Life, Love, Coming Out And Culture Shock In 'Juliet Takes A Breath'

Sep 18, 2019
Originally published on September 19, 2019 5:42 pm

Gabby Rivera writes strong Latina characters, from the queer Marvel superhero America Chavez to the Puerto Rican protagonist in her new novel, Juliet Takes a Breath. It's the coming-of-age story of a college kid from the Bronx trying to figure out who she is — a feminist, a lesbian, dying to get out of the Bronx, "messy, emotional, book nerd weirdo, chubby brown human, a jumble of awkward bits and glory."

Rivera borrowed the story from her own life — like she once did, Juliet heads to Portland, Ore., to intern for a white feminist writer. And the learning curve is steep.

The book is set in 2003, and Juliet listens to music easily recognizable from that era, artists like Ani DiFranco. "I was 19 in the early 2000s, right?" she says. "When I was coming out during this time, I was very much a part of white lesbian circles and trying to understand the, like, what is a Tegan and Sara and an Ani DiFranco. And, like, what is this world? And we didn't have gay marriage yet. ... I never in my mind would have imagined that I would be out and talking about my book and talking about me as an artist in this way. I wasn't in the closet, but I just imagined that, the way that queerness sometimes is like a secret society, that I would always be in my secret society."


Interview Highlights

On Juliet's culture shock when she moves to Portland

I think it really hits home when she's left the Bronx and has gone to Portland, Ore., and sees, like, how white it is — right? — and is like, where do I fit? And where she finds her first initial place is, like, a city bus — a city bus, full of people of color. And she sits on the bus and is like, damn, like, I feel safe here. I feel seen here. These are my people. And so I think for her, it's a moment that roots her in her experiences.

On the class differences Juliet encounters in a city where people don't always lock their doors

Author Gabby Rivera
Julieta Salgado

There are definitely some cultural, like, class-based differences for Juliet. ... Even for me personally, growing up in the Bronx, my parents were like, even if we're sitting outside in front of our house, my father's like, lock the doors. We've got to lock the doors. Did you close the window? And it's like, you know, just in case somebody tries to rob us while we're all here having a barbecue, right? ... And the same with the car doors. And so Juliet is used to these kind of procedures.

On Juliet's moment of coming out to her family

Oh, my gosh, I love the coming-out part of the book. It's — OK, so there's this general coming-out narrative where it's like you come out and your parents are like, "You are banished. We hate you," right? And you're thrown out into the world. And that is such a real narrative, right? Like, that's why so many — like 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ youth. That's not a joke.

I wanted ... to be very clear for young people coming out what their work is. And your work is not to make your mom accept you. That's your mom's work. - Gabby Rivera

And then at the same time, while we hold space for that, there are still experiences like mine, right? Where my parents — my mother specifically was not at all happy ... I turned around and was like, "Well, then let me know when I have to leave." Ah, wait. And she was like, "Hey, I love you. Like, you're my kid. And maybe I don't understand what this is all about, but this is your home. And I'm your mom. And I love you." And so there is just this baseline for us to have and maintain the love that we have always had.

I wanted also to be very clear for young people coming out what their work is. And your work is not to make your mom accept you. That's your mom's work. Your mom has to work to understand what she needs and ... the best ways that she can love you. Your work is to just live authentically and as honestly as you can.

On what's next for her

Well, I'm super-excited. I'm working with Boom! Studios right now. I've got a new original comic series coming out in November called b.b. Free. And it's about this 15-year-old girl on an adventure with her best friend, Chulita. They have a little radio show. It takes place, like, 100 years in the future in a post-climate-change America. So all the topography and the landscape and the weather is different ... [but] there's still radio and, you know, also magical powers because b.b. Free just might be the second coming of Mother Nature.

This story was edited for radio by Justine Kenin and Mallory Yu and was adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Gabby Rivera writes strong Latina characters, from the queer Marvel superhero America Chavez to the Puerto Rican protagonist in her new novel, "Juliet Takes A Breath." It's the coming-of-age story of a college kid from the Bronx trying to figure out who she is.

GABBY RIVERA: Feminism - to understand what it meant in real life outside of textbooks and if I could ever call myself a feminist. To get the hell out of the Bronx. Lesbians - to chill with all the lesbians and see if there were different ways to be one, to make sure that I was one, to find out if I was something else. Me - messy, emotional, book nerd weirdo, chubby, brown human, a jumble of awkward bits and glory.

CORNISH: Rivera borrowed the story from her own life. Like Rivera once did, Juliet heads to Portland, Ore. to intern for a white feminist writer. And the learning curve is steep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE PLASTIC CASTLE")

CORNISH: Juliet listens to music easily recognizable from the early 2000s, artists like Ani DiFranco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE PLASTIC CASTLE")

ANI DIFRANCO: (Singing) From the shape of your shaved head I recognized your silhouette.

CORNISH: So when we spoke, I asked Gabby Rivera why she set the book back in 2003.

RIVERA: I was, like, 19 in the early 2000s, right? When I was coming out during this time, I was very much, like, a part of white lesbian circles and trying to understand the, like, what is a Tegan and Sara and an Ani DiFranco. And, like, what is this world?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE PLASTIC CASTLE")

DIFRANCO: (Singing) And I said look at you this morning. You are by far the cutest...

