‘Juliet Takes A Breath' Is The Ultimate Read For Queer Feminists
The author of “Juliet Takes A Breath,” Gabby Rivera, and I first met when we were both asked to be on a panel for a queer student group at Columbia University. I remember being transfixed by her wit and intelligence and being all around impressed with her.
When I saw that she was publishing her first novel, I knew I needed to get my hands on a copy. Rivera writes the kind of words that push boundaries and break down the walls we build inside ourselves.
The novel opens with Juliet, a chubby Puerto Rican gayby, writing a hilarious letter to the author of her favorite feminist book “Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy By Empowering Your Mind.”
Juliet never expected the author, Harlowe Brisbane, to write back and invite her to intern in Portland while she is working on the follow-up to her hit vagina manifesto. Over the course of a summer, Juliet comes out, falls in love, finds community, is betrayed, invests in family and learns about herself and her people.
Juliet is a complex character who is vivid and flawed. Rivera's descriptions of queer culture are detailed to the point that they could only be written by someone with intimate knowledge of our world. Her hilarious anecdotes and spot-on social commentary creates a framework for approachable ways to discuss difficult topics for people new to queer issues.
There is power in seeing yourself reflected — in a book, yes, but also in your community. Juliet learns those lessons and teaches us about the importance of inclusivity and spaces designed for communities. Young POC queers need this message and need to see themselves in literature.
While this book isn't intended for me, a queer 28-year-old white woman, I could relate to most situations Juliet encounters. I saw myself as a young queer trying to figure out what it means to be gay. I also saw myself as a mentor for folks my age, similar to the relationship Juliet has with her cousin.
Unfortunately, I could see myself in some of the negative representations as well. Particularly in the condescending attitudes of the Portland queers gasping at Juliet's lack of gender theory chops. Being both a participant and a recipient of call out culture in my life, this image of learning and growing in experience as a queer person is vivid and real.
Some criticism of the book is coming from the use of queer theory language, but those portions felt honest to me. I can remember being surrounded by radical queers who seemed to know so much more than I ever hoped to know. The way Juliet explains some of these complex issues in everyday language makes her character more relatable.
Most importantly, I saw myself reflected in the words and actions of Harlowe herself. At times, Harlowe isn't necessarily someone to be celebrated at certain points in the story, and that's exactly what makes her relatable.
It forced me to take a look internally and question my privilege, my politics and the way I interact with people of color. While Harlowe Brisbane is at times positioned as a hilarious but loving alien, she's also infuriatingly naive and deeply reminds me of myself. She's a flawed person struggling with what makes a good ally and what is problematic, while attempting to leverage her platform for the betterment of the community.
Luckily, when Harlowe f*cks up, Juliet is surrounded by strong powerful queer women of color everywhere she turns. One character, Zaira, helps teach Juliet about forgiveness and the power of relationships. Her message is one that is difficult for most people to learn, she says, “You'll learn when to forgive human error and when to eradicate the unworthy from your spirit.” Not everyone is either good or evil, most of us are a mixture of both.
In an interview with Autostraddle, Rivera says “Harlowe has already lost significant things at this moment. It's almost like […]Zaira [is] so with it that [she] knows that she is suffering in different ways.”
When it's boiled down to its core, “Juliet Takes A Breath” is about the power of relationships, with others and with yourself.
Rivera talks about how these relationships are pivotal, but community goes beyond dating, gay bars and pride parades. She says “So then what does queer community look like? It looks like parties. It looks like going to somebody's house. It looks like Tumblr. It's all of us coming together and organizing and doing all these things and having rallies.”
“Juliet Takes A Breath” focuses on the need for building relationships with both those who are similar to you and those who are different. While very directly taking on the shortcomings of white feminism, privilege and moderate leaning liberals, Juliet teaches us lessons without burning down the whole feminist house and throwing out people who've made mistakes. While sometimes burning bridges is important, it's equally as important to know what relationships we should preserve.
I needed to read this book when I was 15 or 16. I needed role models like Juliet and Gabby to teach me all the lessons that I didn't find in my English lit class. F*ck, at 28 I still need role models like Juliet and Gabby.
Eventually, Juliet realizes relationships help us grow, but ultimately we hold the keys to our own power “My story, my truth, my life, my voice, all of that had to be protected and put out into world by me. No one else. No one could take that from me.”
Set aside every other coming of age story being taught today and pick up “Juliet Takes A Breath.”
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