Santa Barbara author Nikki Barthelmess writes about cultural identity and a high school student in her novel ‘Everything Within and In Between’
Nikki Barthelmess knows what it’s like to be caught between two worlds.
“I’m half Mexican. My grandparents emigrated from Mexico in their 20s,” the Santa Barbara author told the News-Press at her in-laws’ nearby home. “If you look at me, I don’t look it (Mexican-American). I’m light skinned. I grew up not knowing where I fit within my heritage.”
But Mrs. Barthelmess figured out her identity and her destiny and is writing about others trying to do the same in her young adult novels. Her third one, “Everything Within and In Between” (HarperTeen, $17.99), tells the story of Ri Fernández, a Santa Barbara high school girl living with her Mexican grandmother and eager to meet the mother she never knew.
The book was recently released and is available at Chaucer’s on upper State Street in Santa Barbara. It will be available soon at the Mesa Bookstore on Cliff Drive, where Mrs. Barthelmess will sign copies between 1 and 3 p.m. Nov. 7.
“Everything Within and In Between” shows Ri’s struggle with a grandmother who wants her to move past her Mexican heritage, get into an Ivy League university and pursue a lucrative career. The grandma, who has served as a single parent caring for Ri, has worked hard as a housekeeper in upper class homes in Montecito to support her granddaughter.
But Ri is interested in heritage, transfers from French class to Spanish and goes against the wishes of her strict grandmother, who doesn’t want Ri to try to contact her mother. Ri doesn’t know the whole story, and “Everything Within and In Between” explores her quest to complete the puzzle of her life.
Helping Ri make sense of everything is her best friend Brittany.
Mrs. Barthelmess said readers like the character. She understands why. “I think Brittany is a really loyal friend. She cares deeply about Ri, but can be a little clueless. She doesn’t necessarily know the immense privilege she has, not just because she’s white but because of the resources her family has. They’re wealthy.”
The author said Rita’s grandma wants her to be in Brittany’s world because it represents success. “She thinks that’s the American Dream,” Mrs. Barthelmess said, adding that the stubborn grandmother loves Ri deeply.
But Ri is also starting to build ties with the Mexican-American students at fictional Riviera High School.
“I think the story is about her deciding who gets to define who she is,” Mrs. Barthelmess said. “She has all these voices telling her who she is. The journey is about her figuring out she can define that for herself.”
Mrs. Barthelmess explained her new novel was inspired by her experiences but noted there are differences between Ri’s story and her own. She added that the characters are not based on real people. (She reassured her grandmother, Maria del Carmen Almanza, who inspired the name of the fictional grandmother in the book, that the stubborn, controlling character is not based on her. And she dedicated the book to her loving grandmother.)
Mrs. Barthelmess was born in Ventura and lived in Las Vegas, then Carson City.
“I grew up in this Latino-filled household. My relatives were all Mexican-American,” said Mrs. Barthelmess, whose mother was a Mexican-American.
She said she’s estranged from her father. She explained her father, who’s white, said racial slurs about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. “It was really confusing for me. ‘You’re talking about my grandma. You’re talking about my mom.’”
Mrs. Barthelmess’ mother, Roxanne Almanza, died from cancer when the author was 13, and she spent her teen years in foster care, away from the Mexican-American culture she knew. “It (her heritage) did matter to me. It was part of who I am.”
Mrs. Barthelmess knew her destiny involved writing. She earned her bachelor’s in journalism in 2011 at the University of Nevada at Reno and became an intern reporter at the News-Press, then was hired as a staff reporter, writing features for the Life section.
Back during her University of Nevada at Reno days, she was secretly writing science fiction, which wasn’t published but led her to get a literary agent. She left the News-Press in 2013 and focused full time on working on novels.
Her first novel, “The Quest You Carry,” about a girl placed in foster care, was released in 2019, followed by the sequel “Quiet No More” the next year.
At the News-Press, Mrs. Barthelmess met Robby Barthelmess, who was a freelance photographer who took pictures for the newspaper. They got married, and today Mr. Barthelmess is a corporate lawyer. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Hadley, and Mrs. Barthelmess is set to give birth to their son in February.
That raises the question of whether Mrs. Barthelmess, in wanting the best for Hadley, would try to direct her daughter’s life in the way Ri’s grandma tries to direct hers.
“That’s a good question! Way to turn it around on me!” Mrs. Barthelmess said, laughing. Then she looked down at Hadley, who was playing on the living room floor.
“I wouldn’t want to do what Ri’s grandma does and make my voice more than her voice,” Mrs. Barthelmess said, but noted, “When she’s drawing on the wall, we’ll say, ‘You’ll be an artist!’”
She laughed again, then her voice became a little softer as she talked about what she and Mr. Barthelmess hope for Hadley.
The author and mother, who’s happy she realized her own dream of writing novels, smiled.
“We hope she finds whatever she’s passionate about and does good for herself and others. That’s good enough for us.”