Juliet Takes a Breath

Juliet Takes a Breath, Gabby Rivera

To begin, a little disclaimer: If there are readers that see themselves in Juliet and take strength in her journey, I want to honor that. If there are white readers out there that are able to see themselves through an outsider’s eyes through this story, I think that’s a valuable thing too.

As a piece of writing, however, Juliet is very mixed in quality. For all of the time that we spend in Juliet’s head, I never came away with that deep an understanding of what shaped her attitudes towards gender and sexuality in the 19-ish years of her life before the events of the book take place. Despite being based on a set of meaningful real experiences, the observations of Portland, Oregon or the Bronx, of the people that fill out those places and attend the workshops, etc. never go past superficial observations. We find out fairly late in the story that it’s supposed to take place in 2003, yet every character speaks in the language of queer subculture circa 2015, and I’m fairly certain that the undercut that brings catharsis to a character late in the story would have been perceived not as cutting edge queer fashion in 2003 but as a weird attempt to resurrect a Nazi haircut.

Even the plotting has a pageant-like quality where Juliet experiences cliched microaggression after another with a corresponding Socratic dialogue enlightening the reader about the real power dynamics at play. It left me wondering who exactly this novel was for. I don’t think Juliet—in either her 2003 or 2015 incarnations—would believe the journey that we get in this novel. It does not seem like it’s for a “mainstream” white feminist reader, exactly either, although the internal politics of white feminist spaces and relationships end up taking center stage in this story for much longer than brown queer spaces do.

But for all that, the description of finding strength in a queer scene free from the white gaze or the burden of navigating and accommodating whiteness was really effective and even though I had to slog through much of this novel, by the end Juliet had won me over.

I am interested in the new graphic novel adaptation that seems to be in progress. Perhaps the magic that illustrations can do to bring depth to characters through facial expressions and ground scenes in place can smooth out some of the roughness in the writing and allow the story to shine.

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