‘Juliet Takes a Breath’ Breathes Lesbian of Color Life into the Coming of Age Genre

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[image description: The cover of Juliet Takes a Breath, an illustration of Juliet Palante’s head and shoulders from behind. She has medium brown skin and long black hair put up in a bun, with an undercut. The title of the book is shaved in her hair.]
I’ve always struggled with the coming-of-age genre. From my complete alienation from Holden Caulfield to my disappointing disconnects with lesbian and bi protagonists Molly Bolt (Rubyfruit Jungle), Sophie Winters (Far From You), and Cameron Post (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), coming-of-age has left me cold. Not so with Juliet Milagros Palante in Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath. Juliet Takes a Breath is the vividly relatable coming-of-age novel I wish I could send to a younger version of myself.

The story bursts to life right from the preface, with a letter from Juliet to her idol Harlowe Brisbane. Juliet is a chubby, asthmatic Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx questioning what feminism means for her and on the cusp of coming out; Harlowe is the white feminist celebrity author of

Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind. Juliet writes about her love for the book, her family, and her questions, and asks to come to Portland as a research assistant. Juliet quotes from Harlowe’s book in her letter, and it’s immediately apparent that Rivera excels at writing in different characters’ voices. From Juliet’s narration, to excerpts from Harlowe’s book, to snippets of other characters’ dialogue and letters here and there, each voice is distinct, which makes the large cast both manageable and memorable.

Seriously, the third quote we get from Raging Flower is, “You must walk in this world with the spirit of a ferocious cunt. Express your emotions. Believe that the universe came from your flesh. Own your power, own your connection to Mother Earth. Howl at the moon, bare your teeth, and be a goddamn wolf.” Do you feel like you’ve read this book? I feel like I’ve read this book.

Much of the tension in the book comes from conflicts within feminism (or between feminisms), including around trans issues, where Juliet is limited but not callous or mean cruel. When asked aggressively about her pronouns and her identity by a (presumably cis) guy, she narrates,

“I was surrounded by hippies and the only person in the world who knew my name on this bus was sitting across from me speaking another language. His judgment slid into my heart and carved out a space for itself. Trans? Ze? PGPs? These words weren’t a part of my vocabulary. No one in the Bronx or even in college asked me if I was a Ze or a trans. Was that even how they fit into sentences? I felt small, constricted, and stupid, very stupid. Phen dangled these phrases over my head. He was waiting for me to jump up and beg to be educated, beg for him to explain the world he inhabited.”

Instead of taking the bait, Juliet makes a note of topics to research for herself, along with questions about her own identity and a note to cry to her cousin a little. Later, Juliet gets a more caring and accessible explanation of the terms, and the book dodges a tone-policing, trans-demonizing by having a cis guy be the one to condescend about pronouns and by offering a better alternative.

Harlowe Brisbane’s well-meaning racism is a tension that simmers throughout the book, eventually coming out into full conflict and direct challenge. While the narrative doesn’t side with her cis-centric feminism, I wish it devoted more than a few paragraphs to confronting the transmisogyny implicit in her vagina feminism, especially because Juliet starts off so enamored. To the book’s credit, though, there is also a minor trans woman of color love interest.

I also wish one of the characters who are attracted to multiple genders identified as bi or another specific multigender-attracted label. One of Juliet’s aunts had a “lady friend” but refers to herself as “just [her name]” rather than any label, while Juliet’s cousin is doing the “no labels” thing or prefers “queer.” While these are valid choices for real-life people and a vital part of the world of queer sexuality, they feel limiting rather than freeing to me as a bi reader, because these sorts of depictions are much more common than explicitly bi+ characters.

I also had one small technical quibble: Juliet Takes a Breath is set in 2003, but there’s a moment when Juliet’s cousin checks her Facebook. In 2003, Facebook was on the verge of existing in a form current users might recognize, but it wasn’t as widespread or everyday as this line makes it seem. In the course of the book, it’s a small error that many readers might not even notice, but it did distract me and make me double-check the setting.

While Juliet Takes a Breath excels at exploring the tensions between Juliet’s developing feminism and Harlowe’s established “pussy lady” brand, where it really glows is in its explorations of more affirming queer and trans of color spaces. One would be a spoiler, but I have to point out that there’s a chapter titled, “Ain’t No Party Like an Octavia Butler Writer’s Workshop.”

I can’t recommend Juliet Takes a Breath enough. Its compelling voices, characters, relationships, and plot structures got my ADD self to read for three continuous hours, the longest in recent history. It’ll make the queer youth in you feel seen, whether you’re living your youth now or you had to get through your youth without this necessary book.

(And seriously, between Juliet Takes a Breath, The Revolution Starts at Home, and Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, I’m starting to think cover art by Cristy C. Road is the strongest predictor of a good book.)

Juliet Takes a Breath is available from Riverdale Avenue Books as an eBook for $10, and there are physical copies out there too. I got mine from Elliot Bay Book Company.

