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

Author Gabby Rivera
Julieta Salgado
Author Gabby Rivera

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

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.

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.

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Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.