Finding Your Path: Book Delves into Issues of Representation

By Nick Masuda   |   November 22, 2021
Nikki Barthelmess is an author based in Santa Barbara, where she has also worked as a journalist for various publications

Nikki Barthelmess knows what it’s like, to look Caucasian on the outside, her appearance failing to showcase her bicultural background.

She’s heard the quips about Latinas — those around her not aware that she is Mexican American.

She’s seen the ignorance, from the halls of local schools to the business world.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Barthelmess said.

But she’s trying to do something about it, or at least give others that walk in similar shoes to get a bit of representation.

Barthelmess recently released her third young adult novel, Everything Within and In Between, a work of fiction, although highly influenced by her life experiences, ranging from losing her mom to colon cancer, spending her teenage years in foster care, and maintaining a loving relationship with her biological grandmother.

“My books are not based on me,” said Barthelmess. “I do take inspiration from my life. And then I create characters from that. I always ask myself, ‘Well, what if?’ And then I build from there.”

An on-again, off-again Santa Barbaran, Barthelmess set her newest novel on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, where a teenager faces the trials and tribulations of coming from a Latin household, only to be light-skinned and therefore treated differently than much of her family.

“She’s white-passing,” Barthelmess said.

The character yearns to connect with her heritage, learning Spanish and reconnecting with an absent immigrant mother, as well as her Mexican immigrant grandmother.

It’s a familiar scenario for Barthelmess, whose grandparents immigrated from Mexico to Oxnard. She lived with her Mexican American mom and Mexican grandmother until she was eight.

“Not a lot of people look at me and necessarily see a Mexican or Mexican American, like they see many people, my family,” Barthelmess said.

Nikki Barthelmess signs books during an appearance at the Mesa Bookstore on November 7 (Photo by Conrad Collective)

“That’s obviously offered me a lot of privileges in this world. There’s also some complexity and how I didn’t necessarily feel like I fit in. I had a hard time figuring out where I fit in with my heritage.”

For Barthelmess, thinking back to this formative time in her life left her wondering how many others have experienced the same thing — or are currently going through it.

Through the book, she was determined to help those people find their lane in this world.

“It’s tough when you feel like you don’t fit into either world,” Barthelmess said. “It’s tough when part of your identity is erased.”

She also says that writing the book was her way of trying to reconnect with her mother, who died of colon cancer when Barthelmess was a pre-teen. She thought, as a byproduct, it might also bring her closer to her extended family, many of whom have had a much different experience in life because their ethnicities are obvious to the naked eye.

“The experiences that my grandparents have, or that my aunts and uncles have, are different than mine, because we’re different people, but because they look different, you can identify that when you see them. You don’t see mine,” Barthelmess said. “I’m not like crying like poor me, because my life is so much easier. But I am saying there’s something different.

“And I wanted to reflect that in this book.”

The book marks her debut with popular book publisher HarperCollins, a relationship forged shortly after her first book, The Quiet You Carry, was put out in 2019, with the subsequent sequel, Quiet No More, available as the world boarded up due to the pandemic.

A soon-to-be mom of two, the flexibility of being a published author is an appealing one, although she faces deadlines just like any other business — but knows that she is fortunate to be able to impact lives through the words she puts out into the ether.

“There’s still freedom and flexibility,” Barthelmess said. “I’m really lucky; I have a lot of good people in my life in my corner.”

You can find Everything Within and In Between at local bookstores, including Chaucer’s and Mesa. 


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