The Revolution Starts at Home Provides Stories, Strategies, and Hope for Confronting Intimate Violence at the Margins

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[Image description: The cover of The Revolution Starts at Home, an illustration by Cristy C. Road of two brown-skinned people holding hands and looking in each other’s eyes. One has long hair with loose curls in an up-do and the other has very short hair with a tighter curl pattern.] Image from AK Press’s website.
I first read The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (ed. Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha) in 2015, not long out of an abusive relationship, and it helped me make sense of what I’d experienced. In it, I found people who had been in situations like mine, caught between oppression from society at large and abuse in their own relationships and communities. I returned to it this year for hope and guidance in dealing with violence and abuse in my own communities, and it continues to deliver.

The Revolution Starts at Home is an anthology of essays and a few poems about people surviving and resisting violence, seeking alternatives to the state’s dangerous and often inadequate interventions. It’s divided into four sections: “Safety at the Intersections of Intimate, Community, and State Violence,” “On Survivorship,” “(Re)claiming Body, (Re)claiming Space,” and “We Are Ready Now.” As in life, the boundaries between these sections are fluid and a little bit arbitrary.

My favorite section, in 2015 and now, is “On Survivorship.” Gina de Vries’ essay “Homewrecker” describes a relationship with a lesbian who endlessly criticized her and created an us-against-the-world dynamic in which boys were the enemy and bisexuality was both too queer and not queer enough. Biphobic abuse had been one of the hardest parts of my own relationship to talk about, because people who barely understand abuse in queer relationships are doubly unprepared for when lesbians weaponize biphobia against their partners. “Homewrecker” made me feel seen and understood in a way I desperately needed.

Right after “Homewrecker” is “The Secret Joy of Accountability: Self-Accountability as a Building Block for Change” by Shannon Perez-Darby. I remembered this essay as another for my favorites from 2015, but its title scared me when I returned to it. Accountability for survivors? That sounds dangerously like victim-blaming. But it’s not. “Accountability” continues to strike me as a peculiar word choice, but the essay is about the fact that survivors make choices, even when those choices are constrained by violence against them, and that survivors’ resistance can look like abuse if you’re focused on individual actions instead of patterns of power and control in the relationship. This is crucial for anti-violence activists to understand, and it helped me release fear and guilt from my own relationship, too. I knew I wasn’t the perfect, docile victim. There was a time I grabbed my girlfriend by the wrists and meant for it to hurt. The broader context was that she wouldn’t stop poking me, despite my repeated objections, which was just another instance of her objectifying me and violating my boundaries, and I told her I’d let go if she promised to stop. “The Secret Joy of Accountability” made me feel like I didn’t have to hide that incident to receive care, and moreover that I had made a choice that was unideal but appropriate to my circumstances.

The next essay, “Seeking Asylum: On Intimate Partner Violence and Disability” by Peggy Munson, offers a crucial analysis of how unmet survival needs and the difficulty of accessing reliable caregiving makes disabled people susceptible to abuse and may even make sometimes-caring, sometimes-abusive partners more desirable than the alternative. It also discusses specific tactics abusers may use to maintain control over disabled victims, in connection with abusers’ more general strategies.

I won’t go over the rest of the book in such fine detail, but it contains reflections on survivors’ and community organizers’ guiding principles and language, their stories, and the specifics of their intervention strategies. The writers move smoothly and consciously between the general and the personal, so readers can observe practices that could be applied in other situations as well as how communities adapt those practices in their specific work. The Revolution Starts at Home is full of different organizations’ and communities’ step-by-step models for supporting survivors and holding abusers accountable. It helps me feel like there’s a way forward.

As co-editor Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha acknowledges in the preface to the second edition, The Revolution Starts at Home marginalizes sick and disabled people and trans women. Beyond Peggy Munson’s essay, disability rarely comes up in any way but survivors’ trauma. I long for resources about how to navigate situations of abuse in which two disabled people accuse each other of abuse and symptoms such as brainfog, memory problems, and dissociation complicate an already difficult situation. I want resources to help me distinguish between nonnormative but respectful disabled ways of being and relating in relationships and behavior that’s influenced by disability and crosses the line. This book can’t give me that.

The Revolution Starts at Home  includes an essay by a trans guy (“Freedom & Strategy/Trauma & Resistance” by Timothy Colm), but it’s largely a letdown on trans issues and occasionally a complete mistake. Several essays mention genderqueer people as a vulnerable population, but they don’t really dig into the specific ways transness influences abuse situations. One of the resources in the back refers to society privileging “males and the male-identified” and devaluing “female and the female-identified,” which raises some cis-as-default red flags, and “Without My Consent” by Bran Frenner invokes the incoherent and transmisogynistic concept of “male bodied privilege.”

Still, The Revolution Starts at Home is a vital and foundational text for anyone experiencing or healing from intimate violence and anyone looking for preventative or reactive solutions. Wherever you are in your understanding of these issues, this book will give you information, strategies, and the hope to carry on. I’m glad to have it in my collection and expect to return to it many more times.

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities is available from AK Press and is half off ($8) through February 2017.