gabby-rivera-book-identity
photo: Julieta Salgado

There were times in Gabby Rivera’s life when all she had was the book she had been writing on and off since 2009.

“I might not have had a girlfriend, or might not have had happiness in my life,” the 33-year-old says. “I might have been depressed, unemployed, laid off . . . Every time I hit something like that, I still had this book."

The countless hours spent writing in libraries everywhere from Connecticut to New York finally paid off for Rivera, whose book, Juliet Takes a Breath, was published in January. The novel follows Juliet Milagros Palante, a 19-year-old Puerto Rican who leaves her Bronx home for Portland to intern with the author of her favorite feminist book, Harlowe Brisbane.

Juliet also just came out as a lesbian to her family.

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“But she’s totally comfortable with that fact about herself,” Rivera says. “There’s no shame in it and she is trying to figure out what it means to be a feminist and she’s trying to figure out who she is.”

Rivera, who identifies as a queer brown Latina feminist, says Juliet also later finds out more about her own Latinidad through her family.

The author will celebrate her labor of love at a book signing held at 7 p.m. March 26 at New York City’s Bluestockings Book Store. The novel is loosely based on Rivera’s own personal experiences. Representation — or the lack thereof — also fueled her to write it.

"I think as I grew into my consciousness, my radical political consciousness, it became more evident that there wasn’t enough representation of positive, quirky, weird Latinas. There’s definitely not enough representation of LGBTQ Latinas."

It’s important to Rivera to tell stories about other queer brown Latinas like her because, she says, identity is everything.

gabby-rivera-book-identity
photo: Cristy C. Road

“It's important also to model infinite possibility. To speak to young Latinx folks and be like, ‘You can be anything you want to be,' you know?” she says. “If you feel like you are bisexual, if you want to like be goth, whatever the hell it is that you want to be, do it, and I feel that the best way to express that is through identity."

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Rivera says she identified as a lesbian for a long time until her late 20s, when she came to identify as queer.

"As Latinas, we get one framework: You are ultra femme, you are definitely straight, you can cook and clean and take care of a man, and you get this one way to do it — and there’s nothing wrong with that way. Much respect to all the women who fit into those identities, but what about everybody else? There needs to be more outlets. More mirrors. More possibility."

Juliet Takes a Breath has even garnered the attention of Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, who Rivera met once at a reading.

“So much of this book is hilarious and charming. I kept finding myself laughing out loud,” Gay wrote in her review of the novel on Goodreads. “And the gorgeous, moving turns of phrase made me catch my breath.”

Rivera considers Gay a role model.

“Obviously, I died like 14 times,” she says with a laugh after reading Gay's review of her novel. “God bless her. She gave me that boost and it was like a huge boost.”

Rivera, who says her family is very supportive in her work and life, admits she still struggles in certain respects with her identity.

“Not how I feel about my identity, but how other people react to me,” she says. “Right now, if I go to a predominantly Latino baby shower, I’m literally the only dyke in a suit in the whole room and that could be huge culture shock for everybody around me. Like, ‘Who are you? Why are you dressed like that? Do you want to be a man?’”

The writer stresses that it’s not a statement on all Latinos — she’s speaking solely from her own experiences.

“We come from so many different communities,” she says, “and I feel really comfortable in who I am and my identity has evolved along the way.”