Known as an illustrator, designer, and comic artist, Christine Suggs’ debut graphic novel ¡Ay, Mija! is now available. Their work explores the intersection of their identities, namely being a queer, fat, Latinx feminist who loves all things cute. (They’re also way too into Pokémon and cats.)
Their debut is a vibrant, heartwarming story about family, culture, language, and how those things intersect for a young adult who is beginning to work out who they are. Published by Little Brown Ink, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, the synopsis is as follows:
“Sixteen-year-old Christine takes their first solo trip to Mexico to spend a few weeks with their grandparents and tía. At first, Christine struggles to connect with family they don’t yet share a language with. Seeing the places their mom grew up — the school she went to, the café where she had her first date with their father — Christine becomes more and more aware of the generational differences in their family.
Soon Christine settles into life in Mexico, eating pan dulce, drawing what they see, and growing more comfortable with Spanish. But when Mom joins their trip, Christine’s two worlds collide. They feel homesick for Texas, struggle against traditions, and miss being able to speak to their mom without translating. Eventually, through exploring the impacts of colonialism in both Mexico and themselves, they find their place in their family and start to feel comfortable with their mixed identity.“
Leading up to the release of ¡Ay, Mija!, we got to speak to Suggs about telling personal stories, their process of working on a graphic novel, and delicious Mexican sweet breads.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Nerds & Beyond: Hi, Christine! Firstly, I have to congratulate you on creating such a memorable and impactful graphic novel for your debut. ¡Ay, Mija! is obviously a project with a lot of passion behind it. You describe your work as “exploring the intersection of your identities.” Was the story being so personal something that made it easier to tell or harder?
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Christine Suggs: I’ve been making autobiographical work and posting it online for years, so I’m no stranger to talking about the tough stuff. I’ve made comics about depression, gender, and all kinds of super personal things! My family often asks how I can stand being so open (I’ve had someone refer to the idea of memoir as “like walking around without skin on”), but I really don’t know how else to be. I feel my feelings pretty hard, and something about putting them on the page helps me process it all.
Nerds & Beyond: The book is full of so many warm characters and conveyed a real sense of family. For the people you drew inspiration from, did you tell them beforehand what you were writing about? What were their reactions when they found out?
Christine Suggs: My family knew I was writing about the trip, and I interviewed my mom to fill in the gaps of my memory, but the details were secret!
The only exception was the immigration storyline. Since it’s such a delicate subject, I ran it past that person and asked for permission. It just wasn’t my story to tell, and a lot of people view immigration status as a private matter. Luckily, she said yes, and I was able to incorporate the scene into the book.
All three of my parents cried upon reading the book! I was initially very nervous about how they would receive it since the book touches on some things we’ve never really discussed, namely religion and sexuality. Plus, my parents are quite shy! But at the end of the day, they’re my number-one fans.
Nerds & Beyond: Language and being bilingual is a huge part of this story. Was it difficult at times to walk the line between the two languages used so that the book felt “bilingual” instead of rooted in one language or another? Can you talk about your decision to create the graphic novel in this bilingual space instead of purely in Spanish or English?
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Christine Suggs: My first drafts translated everything, down to the last “hola.” Here in Texas, everyone knows a little bit of Spanish, so it’s hard for me to tell what’s common knowledge! My editor was actually the one who pushed back on the translations, instead suggesting that we let the reader learn along with Christine. I had a lot of fun designing “Little Christine” and the many ways they help teenage Christine decipher Spanish, from responding in English to drawing on speech bubbles or holding up conjugation charts and flashcards. It was also a huge challenge, as my written Spanish is pretty poor — thank goodness for proofreaders!
Nerds & Beyond: Christine is at a point in life where they are questioning so many of others’ assumptions on how they “should” be and exploring many different facets of themself. What do you hope that other young people like them — like you yourself were — can take away from this story?
Christine Suggs: One of my favorite things about my trips to Mexico was that it really gave me space to think. When you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, especially when I was out in the country house in Querétaro with very few distractions, you really get to spend time with yourself. And that’s the most important relationship you will ever cultivate. It’s okay to daydream, listen to moody playlists, and ask the big questions — and don’t worry if you don’t know all the answers!
Nerds & Beyond: The illustrations in ¡Ay, Mija! are beautiful and convey a great sense of culture and expression for the characters. Can you talk about your process for creating a panel?
Christine Suggs: I work entirely digitally on an iPad Pro with Procreate. First, I do a super tiny and messy sketch called a thumbnail just to get a feel for the layout of the spread. Next is pencils, where I clean up my sketch so my editing team can actually see what’s going on. This is where you’re trying to nail down backgrounds, expressions, and all the little details that will be on the page. Then it’s inking, my favorite part! It’s where the page really starts to come to life. Finally, color. Since the book has such a limited palette, this is almost like a puzzle. It’s really challenging to make sure you’re capturing the lighting and mood and creating a nice balanced page with just five shades each of blue and orange!
Nerds & Beyond: Do you have a favorite panel, page, or chapter you created?
Christine Suggs: I think the heart of the book is a small scene where Christine falls asleep with their grandmother on the couch, contemplating how weird and wonderful it is to love someone and not speak the same language.
Nerds & Beyond: Christine, in the story, finds more of a sense of belonging and a sense of themself as the summer goes on. Do you think you are done with their story, or are there more events in your life that you’d like to explore and share with us in future graphic novels?
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Christine Suggs: I definitely have more stories to tell! I was fortunate enough to get a two-book deal with Little Brown Ink, so I am already hard at work on my next book. This one is fiction, but it is strongly based on another impactful summer from my teenage years. It’s about art, queerness, finding your community, and the financial hardship of wanting to pursue art as a career.
Nerds & Beyond: Finally, I can’t let an interview pass without telling you how hungry this story made me! There’s so much culture in this book, and food is such a big part of that. Have your tastes changed as you’ve matured, or do you still love pan dulce as much as sixteen-year-old Christine?
Christine Suggs: I still don’t like super spicy food, but I have learned to cook a lot more Mexican meals. Cooking is absolutely one of my love languages. I recently had a tamale party with friends, and we managed to make 100 pretty good tamales! Of course, I had lots of help from my mom via FaceTime.
And yes, I still love pan dulce; I even learned how to make puerquitos from the blog Chicano Eats. I’m also very lucky to live in Oak Cliff, which is a super Mexican neighborhood in Dallas with a great taqueria, paleteria, or supermercado on just about every street.
Nerds & Beyond: Thank you for your time, and congratulations again on your debut!
Christine Suggs: Thank you so much!
¡Ay, Mija! is available now from all major booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble.