Writing 'Juliet Takes A Breath' Reminded Gabby Rivera To "Be In Love With The World Again"
Juliet Takes A Breath is a book that will always find you at the perfect time. Gabby Rivera's debut young adult novel is a stunning coming-of-age story about teenaged Juliet Milagros Palante, who has just come out to her conservative Puerto Rican parents on the eve of her cross-country journey to Portland, Oregon for an internship with the acclaimed feminist writer, Harlowe Brisbane. Over the course of one summer, Juliet comes to understand so much about feminism, racism, queerness, and love — romantic love, family love, community love, and self-love.
"Writing Juliet reminded me to be in love with the world again, to be all geeked about a book, and let myself fall in love with gentle humans, that feminism can be soft and free," Gabby Rivera tells Bustle in the interview below. "Like, what a gift, you know?"
Originally published in 2016 by Riverdale Avenue Books, the book is now being reintroduced to the world by Penguin Random House in a vibrant yellow hardcover. In 2017, I named Juliet Takes A Breath the inaugural selection of the American Woman Book Club (now, the Bustle Book Club), because I knew Juliet's boisterous, heartfelt narration would make it an instant favorite with readers. I was right, and many of the lines from this book are imprinted upon my own heart: "You’ll meet people that you love who f*ck up constantly. You’ll learn how to weed out the assholes from the warriors. You’ll know what groups of people to stay away from because they’re not safe spaces for your heart. You’ll learn when to forgive human error and when to eradicate the unworthy from your spirit."
Though every reader will be profoundly touched by Juliet's spirit and big, beautiful heart, this is a book that was written for a specific audience: queer kids of color.
"I wrote this book for all the queer kids of color, especially the chubby nerdy Puerto Rican ones, because they deserve all the love, protection, respect, and bouncy joy in the whole world," Rivera tells Bustle.
In the interview, author Gabby Rivera talks to me about feminism, queer love, and her creative idols:
Bustle: This book was originally published in 2016. How did it feel to give Juliet a second chance at finding her audience?
Gabby Rivera: It’s wild. I wrote this book in mom’s basement apartment. Wasn’t sure what would happen, if anyone would ever read it. All I knew was that I had to finish. And look at her — Juliet has wings. She’s soared above and beyond anything I could have even imagined and this is all part of that.
I’ve sat with Juliet, Harlowe, Maxine, Ava, Juliet’s mom, Mariana, and Kira, the hottest motorcycle-riding librarian for the better part of a decade. And when it was time to take another look at the book and do some fresh edits, I didn’t want to change too much at all. Like it’s OK for a book to be imperfect. Characters are always imperfect. Like I didn’t wanna mess with what is real about the book: Juliet’s voice, her questions, her choices.
Palante — Juliet's last name — is a word, a rallying cry, in Puerto Rican culture: Pa'lante. Why did you choose that as Juliet's name?
Pa’lante chose Juliet. Like I dreamed about her whole name, with Pa’lante always as the last name. That word is exactly as you said a rallying cry and I wanted the whole world to rally around Juliet.
Also Pa’lante isn’t a last name so I knew it would be something extra special for Juliet as a character, you know? How could you ever forget that name? Juliet Milagros Palante.
This novel is such a wonderful feminist primer. Was it intentional to make it so diverse, not only in terms of culture and race, but in terms of body size and sexualities? What did you learn about your own feminism while writing Juliet?
I grew up in the North Bronx. My neighborhood was so diverse. Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Koreans, Italians, Dominicans, folks from the West Indies, like my neighborhood had everybody. And there were all sorts of bodies all around me. And I never knew why the media was so obsessed with skinny white girls, any way. Like where’s the juice? The thick? The wild bouncy beautiful energy, the attitude? Like give me girls of color from the Bronx. Give me storylines where they’re going on adventures, taking over the world and falling in love with each other.