RIVERA: And we didn't have, like, gay marriage yet. And there were still - I never in my mind would have imagined that, like, I would be out and talking about, like, my book and talking about me as an artist in this way. I wasn't in the closet, but I just imagined that the way that queerness sometimes is like a secret society that I would always be in my secret society.

CORNISH: Right. And setting it in this time allows you to do that, right? It's a little harder...

RIVERA: One-hundred percent.

CORNISH: ...To do that in the time of Tinder and Grindr and (laughter), you know...

RIVERA: Yeah, exactly.

CORNISH: Let's say not the wood-paneled spaces that people might have met in.

RIVERA: Totally. And it was also - there was never any artists that were out. I had to, like, project - you know what I mean? - where it was like damn, Selena's (ph) so beautiful. I wish. Or like oh, Chilli from TLC, I wish. And it was just, like, making up what I imagined queerness could be like, what LGBT stuff could be like, you know? So it's also very much - you just had to hope (laughter). Like, you hope you're not the only gay, you know what I mean?

CORNISH: Juliet goes to Portland, Ore. And she experiences a kind of culture shock from New York. And not just as a New Yorker - right? - but as somebody who is now embracing her sexuality but walks into a world where people are really well-versed in this stuff. How did you want to show the class differences because that can be jarring as a young person to encounter?

RIVERA: That is definitely not something that is on, like, the forefront of her mind - right? - because she's just, like, running in the world. But I think it really hits home when she's left the Bronx and has gone to Portland, Ore. and sees, like, how white it is - right? - and, like, is like, where do I fit? And where she finds her first initial place is, like, a city bus - a city bus, like, full of people of color. And she sits on the bus and is like, damn, like, I feel safe here. I feel seen here. These are my people. And so I think for her, it's, like, a moment that routes her in her experiences. I don't know, this class question is, like, actually also a little confusing.

CORNISH: Oh, sure. No, let me re-ask it. So when I was a kid, I was bused from my school system to a majority white school. And, like, I would see things that I was like, wait, what are trophies, you know? I was like 10 or 12. And things people took for granted I had no clue existed. And there were moments in the book, like, with Juliet, where she noticed people weren't locking their doors.

RIVERA: Ah, yes. OK.

CORNISH: There were just these little signifiers. And I wondered kind of how you came up with them or if they were things you experienced.

RIVERA: Ah, yes, yes, yes. OK. So in that respect, then yes, there are definitely some cultural, like, class-based differences for Juliet. I think that's a great example, right? So even for me personally, growing up in the Bronx, my parents were like, even if we're sitting outside in front of our house, my father's like, lock the doors. We've got to lock the doors. Did you close the window? And it's like, you know, just in case somebody tries to rob us while we're all here having a barbecue, right? Like, you know - and the same with the car doors. And so Juliet is used to these kind of, like, procedures.

CORNISH: There's an early scene where Juliet comes out to her parents, really her whole family. And this is right before she leaves her Portland, Ore. for this internship that she's sort of created.

RIVERA: Yeah.

CORNISH: And it's not a moment of complete acceptance. It's not rejection, but it's not totally acceptance. And it hangs over her throughout the book. Can you talk about in what ways you wanted to reflect a coming out experience, if not your own?

RIVERA: Yes. Oh, my gosh, I love the coming out part of the book. It's - OK, so there's this general coming out narrative where it's like you come out, and your parents are like, you are banished. We hate you, right? And you're thrown out into the world. And that is such a real narrative, right? Like, that's why so many - like 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ youth. That's not a joke.

And then at the same time while we hold space for that, there are still experiences like mine - right? - where my parents - my mother specifically was not at all happy or - she was actually terrified when I came out and closed up. And literally in the same conversation where she was like, I can't accept this, I do not want this for you, like, I turned around and was like, well, then let me know when I have to leave. Ah, wait. And she was like, hey, like, I love you. Like, you're my kid. And maybe I don't understand what this is all about, but this is your home. And I'm your mom. And I love you. And so there is just this baseline for us to, like, have and maintain the love that we have always had.

I wanted also to be very clear for young people coming out what their work is. And your work is not to make your mom accept you. That's your mom's work. Your mom has to work to understand what she needs and in the best ways that she can love you. Your work is to just live authentically and as honestly as you can.

CORNISH: What's next for you in terms of writing?

RIVERA: Oh, my gosh (laughter). Well, I'm super excited. I'm working with Boom! Studios right now. I've got a new original comic series coming out in November called "b.b. Free." And it's about this 15-year-old girl on an adventure with her best friend Chulita. They have a little radio show. It takes place, like, 100 years in the future in a post-climate-change America. So all the topography and the landscape and the weather is different.

CORNISH: But there's still radio.

RIVERA: Yeah, there's still radio.

CORNISH: So already I like this. I'm already into this.

RIVERA: (Laughter) Yeah, there's still radio and, you know, also magical powers because b.b. Free just might be the second coming of Mother Nature.

CORNISH: Oh, is that all?

RIVERA: Yeah. Listen; I have the biggest imagination. And Boom! Studios is like, yo, Gabby, let's run with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURYN HILL SONG, "EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING")

CORNISH: Well, Gabby Rivera thank you so much for speaking with us.

RIVERA: Hey, Audie, thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING")

LAURYN HILL: (Singing) After winter, after winter...

CORNISH: That's Gabby Rivera. Her novel is "Juliet Takes A Breath."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING")

HILL: (Singing) Change, it comes eventually. Everything... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.