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

juliet takes a breath.jpg
[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

the-revolution-starts-at-home
[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.

 

“But You Don’t Look Sick: A Zine About Invisible Illnesses and Disabilities in the Workplace” Builds Community in the Face of Erasure

but you don't look sick.jpg

Queer Anxiety Babiez Distro’s “But You Don’t Look Sick: A Zine About Invisible Illnesses and Disabilities in the Workplace” is a compilation zine about the difficulties of navigating workplaces as an invisibly ill or disabled person. It features personal essays, poetry, and visual art, along with a brief section of legal and informational resources.

Throughout the zine, there is a recurring theme of legal protections and considerations not translating smoothly into real-life coverage. The law may provide for confidential accommodations, but that won’t stop nosy coworkers from inquiring about what they perceive as unfair, or prevent them from making requests that are difficult to decline without disclosing more than you want to.

There is good variation in the disabilities and workplaces represented: various illnesses/disabilities/conditions on both sides of the traditional physical/mental division and jobs ranging from dishwashing and customer service, through college and office jobs. (I have an essay in this zine about the invisibility and erasure of my personal disability and ableism as a concept at my college social justice job.)

Personally, I would have prefered more personal narratives to the information about U.S. and Canadian disability law, which is easier to find in an internet search than the stories shared throughout the rest of the zine. But for someone who needs this information and is too nervous to search for it, stumbling across it in this zine could be just what they need. The page about ableist language is a useful starting point. For readers who want to know more on this topic, I recommend Nik Moreno’s zine This, Not That: A Guide to Eliminating Ableist Language, which I previously reviewed.

I wish, especially for a zine about disability, that the print were larger and the images crisper. Much of the text is too small for me to read comfortably, and some of the text overlaid on Jacqueline Last’s collage “Mechanical Restraints” is too blurry to read, probably as a result of the photocopying process.

The embodied and interpersonal experiences shared in this zine will likely feel familiar to invisibly disabled people and can serve as a guide to abled coworkers and employers of how not to give us a hard-verging-on-illegal time. I’m grateful to Kristen and Maira for editing this collection, which builds community among people like me who can’t always easily find each other in the world — especially in the workplace.

You can buy But You Don’t Look Sick from Queer Anxiety Babiez Distro’s Etsy.

“All in Your Head” #3 Smoothly Navigates the Intersections and Ambiguities of Disabled Queer (A)sexuality and Intimacy

15943277_10208155519908095_1437463013_o.jpg
[image description: The cover of All in Your Head #3, which features the title (as listed below) and many torn pieces of paper with different patterns.]
All in Your Head: Queerness, Neurodivergence, and Disability Zine Issue #3: (A)sexuality, Intimacy, and Identity has some of the most consistent quality I’ve seen in an edited zine. This is what an anthology should be. The content (poetry, prose, visual art) is all great, and each piece impresses me for different reasons. And there’s a lot in there! If I’m counting correctly, it’s 94 pages long, which in my zine collection is only rivaled by Hoax. From an editorial standpoint, I’m grateful that this issue is about “(a)sexualities,” for the inclusion, fluidity, and flexibility that wording encompasses. Bear with me — when I dug into the zine to review it, I wanted to give each artist individual attention, so this is gonna run long.

Full disclosure: I have an essay in here — the very first, actually, which I was super excited about when I opened the cover. I don’t make money off sales, though, so the conflict of interest is minimal. My essay is about my frustration with the politics of desirability and particularly the ways our cultural hatred of desperation harms me as an abuse victim/survivor and psychiatrically disabled person.

The next essay is by a friend and long-time zinester fave of mine, Olivia M. Olivia consistently writes what I most want to read: nuanced narratives and analyses of multiple marginalized identities. In the essay in this zine, “Am I Gray?: Gray Areas of Identity and Impairment,” she writes about the ambiguity of her most important identities: being a mixed Latina, gray-asexual and gray-panromantic, with anxiety and depression mostly under control and multiple sclerosis mostly in remission, and feeling “not autistic enough to be autistic.” I relate to many of her questions about belonging and what’s “enough,” and I think she puts words to many people’s feelings when she writes, “I feel content to be floating one second, stretched to splitting the next.”

(Follow her on Tumblr or buy her zines on Etsy.)

The next essay, “Isolation” by V, packs much vital, often-silenced political analysis into a few pages. V writes about the parallels between their erasure in the queer community as a mixed-race Asian and white person and as a bi person. By this point in the zine, I was getting really excited about all the nuanced, explicit bi and pan representation. Bi and pan representation is so difficult to find (even when I search it out) that it feels incredible to find it when I’m not specifically looking. V also writes about exotification, fetishization, and objectifcation, in relation to both their own experiences of mental illness and broader patterns. They end the piece with an empowering discussion of what they wish they’d been told.

