From the opening words of her first young-adult novel — “Yuh fas’ and arrow and sensual and mango” — local filmmaker and writer Junauda Petrus casts readers into a dreamy and poetic space that connects Caribbean and Midwest.
Sixteen-year-old Audre has upset her religious mother in Trinidad by falling in love with another girl. When her mother sends her to America to live with the father she barely knows, the dislocation threatens Audre’s ties to her culture and to her beloved grandmother, Queenie.
In Minneapolis, she meets Mabel, a quiet basketball player and Whitney Houston fan, who has retreated inward after being diagnosed with a rare disease.
Mabel is struggling with questions about her own sexuality. But her loving, strict family is an oasis. Her father cultivates a giant garden he calls Black Eden on the vacant lot next door, while reading chapter and verse on black history to Mabel and her younger brother.
“My dad uses classic hip-hop as curriculum, proverb, reflection and a practical tool in his fatherhood,” Mabel says ruefully. “Sometimes I hate classic hip-hop.” And her free-spirited mother fills the house with mouthwatering Caribbean food.
Audre and Mabel begin a relationship that reaches deep into Audre’s past, woven with stories of Queenie’s early years as a dancer in New York who falls in love with men and women as she discovers her spiritual gifts and finds the hidden communities that sustained LGBT women of color.
Mabel also begins a correspondence with a death-row inmate, Afua, a dreamer and thinker who helps her understand the ongoing African-American struggle for civil rights and self-dignity.
As Mabel’s illness takes her out of school, Audre begins to develop new friendships at South High, where she discovers the school’s Pride club and finds a way to push back against racist white teachers who dismiss her heritage and history.
Petrus has an ear for the rich rhythms of Caribbean and African-American dialogue. She also casts a poet’s eye over the landscape of the story, from Caribbean beaches to the North Shore to the North Side.
“I look at the sky over Black Eden,” Mabel reflects early in the story, “and the stars are poppin’ and the moon is looking like an almost-closed eye, an almost eaten slice of honeydew. It makes me remember one time my mama telling my daddy the name Black Eden is redundant since the first Eden was black already.”
Like Toni Morrison, who redrew the narrative of black experience with novels set in Midwestern small towns, Petrus is redrawing a map, creating an Eden where Caribbean, black and LGBT culture can find beauty and lushness, spirituality, history and sustenance.
“The Blackness between the stars is the melanin in your skin,” a friend tells Afua at one point. “I take it to mean that as Black folks, we are limitless.”
This novel is a love letter to Minneapolis’ Caribbean and African-American communities that does its own deep and healing work.
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them
By: Junauda Petrus.
Publisher: Dutton, 308 pages, $17.99.
Event: In conversation with Gabby Rivera, 7 p.m. Sept. 23, Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.