Author Gabby Rivera on the Importance of Latinx Representation in Fiction
Straight out of the boogie-down Bronx, Gabby Rivera is a queer Latinx writer who's also an advocate for LGBTQ youth and a fearless Nuyorican. This week, Dial Books rereleased her 2016 debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath, a coming-of-age story about Juliet Milagros Palante, a Bronx college student who moves to Portland, Oregon for an internship with a famous feminist author. The book, by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, is technically a young adult novel, but anyone who's ever had to reconcile their own identity with a not-quite-supportive family or find their way in an unfamiliar place will see themselves in Juliet.
Rivera, now based in California, was also the author of Marvel's short-lived but beloved America series, following America Chavez, the first queer Latina superhero ever featured in Marvel Comics. Next up, she's working on another comic, this time with illustrator Royal Dunlap, and recording a podcast called Joy Revolution. Here, Rivera talks to People CHICA about how Juliet has changed since its first release and why she thinks it's important to get off your phone.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I've been writing most of my life. My mom was a teacher, so I learned how to read and write very early. Throughout high school I was a performance poet, and then I started writing short stories. I wasn't ever sure that I could make writing a career, but I always knew it was a passion and something that I always wanted to do no matter what. It was really with the publication of Juliet Takes a Breath that I realized, “Hey, I can call myself a writer in real life now.”
This book was originally published in 2016. What was it like revisiting something you'd already seen as finished? What kinds of changes did you make to the text?
The first time around it was very DIY, to the point where it was me and my girlfriend at the time editing the book in a Microsoft Word document. It was right out of my mom's basement and into the world. With the republication, Juliet is getting the love and care that she needs, number one by making sure that everything is there, like all the commas and stuff. [I also did some] expanding of Juliet's view of womanhood and making it more clear, and did some work with Phen to give him more of an arc to his story. It was never with the intention of redoing the whole book. It was like, “This is incredible, let's just make sure it's the best that it can be before it goes out to an even wider audience.”
You're from the Bronx, Juliet is from the Bronx. You're Puerto Rican, Juliet is Puerto Rican. And so on, and so on. How much of this book is autobiographical? Are there any characters inspired by people in your real life?
One hundred million percent this book is autobiographical, with a fictional twist. It's based on my experience falling in love with a feminist book at 19 and then taking my ass to Portland, Oregon. It was a wild, eye-opening experience. I always wanted to be a writer, so one of my writing mentors at the time, an author named Ariel Gore, was like, “Yo, you should write that story down — a Puerto Rican going to Portland and figuring herself out.” Most of the characters are people I know, especially in the beginning, like my mom and my dad. Lil' Melvin is like my brother when he was little, Titi Wepa is based on one of my tías. Titi Wepa isn't a name, but in my fictional world I can make Wepa a name, the same way that Palante isn't a last name. Palante is the rallying cry, [but] in my world Juliet Milagros Palante — that's the name, you know? It's a solid, cultural, powerful name, and it was intentional, too. “Juliet” is from Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, so right away there's that classic recognition. Milagros translates to “miracle” because that's what she is, and the fact that I'm alive and thriving as a queer Latina, to me that's miraculous. Palante is to remind us to always go forward, to always improve and push for better. Her name represents greatness.
The coming out scene in this book is so heartbreaking, and made me think about how few scenes like this I've read in any books, let alone YA novels. How have readers responded to that scene since the book first came out?
I think folks can really relate to it because it's not this high-key dramatic, flip-the-table, Juliet gets slapped in the face type of thing. There's tension, you can feel that her mom is processing, you can feel that the family is surprised. Also, it takes place in the middle of a very lively, fun family dinner. They're proud of Juliet. They're making jokes, Titi Wepa's got a 40. I wanted it to feel very authentic, so a lot of Puerto Rican and Latinx people have been like, “Wow, that's my family at the dinner table, I can't imagine coming out like that,” or, “That was me.” One of the number-one things people relate to is Juliet's mom, Mariana, having her own journey in the book on navigating her daughter's coming out. She reads what Juliet's reading, she talks to other people in the family about it. I wanted to give all the Latina moms permission to have their own journey.
Obviously the hope with this book is that queer Latinx kids from the Bronx, or wherever else, will see themselves reflected in Juliet, when maybe they haven't seen themselves in media before. What books or movies and shows did you see yourself in when you were growing up?
I really have to give some honor to Ugly Betty, the American version. It wasn't the perfect show … [but] I really loved that America Ferrera played a chubby, smart, good-hearted, thoughtful, motivated and ambitious Latina out in the world, trying to navigate a white industry and all the issues that came with that. For the first time I was like, “What?” She wasn't queer, but for her to just be how she was was enough. That was like a shining light in the dark. I don't know if I saw myself in any books through childhood except in the kiddie ways, like Matilda by Roald Dahl. She was a magical little girl, I loved that. When I hit 19 or 20 and I was in college and in my first women's studies class, that's when I started reading women of color. That's when I read bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Gloria Anzaldúa, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. That's when my brain exploded and was like, “Where is all of this? Why did I only read this in college? What's good, high school?”
Harlowe is not real, but there are plenty of references to real feminist and queer icons like Octavia Butler and Marsha P. Johnson. Have you thought about making a reading list for your younger readers? Do you hope they'll come away curious, like Juliet?
I want everyone to be curious and motivated. Those two qualities — man, they'll get you anywhere. Out of your mother's house, into the life you want. Curious and motivated, that is the wave. Go forth into the world. The scrolling, the phone, that s*** ain't gonna help you be your best self unless you're already curious and motivated. As far as a reading list, I've been thinking about adding that as a page to my site.
You are living in California now, right? What took you away from the Bronx?
I moved to the Bay Area last year. I spent 35 years of my life living in New York and the Bronx, with two years in Brooklyn, so I have lived in the Bronx. The thing that was getting to me was that I felt like I just needed more nature and more space. My mental health was actually being affected by living in New York City, all the stress and anxiety and everything concrete. When I did a gig in California, there was all this open sky and all this sunshine, and I was like, “Damn, I just need a break. I need to be able to take a break so I can step back and come back with a lot of love and energy.” So for my mental health I moved to the West Coast to breathe and to get some sunshine. I miss my Puerto Ricans, I miss my Dominicans, Jamaicans, West Indians. I miss the food, the people, the church parties, the fish fries, the salsa. I miss it and I'm glad. I see myself hopefully coming back to the Bronx and doing my work and creating space for Bronx writers, I'm just in my healing time right now.
And you're doing the new comic b.b. free, with Royal Dunlap. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
b.b. free is a little chubby — I think Puerto Rican–descended because it's like 100 years in the future — mamita trying to figure out herself, and she's in a very strict situation with her dad and she's gotta go. So she hits the road with her best friend, Chulita. They have their radio show and they're taking on a post–climate change America, so the landscape is different, the weather is different, there's all sorts of stuff going on. It's going to be wild, and I'm just letting my imagination go wherever the hell it wants. It's essentially about two best friends, road trip, adventure — that's me, that's my genre. I just want girls to know that literally they can do whatever the hell they want with their lives. As long as they don't cause any harm, they don't need to listen to anything but what's in their hearts.