In Juliet Takes A Breath, a lot of that love and bounce comes right from here. Juliet was always gonna be in love with herself, and a little self-conscious, but mostly in love.
Writing Juliet reminded me to be in love with the world again, to be all geeked about a book, and let myself fall in love with gentle humans, that feminism can be soft and free. Like, what a gift, you know?
This book features so many people in various stages of the feminist learning process. Juliet, of course, goes through quite a journey in her own feminism, as does Harlowe and Juliet's mother. Why was it important for you to showcase people at all different parts of the learning process?
I want queer kids of color just coming into themselves to know that it’s OK to not know everything. You can and you must come into yourself with a ton of questions, some you investigate on your own and others you need the whole community to help you grapple with. And there are other folks who are eons and light years ahead, who already have cultivated the language and ethics they need to grapple with anti-blackness, white supremacy, and homophobia.
I wanted to love on them too and showcase models for how we could all help each other move with respect and care for each other. Now, this isn’t a pass for people who have all the privilege and refuse to do any of the work. You don’t get to dump all your feelings on Black Indigenous People of Color to fix and appease your guilt, that’s not this. Juliet is doing her own work. She’s asking her own questions and fighting for herself.
Harlowe's white feminism ends up being really hurtful to Juliet. What do you hope readers take away from the character of Harlowe, and what were your trying to convey in writing her?
With Harlowe, I really wanted to show what it can be like to navigate white people who can be generally chill and fun and inspiring and still be caught in their own racist crap. And how harmful that sh*t is, and how valid it is to question their attentions and stick up for yourself. It might take Juliet some time but she gains enough confidence to push against Harlowe and demand an apology.
There are a lot of kids of color put in the care of white folks who have no experience in caring for, respecting, and loving people of color, let alone attempting to "educate us." And our kids might not feel like they have the agency to stand up for themselves, and through the relationship between Harlowe and Juliet, I wanted to affirm that ache and that pain, no matter how big or small, it’s yours and you have the right to end it.
Also, genitals do not equate gender and all the feminists like Harlowe that try to push that narrative need to be checked and critiqued, just like Ava does to Harlowe’s work. She eviscerates it for all the inherent anti-Blackness and transphobia. So Harlowe for me is a moment for white women to take serious note. We see you. Do better. Because we’re working on ourselves.
This story is very much about love — family love, self-love, and romantic love. What are some of the most important lessons on love that you want Juliet — and the reader — to understand?
I’m a loverboi. I want everyone to feel love, give love, and know that they’re worthy of all the love. Like, you reading this: you’re worthy of tremendous, abundant love.
Parents: Love your kids unconditionally. Love your kids as they are. Please. That’s really all you ever gotta do.
Also, love is fun. It’s cookies on the steps of the library with the cutest babe you’ve ever met. Love is making art with your period blood in the middle of the forest with a bunch of queers and putting it all on instagram. Love is reading Gloria Anzaldua by yourself in the kitchen. It’s writing a letter to your Tía in Florida. Love is so many incredible, breathtaking simple ass moments. In Juliet, I wanted to gather up a bunch of those moments and say here look this is one way to be soft in love and give yourself to it fully.
Juliet mentions so many of her icons throughout the book — Selena, Queen Latifah, and others. Who are some of your icons, and how have they inspired your creative life?
Maria Hinojosa. The Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas. Shonda Rhimes. Rita Moreno. My cousin Gloria. My mom. The Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sylvia Rivera. Charlie Pena. Like this list goes on forever, is everlasting. These are folks who uplift me, remind me I deserve to be here and that I don’t have to take shit from anyone. I can love as hard as I want, whoever I want and write every single story that makes me feel alive.
Who did you write this book for, and what do you hope they take away from reading it?
I wrote this book for all the queer kids of color, especially the chubby nerdy Puerto Rican ones, because they deserve all the love, protection, respect, and bouncy joy in the whole world. I want them to know they have the right to question everything and rebuild themselves however they want.
Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera is available now.