The next essay to pleasantly surprise me with unexpected representation is also the very next thing in the zine. In “Disordered,” Liza Lauper writes about the excitement of getting a long-sought Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis and the frustration with the insulting label that quickly followed. Paralleling the lack of respectful diagnostic labels is a lack of precise orientation labels that accurately reflect Liza’s orientation. While I do accept the BPD label for myself (albeit in a reclamatory way) and am satisfied with “bi” for myself (in a way that conflicts with many people’s definitions), I relate deeply to Liza’s struggles for language. I’m also grateful any time I find politicized writing by Borderline people (or by people with similar neurotypes who make different decisions about labels) because we’re rarely treated as worthy of writing our own stories and analysis.

While the first several essays interested me because they felt familiar, the next, “Rare Myths for Rare Persons” by Mica McDonald, caught my attention because it’s far from my familiarity. Mica discusses the importance of mythology as sacred truth and shared story of humanity. Ze struggles to feel valued and significant as a transmasculine person with cystic fibrosis when there’s a lack of myths about people like zir. As a partial solution to this problem, Mica offers readings of three Greek and Irish myths in which ze can see elements of zirself. We discuss representation constantly in social justice circles, but mythology isn’t a topic I’ve heard much about from this angle. It expanded my thinking to hear about the importance of myth, specifically, and how Mica reads zir marginalized identities into existing myths.

Kelsie Kachel’s poems “Brain Horror” and “Gendered Construction Sites” use imagery beautifully both for the pain of negative self thoughts and the gender binary and for the hope found by emptying out those thoughts and being their own gender. Jacklyn Janeksela’s poems slide between clear imagery and deliberate ambiguity, leaving me unsure what to feel. Barbara Ruth’s poem “Attracted to Her” explores the transformation of sexual attraction from fun to terror, with the hope that after self examination and work, attraction will return. The poem is rich in its exploration of fear, loss, vulnerability, and the longing to regain longing. Barbara’s other poem in the zine, “What I’m Like,” combines simile and more direct language to tell the story of a sexist poet lover man (who feels uncomfortably familiar) and offer more affirming understandings of herself.

Sky Cubacub’s essay “Radical Visibility: A QueerCrip Dress Reform Movement Manifesto” is unlike anything I’ve read in a zine. Sky is the creator of a clothing company called Rebirth Garments, which makes each item of clothing custom to suit trans and disabled people’s needs and create what Sky calls “radical visibility.” It reads more like an academic essay than I’m used to seeing in zines, with footnotes, works cited, and references to theorists, but for the most part I think it’s accessible to an audience without an academic background. I knew about Rebirth Garments before reading the zine, and I enjoyed hearing more about the philosophy behind the line. If you don’t already know Rebirth Garments, I recommend visiting their website. The black and white photos in the zine show off the form and geometry of Rebirth Garments, but black and white can’t do justice to a line whose core principles incorporate use of vivid color.

Maira’s “I Think I Might Be…Gray Ace?” tells the story of coming into gray-asexuality through a relationship with a partner who, like much of society, framed sex as a necessary part of relationships. Their understanding of their sexuality is complicated by the realizations that in addition to being queer, they are agender and bipolar. Maira’s struggles to reconcile asexuality with trauma resonate with me, as I suspect they will with many ace-spectrum people. Maira contributes to an important, developing school of thought that while asexuality is not necessarily damage, it can be, and that damage is a valid history and way of being.

Finally, Raymond Luczak’s “My Line of Feeling” is a short story about a quadriplegic man named Steve watching an ASL interpreter and reflecting on his life. It weaves smoothly between his present experience, his frustration with forced desexualization, bitterness at abled people, and the reason this interpreter means so much to the speaker. The writing is rhythmic, poetic, and it carried me through the story with urgency, except when Steve brings up fatphobic misogyny in a way that feels like it could be his own.

Overall, I was blown away by the way this zine and each of the artists in it explore ambiguity and multiple marginalizations. I recommend it for anyone who’s interested in the intersections of disability and queerness, especially if personal essays are your thing. I look forward to future issues of All in Your Head (the next issue’s theme is “cure”) and to seeing more from each of the writers featured in this issue. (My apologies to the visual artists — I don’t think I have the understanding of visual art necessary to comment on your work.)

You can buy All in Your Head: Queerness, Neurodivergence, and Disability Zine Issue #3: (A)sexuality, Intimacy, and Identity from editor Sam GlitterWurst’s Etsy shop when it returns from hiatus and follow him on Tumblr.

