When I first learned about Gabby Rivera's Juliet Takes A Breath, I was digging deep into the internet for some lesbian coming-of-age books including women of color. The cover of Juliet Takes A Breath caught my attention: It features a brown-skinned woman with the book’s title shaved into her hair. It was the most badass cover I'd ever seen.
Author Gabby Rivera is a queer woman of color who writes raw, honest personal essays for queer-centric site Autostraddle. She also writes short stories and poems and worked at social justice organizations like GLSEN and Dreamyard Project Inc. Juliet Takes a Breath, which came out in January, is her debut novel.
The book stars a Puerto Rican lesbian named Juliet Palante. After a failed coming-out to her family, Juliet goes to Portland, Oregon for an internship with a white feminist she admires. Over the summer, she ends up learning a lot about herself and the world around her.
When I finished reading the book, I felt like I had made a new friend. Even though I'm not Puerto Rican, I related to Juliet as a baby queer woman of color, feminist, book nerd, and writer. Juliet Palante is simply the most relatable queer character I've ever encountered. This is especially significant because there are only a handful of queer young adult books with people of color protagonists and a handful of YA books written by a queer person of color.
Author Gabby Rivera. Photo by Julieta Salgado.
When some people discuss diversity, some say “We need diverse characters” or “We need diverse writers,” but they rarely discuss needing both. For a book to have a queer protagonist of color or a queer author of color is good. For a book to have a queer author of color and a queer protagonist of color is groundbreaking. It demonstrates that diverse creators matter as much as diverse stories by not only providing representation, but adding dialog to the representation conversation.
By having a Puerto Rican lesbian lead interact with a white queer feminist, a young boy of color, other women of color, and other queer people of color, the book shows how the concepts of diversity and representation changes depending on the type of people you are around. As the book progresses, Juliet Palante learns the importance of being represented on her own terms and to value herself more.
Of all the interactions in the book, Juliet's interactions with white feminist Harlowe Brisbane and other queer people of color provide the most crucial dialogue to representation conversations. Harlowe Brisbane shows how white feminists can be both an ally and an enemy to queer people of color. Her character feels like a plain-spoken and modern version of the interview between Black feminist writer Audre Lorde and white feminist writer Adrienne Rich in 1984 collection Sister Outsider.
On the other hand, Juliet’s experience with other queer people of color highlight the importance of having queer people of color only spaces and communities. It is this experience that is the catalyst for Juliet’s coming-of-age as she learns she has plenty of space to breathe and that she can do so without compromising who she is. As someone who has experienced the joy of digital people of color only spaces, this felt very authentic to read.
Juliet Takes A Breath allowed me to breathe easier because there was an author and a protagonist who looked like me and felt things like me. Juliet Palante’s story shows that even though we all breathe the same air, some of us have don’t have enough room to do so. Everyone should be able breathe in a space that acknowledges their identity and story. Despite the Meg Rostoffs of the world claiming queer POCs don’t need more characters, Juliet Takes a Breath provides much-needed fresh air.