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A Review of Gabby Rivera’s Juliet Takes a Breath

Gabby Rivera

Author Gabby Rivera. Photo by Julieta Salgado

Nineteen-year-old Bronx-born baby dyke Juliet Palante has just read Raging Flower: Empowering Your Pussy by Empowering Your Mind by trademark white feminist Harlowe Brisbane. Feeling connected to the universal concept of womanhood described this “magical labia manifesto,” Juliet writes a letter to Harlowe volunteering to work as her summer research assistant in Portland, Oregon. What ensues is a hilarious and heartfelt coming-of-age journey as Juliet explores different puzzle pieces of her identity and what they mean to herself, her family, and the world around her.

I loved so much about this novel. After all, Roxane Gay herself has called it “fucking outstanding,” and keeping this review from becoming a laundry list of praise is a challenge. Having lived in the Pacific Northwest, I appreciated Juliet’s fish-out-of-water perspective as she, in no particular order, encounters a bus full of deodorant-less white hippies, veganism, and the ubiquitous question: “What are your preferred gender pronouns?” However, these moments are not just there to add culture clash entertainment, but also serve to reveal the racial and class biases behind behaviors that purport to be inclusive for all.

I was honored to meet author Gabby Rivera in person at OutWrite, D.C.’s Queer Book Festival, where I asked her about what I considered to be some of the most moving aspects of the novel—the intergenerational family relationships, especially those among Juliet, her cousin Ava, Aunt (Tia) Penny, and mother. While Juliet’s cousin Ava acts as something of a role model—a guide to queer person of color–centered activism—Juliet’s mother struggles to accept Juliet as a lesbian. However, Tia Penny is quick to point out, that regardless of what Juliet’s mother does not understand, she never wavers in her unconditional love of her daughter. At OutWrite, I asked Rivera to speak about to how her own family relationships influenced writing a family dynamic that always included acceptance even in absence of understanding. Rivera explained that in her family, “We couldn’t afford to cut each other out of our lives, and so we had to hold each other close.”

I’d also like to examine the title—What does it mean for Juliet to take a breath?—and the thread of asthmatic Juliet’s breathing, which finds its way through the novel. In her opening letter to Harlowe, Juliet relates that it is hard to breathe in the Bronx. Although she describes this experience in terms of the city’s crowds and pollution, throughout the novel, when Juliet’s personhood and right to claim her own experiences are threatened, she struggles for air. Juliet’s journey of gaining trust and confidence in herself, regardless of location, is what grants her the ability to breathe.

For more information on Gabby Rivera and Juliet Takes a Breath, visit GabbyRivera.com.