Why can’t feminism be called ‘jazz’? Why does ‘lesbian’ sound so much like ‘alien’? Where does ‘straight’ American culture lose it’s jazz, that is, its ability to feel fresh? As a queer poet of color, Gabby Rivera’s novel Juliet Takes a Breath got me thinking about these linguistic and cultural maneuvers—that is, why we choose to keep ourselves locked in a clinical, cerebral space versus an immediate, visceral one. Rivera’s novel inspires these questions by focusing on the queer coming-of-age story of our brown and subversive Latina from the Bronx, Juliet Milagros Palante.
Rivera proves to be masterful at hooking the reader in right away. The occasion of this story, the engine that gets us going, is Juliet’s decision to come out as a lesbian. Early in Juliet’s college experience, she decides to take ownership of her gender and sexuality, partially due to her relationship with a Caucasian girlfriend named Lainie, who embodies the status quo (she shops at Banana Republic and wants to go to law school for political reasons) and partially due to her emancipation from reading one of the jazziest titles I’ve heard in a while: Raging Flower, Pussy Power.
Rivera pulls us close from the beginning with an intimate epistolary from Juliet to the author of Raging Flower, Harlowe Brisbane. In this opening letter, I discovered Juliet has everything I’d want in a young female protagonist. She possesses true, grounded confidence, sincerity, and soft, subversive power. “Dear, Harlowe” she begins, “No lie, I started reading [your][book] so that I could make people uncomfortable on the subway. I especially enjoyed whipping it out during impromptu sermons given by old sour-faced men on the #2 train. It amused me to watch men confront the word pussy in a context outside of their control; you know in the bright pink letters on the cover of some girl’s paperback book.”
Juliet’s bold attitude is challenged throughout the story. Writing the letter earns her a summer internship where she spends the entire summer in Portland as Harlowe’s assistant. Although we know Juliet admires Harlowe, she has a fundamental identity issue to pick apart. In the letter she asks Harlowe, “[C]an a badass white lady like you make room for me? Should I stand next to you and take that space? Or do I need to just push you out of the way? Claim it myself now so that one day we’ll be able to share this earth…these deep breaths?”
Fundamentally, this novel pays close attention to power-sharing and taking ownership of your own identity, even if you have to kill your idols to make them stronger. For example, second wave feminism, the idea that you have to have a “pussy” to be a true feminist, is something that already has been challenged by trans women of color. Juliet awakens to her feminine power by reading Raging Flower, Pussy Power and by feeding her relationship with a very whitewashed Lainie. However, Juliet recognizes that she does not have to pledge allegiance to these philosophies and the women who ascribe to them, especially when it all starts to feel stale.
Juliet’s navigation through this, her true north, is intimately tied to what she cherishes about her roots. I found it so refreshing, and so very tied to my own experience as a POC, that her conviction comes through as the voice of her Latinidad. In the preface of the novel she declares, “[M]y grandmother calls me la sin vergüenza, the one without shame. She’s right. I’m always in it for the laughs.” When la sin vergüenza eventually feels shamed by Harlowe’s racially insensitive depiction of Juliet’s Bronx story, she turns to family. Her cousin consoles her and takes her to a party of radical queers of color. There, they show her that it’s important to have close ties with people who can recharge you and intuit your experience, instead of having to expend energy trying to justify and prove yourself to the dominant culture all the time.
How can you be creative and reclaim Feminism? Or the idea of the lesbian as something deep, beautiful and unfathomable, if you’re wasting all your time talking to people who don’t understand? Juliet Palante makes it clear that those of us who come from the fringes need to create our own culture and identity, and we need the space to do so. A phrase that still rings in my ears from Juliet’s cultural inheritance is: “¡Viva la revolución!” This phrase is what the Puerto Rican activist Lolita Lebrón shouted as she stormed Congress, and is often repeated by Juliet’s cousin, for both small and big victories: from catching the bus to confronting institutionalized racism. If you’re queer, female-identified, and a POC, then this book is a revelation wrapped in revolution. As a YA novel, Juliet Takes a Breath accomplishes what most good narratives do— it finds you, in a voice you want to ride out to the plot’s end. Don’t be surprised if you’re overcome with the desire to lower the book, raise a fist, and scream, “¡Viva la revolución!”