Juliet Takes a Breath is like a love letter to your (younger) queer self. Written by “round, brown loverboi” Gabby Rivera, JTAB is the coming of age story of young Puerto Rican Juliet Palante who leaves the Bronx to start an internship with infamous feminist writer Harlowe Brisbane in an effort to discover her Queer, Feminist, Puerto Rican self.
“Feminism. I’m new to it. The word still sounds weird and wrong. Too white, too structured, too foreign: something I can’t claim… Can 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, this block, these deep breaths?”
As Juliet learns, loves, and grows throughout her time in the Bronx, Portland and Miami, so do we. And boy, what a journey we go on with Juliet as she bounces from coming out to her family before leaving for Portland; to meeting the author of ‘Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind’ Harlowe; being (badly) introduced to “PGP’s” (preferred gendered pronouns), polyamory, WoC only spaces and the power of (cis) women’s bodies; and finding herself knee deep in intersectional tensions within the queer and feminist communities. JTAB provides an immersive and grounding introduction to feminism, queerness and intersectionality through the innocent eyes of Juliet as she struggles to come to grips with this new found language that she has found herself in. This book is not only of massive importance in terms of offering a kick ass representation of a young, fat, nerdy, queer Puerto Rican girl, but also for the thought-provoking discussions that Rivera’s astute observations give rise to.
Rivera beautifully, articulately and intelligently captures the reality of the queer and feminist communities in all of their technicolored nuances with, at times, disconcerting clarity. As someone who was raised as female and came out as bisexual in 2008/2009, and then again as trans in 2010, I have experienced my fair share of both of these communities and have become increasingly exasperated, infuriated, and alienated with the increasingly dominating attitude which Rivera so expertly depicts in JTAB. Through the characters of Phen, Harlowe and Maxine we see Juliet’s ongoing struggle to get to grips with a community which constantly makes her feel like an outcast – as someone who is stupid for not being better versed in the ever growing complexity of Queer terminology and concepts which many younger queers, fresh out of the closet, would most likely not have been exposed to before.
Phen rolled his eyes. “Oh c’mon, do you identify as queer? As a dyke? Are you trans?” he asked, spitting phrases at me, amused by my ignorance. “And PGPs are so important even though I think we should drop preferred and call them mandatory gender pronouns. So, are you she, he, ze, they?”
“As a queer person, I have this opportunity to deconstruct and potentially abolish heteronormative relationship structures and create relationship models that work for me, that work for my needs and that don’t rely on mimicking straight codes of conduct. Codes that often adhere to strict and archaic gender roles, imbalances of power, and that one half of the relationship is in charge of the other.” (Maxine on polyamory)
Time and time again such language and attitudes only exist to further confuse and alienate Juliet who continually feels as though this community is not for her. Whether talking about pronouns, polyamory, sexual orientation, periods, or race, the Portland characters never break it down for Juliet in a way that she can understand and this is exactly what the queer community is really like. I have seen this attitude intensify over the past 5 years, in which anyone who doesn’t “look queer” or who seems ignorant about particular issues is looked down upon rather than initiated into a community that welcomes them. I feel that Rivera really summarises the alienation caused by this attitude when Juliet remarks “All of it swirled in my head and I didn’t know what to do with it. Didn’t know how much I care about it. None of it was about Puerto Rican chicks from the Bronx. All of it seemed black and white and rich and poor and queer and weird.”
And that’s even before we get onto the subject of Harlowe who lives and breathes a hippie, white lady ‘Pussy Power’ form of feminism. As a trans person, I always side eye any brand of feminism that can’t seem to talk about women’s bodies without being obsessed with pussy’s and spits out remarks such as these:
“We are born with the power of the moon and the flow of the waves within us. It’s only after being commodified for our femaleness that we lose that power. The first step in gaining it back is walking face first into the crashing seas and daring the patriarchy to follow.”
“You must walk in this world with the spirit of your 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”.
Harlowe, whilst a great character for engendering a far-reaching discussion about intersectionality and white feminism, is an awful, awful person. Not only does she continually thrust mountains of emotional and physical labour onto Juliet, but she is also racist. I won’t reveal too much about what happens in the book but it’s basically everything you would expect a woman like Harlowe to do.
The reality that Rivera captures in JTAB, I feel, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it makes it such a ground-breakingly important book in a format which can be read and accessed by a diverse readership, but also a curse in that it can (at times) make it incredibly hard to get through. There are points in the book where the characters, particularly Harlowe, can be so stereotypical that it becomes really grating. At one point I put the book down and didn’t pick it up again for another 2 months. However, that being said, I do recognise that much of my issue with this lies in my own experiences with these communities and, as a result of Rivera’s insightful writing, I found it hard to have to live through it all again.
One other issue I had with the book is my absolute frustration with the way that the book ended. I had forged on through everything, even during the times when I really wanted to give up with JTAB, the hopes that Rivera would finally allow Juliet the revelation that Harlowe is not a good person and have her discover the QTIPOC community. It does happen, which made me cheer with happiness because I was rooting for this for the entire book and the section where she connects with said community is one of the most enjoyable parts of the book. However, Rivera makes the decision to have Juliet later rejoin Harlowe, complete her internship, and seemingly find peace with everything that happened. For me, this created a little bit of a flat ending and I really, really wish that Rivera had just cut the third section of the book, ending instead with her being welcomed into the QTIPOC community. I also feel like that the book maybe drags on for a little too long and at times the book can be very YA, as we are living the world through the naive eyes of Juliet, but those are very picky little things I could also live with.
Overall, despite some of my frustrations with the book JTAB is clearly a very important book and I would highly recommend it to everyone. It can be a little bit hard-going for those well-versed in the queer community but I think that Juliet’s identity and character mostly off-set this. There are some beautifully heart-warming moments in the book, particularly as Juliet’s mother comes to terms with her queerness, and Rivera’s intelligent reflections on the queer and feminist communities certainly leave a lot of food for thought. Whilst I did only rate JTAB 3.5 stars on goodreads, part of this is due to my own identity impacting upon my enjoyment of the book as an older queer, as someone who is white, as a transmasc person. However, this book is not for me and so whilst there were elements which I struggled with, I think this book is amazing for existing.