the New York City area. “The factory floor was a sea of Cuban ladies who had fled from the Cuban revolution,” Medina remembers. “These ladies would go once a week to this little hair shop in Queens. They'd all go! It was that time when they'd have those hairdos that were teased and sprayed and would last a week and then they'd go have it done again.” In Yaqui Delgado, Fabio is a dog, but Fabio was actually the favorite hairdresser at that hair salon.
“It was a respite, “Medina adds, “a place where they could go and be made to feel pretty once a week and gossip and talk and so on. It was the women's voices, the fabulous women who have populated my life, strong Latinas of all stripes…“this entire range all brought together by cultural identity and by their identity as immigrants.” She mentions that some of the women’s occupation was to fold towels; one was married to a spice importer in Great Neck.
Books about big issues run the risk of sounding like lectures, but Medina never falls victim. “To write it honestly I had to just say what it was, even though it was painful,” she says. “Otherwise we start to write books that moralize. If we name things honestly, it helps to move the conversation.”
Andi Diehn is a freelance writer living in rural New Hampshire. You can find her at andidiehn.com.