M. Sabine Rear’s “Bending Spoons: A Field Guide to Ableist Microaggressions”Will Charm You and Make You a Better Ally to Blind People

Bending Spoons: A Field to Ableist Microaggressions by M. Sabine Rear is a beautiful, compact quarter-size zine of illustrations of people making everyday ableist comments about Sabine’s blindness, paired with explanations of how what they said was harmful.

ableist dude.jpg
My favorite pair of pages in the zine, with the illustration described below. The facing page says, “Blindness is a marker of physical difference that is written on my body. It designates my body as especially vulnerable, perhaps unusual, not fit to be in public. This dude has identified and then immediately fetishized this marker of difference. He thinks he’s totally made my day.” Photo by Sabine.

It’s very elegant, in both visual style and writing style. Sabine’s illustrations of ableist jackasses and well-meaning but misguided commenters are simple but packed with character. My personal favorite is a dude with crosshatched hair and a beard protesting, “…but you have such beautiful eyes.” The last bit of his comment is written in cursive and the “i” is dotted with a heart, which is the kind of detail that makes me love this zine.

Sabine’s explains the assumptions she observes behind each ableist comment, as well as reflecting on her personal feelings about it and how the comment fits into broader ableist patterns. I recommend checking your own behavior and thoughts about blindness against the illustrated quotes and using Sabine’s analysis to learn how to do better if you notice any of your own anti-blind ableism. Even if you know better than the people who are being blatantly obnoxious, you may not recognize some of the subtler microaggressions as such. Personally, I’ve caught myself making a mistake similar to the person who tries to relate by telling her, “I’m pretty near-sighted too.”

Language like “internalized ableism” and “crip embodiment” may feel dense or confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with disabled and anti-ableist language, but part of unlearning ableism is familiarizing yourself with the language disabled people use to describe our experiences. This is a great place to start.

Bending Spoons inspires me to experiment with the power of simplicity. It’s a quick, short read packed with useful information.

Learn more about Sabine’s work at her website or order Bending Spoons from Powell’s Books for $4.

Seattle: Go see Anastacia Tolbert’s “9 Ounces” at Gay City, 12/15 to 12/18

[note: I wrote this review after attending an August performance of “9 Ounces.” Elements of the December show may vary from what is described here.]

Anastacia Tolbert’s one-woman show “9 Ounces” gives viewers a glimpse into the lives and inner monologues of three Black women and girls with an 84-year age range: Luna, Alice, and Seraphina. Their stories are linked through their shared co-op residence, their loving but sometimes strained relationships with each other, and the trauma of being Black in the face of constant racist police brutality — “It could happen to me” is a refrain throughout the show.

Tolbert’s writing and acting are superb; the characters vibrant, whole, and distinct while sharing an actress. Alice, coping with depression, loss, and addiction, addresses the audience as she talks to herself, a strategy suggested by her very cute therapist. Her thoughts wander through unsatisfying and racist moments on the bus, getting kicked out of Seraphina’s knitting club, trying to get back in touch with her sexuality, and more.

Seraphina, Alice’s 91-year-old neighbor, also talking to herself, recounts her own struggle on the bus: she’s fought for the right to sit at the front of the bus, but now young people won’t offer a seat. She approaches the situation with frustration, but also with humor.

Luna, a deeply spiritual 7-year-old, isn’t talking to the mirror — she’s putting on a show with her friend Lightbulb (who is a lightbulb). As her mommy has told her, sometimes she has to be her own audience. Luna wants people to stop making fun of her mommy, who works and goes to school and spends time with her when she can. Luna also likes to shout “vagina!” because it makes adults uncomfortable.

Although most of the show is composed of the characters talking to themselves, it passes the Bechdel-Wallace test (along with other feminist media tests) spectacularly. This Black woman’s representation of nuanced Black women and girls is a desperately needed gift when our media neglects and distorts Black women and girls.

The show’s title, “9 Ounces,” refers to the average weight of a (cis) woman’s heart, and “9 Ounces” is heavy, full of heart, and ultimately cathartic. It’s also deeply political and makes clear that non-Black viewers’ emotional journeys will not be sufficient; what’s needed from us is concrete action against systemic racism.

Use this outstanding show as an opportunity to educate yourself, bear witness, and start or continue thinking about how to support Black women in overthrowing racism and heteropatriarchy.

“9 Ounces” will be at Gay City from Thursday, December 15th to Sunday, December 18th, running from 7 to 10 p.m. each night. Tickets cost $12-20. For more details, see the Facebook event page.