Feminism & Finding Yourself: A review of 'Juliet Takes a Breath'
Like many other writers, I have loved to read from a young age. For as long as I can remember I’d pick up books and read them cover to cover, finding joy in them whether they were picture books or chapter books. But although I loved reading, I could never see myself in the books I read. The closest I ever came early on to a story with complex black characters was The Secret Life of Bees, and that was a book about a white girl and her perspective on the black women she was around. Eventually, like Marley Dias, I grew tired of reading books about “white boys and their dogs.”
This is why Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath is so revolutionary. A story about a Puerto Rican lesbian from The Bronx? And she isn’t a background character or a racist trope? Hearing about the story was a dream, and reading it was a dream come true. Finally, a queer girl of color on the forefront, with a loud and unapologetic voice. I can’t believe it’s taken so long.
Juliet Palante is 19 years old, asthmatic, and gay – and she’s embarking on the most important summer of her life across the country in Portland, Oregon (home of hippies and feminist bookstores). Living with and interning under her favorite feminist author, Harlowe Brisbane, means that she’s going to be learning about the power of her vulva and body positivity. An array of extremely entertaining characters surround her, and their radiant personalities jostle Juliet into figuring out who she should be, eventually shining a light on who she really is. Whether it’s her mother telling her that her sexuality is just a phase, or Harlowe encouraging Juliet to be the rags-to-riches feminist from the hood that she see her as, Juliet holds her own. And that’s what is so compelling about her.
I can honestly say that I have never read a book about a chubby brown gay girl who was confident in herself and her values. Not only is Juliet secure (well, as secure as a newly out 19 lesbian can be) but she’s also knows she doesn’t know everything. She can be clumsy and awkward with her words and with her actions. That’s where I found I related with her most. Gabby Rivera was amazing in conveying the uncertainty and immaturity of adolescence while still creating a memorable and loveable character. I relate to her feeling of betrayal when she finds out that the Puerto Ricans in West Side Story were played by white actors, her feeling of belongingness when she met black feminist Zaira, and her discovery that polyamory made sense to her. Juliet’s bewilderment in response to the super liberal ways of Portland – i.e. casual nudity and the collective white feminist worship of Harlowe Brisbane – was highly relatable and laugh-out-loud funny at times. Especially when those incidents were coupled with her frequent asthma attacks.
Many of the social justice aspects of the book resonate with me. Today in 2016, a lot of kids my age are involved in social justice and consider ourselves socially and racially aware – but Juliet’s story takes place in the early 2000s and, despite her interest in feminism, and despite her being gay, she isn’t entirely sure what her identity means to herself and others. When she first arrives at Harlowe’s, she is asked by someone she only just met, “So Juliet, how do you identify? What are your preferred gender pronouns?” Juliet is understandably dumbfounded. It reminded me of watching Orange Is the New Black for the first time. I thought of myself as a woke, sexually fluid feminist girl, but I realized I had a lot to learn when I saw the transgender character Sophia. Juliet’s discomfort and hesitation to not offend really spoke to me and made her more likeable – because no activist is perfect.
Perhaps most important is the originality of this book. There are a few twists and turns not only in the plot but also in the characters themselves – particularly in Juliet. She is not a perfect feminist – in fact, at one point she asks her cousin Ava, “Um, Ava, don’t all women have vaginas?” – proving that she still has lots to learn, and is willing to learn it all. In this way, Juliet Takes a Breath is a coming-of-age story like no other, one that speaks to not only queer brown girls, but to all young feminist girls.
In searching for books featuring characters like me, I grew tired of the same old story. I grew tired of not being able to find my type of feminism, my not-thin, sexuality-questioning, girl of color type of feminism. And I found it in Juliet. I found it when she realized that Harlowe, her feminist role model, might not have a feminism that was for her. I found it when she held her ground and told her mother that who she loved was not a phase. Most of all, I found it when Juliet stood up to Harlowe, realizing that she couldn’t allow her story to be defined by or taken away by anyone else.
Towards the end of the book, Juliet is asked, “Will you speak your truth, Juliet?” That question really encompasses the book and its importance. I saw myself in Juliet because she spoke her truth, and I felt empowered to do the same. That’s what this all comes down to. We need stories like Juliet’s because we need queer girls – specifically queer girls of color – to see themselves, and to see their stories told without apology. Juliet’s story not only spoke to my heart, but it also made me feel, as a writer and aspiring novelist, more ready and inspired to write my own stories and speak my truth to the world.