Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera

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Four stars, maybe five. Read in December 2016.

I’d been excited about this book for a while, and there was a surprise right up front because for some reason—because of the glorious cover design—I had thought it was a graphic novel. It is not. It has a very self-published look underneath that fabulous cover, which was disappointing at first, because that makes it so much harder for me to turn off my editor brain and stop noticing all the typos (already an impossible thing for me to do). However, as I’m thinking about it now, I kind of like the fact that it’s printed in Times New Roman; it gives the feel of a journal, something totally individual that we’ve just been granted access to. Given the nature of this book—a budding feminist’s literal journey to “figure out the whole Puerto Rican lesbian thing”—that really works.

I had some very mixed feelings throughout, and it was often because I was learning things. I needed a lot of time to process, too (it’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading it). I loved the book, and I experienced many fuck-yeah moments as well as moments of resistance. There is so much good stuff, along with a lot that was hard for me to pin down exactly how I felt about it.

I was alarmed toward the beginning when Juliet first meets Harlowe Brisbane, her feminist idol, who starts going on and on about periods in a way I have always hated. I cannot take anyone seriously when they’re saying a maxi pad made them feel magical, because do they also think diapers feel magical? and if so, that is weird. Ceremonies, celebrations, rituals, sacredness—I have never understood that shit. Periods are a biological function, no more glorious or meaningful than sweating or peeing. And if you try to tell me that I should meditate my cramps away instead of taking painkillers, as Harlowe tells Juliet—we are going to have a problem.

As it turns out, this is a thing people know about! And technically I knew it too, but somehow I had never made the connection between the name and the thing. I know about trans-exclusionary “feminism,” and I believe that feminism isn’t real feminism unless it’s completely intersectional. I know that I’ve always felt uncomfortable when women talk about period magic and moon goddesses and whatever the fuck else. But I’ve somehow never realized that that’s what that is. It took both Juliet and me until the end of the book, but her fabulous cousin Ava finally points it out.

Ava had no time for Harlowe. She wrote me a list of all the other books I needed to read about feminism that weren’t written by white women. I couldn’t understand why it mattered so much. Like, what was so bad about Raging Flower? Ava said it was because Harlowe didn’t make queer or trans women of color a priority in her work; that Harlowe assumed that we could all connect through sisterhood, as if sisterhood looked the same for everyone. As if all women had vaginas . . .

“Um, Ava, don’t all women have vaginas?” I asked, staring at her.

“Fuck no. We just talked about this,” she replied. “This is why I can’t fuck with Harlowe. All Harlowe does is equate being a woman to bleeding and having certain body parts. Like, I’m so not with that. For me, womanhood is radical enough for anyone who dares to claim it.”

Once that was pointed out—once it was clear, somewhere toward the middle, that Harlowe’s perspective was supposed to be problematic—that tension disappeared for me.

The other issue was race, and I hate admitting that I struggled with that too, just in one specific sense. I really appreciate the perspective of women of color dealing with white over-participation in feminism. I loved reading such a complicated, nuanced portrayal of the dynamic between Juliet’s Portland icons, Harlowe, Zaira, Maxine, Lupe. I just can’t help feeling a little defensive about the way “white lady” is becoming such a dismissive adjective. I guess it’s hard to separate the legitimate criticism from the regular misogyny that treats all women as kind of a joke.

I absolutely understand why. I understand that white feminists have fucked it up for over a hundred years, and that’s not okay. It confuses and infuriates me to see the way people only want to peel back the one layer of oppression that personally affects them, and somehow still think that everyone else’s oppression is justified, or not as important an issue. I know that white people always do focus on their hurt feelings at the expense of the actual problems people of color are trying to discuss. I rarely comment on things online anymore, but I actually did just a week or so ago saying this exact thing to white people who were having tantrums in the comments of an article by a black woman specifically about this issue. I guess the point, if there is one, is that I kind of hate how I still have those same impulses, even though I know I know better. And how easy it is to talk yourself into thinking your feeling is different.

But right at the end, Zaira finally sums it up in a way that helped settle me.

“Oh, girl,” she said as she patted my thigh. “Everything you feel is valid. Know that, sister. We must always question the world and those in it, especially those that say they’re acting in our names. Personally, I adore Harlowe, ever since the first time I met her. Politically, though, the issues run deep. I see a woman constantly working on herself. I see a society that enforces systems beyond her control, that validates whiteness, frames narratives of people of color around poverty and violence, and propels good people into perpetuating the very structures they’re trying to dismantle. But I’m not here to make space for good white people. There have been times when I’ve needed to distance myself from Harlowe and people like her . . .

You’ll meet people that you love who fuck 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.”

I would love for everyone, every young girl especially, to read this book, and I think it’s what every book should look like. I’m tired of having to look so specifically for full, inclusive feminism. It shouldn’t be this hard to find, or this revolutionary when we do find it. This is how we should all be doing it.

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