Minnesota artist's novel about queer black teens is one of fall's hottest books
Junauda Petrus's new novel is "a love letter to growing up in south Minneapolis," as her artistic partner put it. But the book has a lot of love for Trinidad and New York City, too. It's also a love letter to blackness and queerness, to nothing less than the earth and the cosmos.
Which gives you a sense of Petrus herself. The Minneapolis writer and artist is firmly rooted in the Phillips neighborhood where she grew up but also connected to the universe, to the stars.
"I'm always writing to a space that I want to have exist," she said, "a space that I think would have been a deep solace for me as a young person."
Petrus, 38, is known for plays and puppetry, poetry and film, aerial art and activism. In her young adult novel "The Stars and the Blackness Between Them," she conjures the story of two 16-year-old girls — Audre and Mabel, an Aquarius and a Scorpio, a Trinidadian and an African-American — coming of age in Minneapolis and in one another's arms.
A national buzz is growing around the book, due Tuesday from New York publisher Dutton. It has earned coveted "starred" reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus (which called it a "bewitching debut").
For Petrus, a novel is a new format. But the themes are the same. She captures the intimacy of female friendships, the power of black community.
"You know how people say, 'You're black, you're gay and you're a woman. You have three strikes against you,' " Petrus said, speaking on a recent afternoon at Moon Palace Books in south Minneapolis. She shook her head. "Instead of me trying to absorb and step over that, to persevere against it, I think each of those things are limitlessly fabulous and divine."
The title nods to that divinity, she said. "So just like we can have reverence and a sense of mystery around the limitlessness of the cosmos and the universe, I want black folks to see themselves as a reflection of that."
The book, told in two voices, begins with a dedication to, in part, her mom.
As a kid, Petrus was obsessed with space travel. "I just wanted to be an astronaut so bad," she said. One day, when she was 7, she began blowing up balloons. Her mom asked what was up, and little Junauda told her: "I've got a mission. I'm about to fly."
Rather than dismiss her, her mom helped her out, pinning the balloons to her winter jacket.
"I will always love you," Petrus wrote, "for your sweetness and your limitless belief in my magic."
Her mother and aunt moved to Minnesota from Trinidad, so Petrus was raised among a big, Caribbean, immigrant family.
As an awkward and emo teen, she devoured hip-hop and grunge, digging their pockets of androgyny and fierceness. Bookish and tomboyish, she wrote lots, read lots: Anne Rice and Alice Walker, Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. Plus, some V.C. Andrews "to get the spicy parts."
"I was a black girl, but I also had a different cultural experience than a lot of other black kids," she said. "Not everybody understood the kind of blackness I was."
With her book, she wanted to explore blackness' many lineages. She gives her characters distinct, lyrical voices, steeped in accents and slang.
The book opens with Audre's tears: "I is crying so hard, my body is shudder and breath and wet with tears. My glasses fog up and I wipe them with my shirt so I can see through them and see the back of my grandma, my guide."
That grandmother, Queenie, is "pure light and sweetness and obsidian skin," Petrus writes. "She smell like spicy earth things, like sandalwood and cinnamon and dirt itself."
Petrus loves listening to people, noting the specifics of their vocabulary, the lilt of their phrases.
"So much of who a person is, is identified by the way they hold words in their mouth," Petrus said.
She paused to say hi to a friend passing by on the Moon Palace patio. "Hey, look atchu! Everywhere I go, there you go!"
To understand her characters, she had to hear how they sounded. Petrus has worked with teens, and she appreciates how "present and dynamic" their slang is. She took notes.
"Junauda is writing all the time," said her longtime artistic partner, Erin Sharkey, "because she's observing the world as a writer, she's thinking about the story when she's away from the page." In Petrus' novel, Sharkey sees reflections of their friendship and their community, of biking through south Minneapolis and working at urban farms.
They met as students at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. On the first day of class, Petrus "sat down next to me and told me we were going to be friends," Sharkey said. When they lived apart, the two wrote letters, reflecting on and inspiring one another's art from afar. Then, back in Minneapolis in 2012, Petrus got a grant to stage a play she'd written; Sharkey came on as producer. "It was going to be a staged reading sort of thing," Sharkey said, "but her brain made it into this huge production."
Together as Free Black Dirt, a name that was inspired by a sign Petrus saw on a nighttime walk, they produce events, create films and lead cultural competency training.
It makes perfect sense that Petrus would write a novel, Sharkey said, especially one that's "so good and so Junauda and so Minneapolis."
In the book, Trinidadian teenager Audre has found religion in the pastor's daughter, spending secret Sundays together at the beach, "everything slow with tenderness." But Audre's mother finds out, banishing her to live with her dad in Minneapolis. "My man Prince from there," Queenie reassures Audre, "so it must have some hotness to it." There, she meets Mabel, a Whitney Houston-loving, basketball-playing teen whose bellyaches turn out to be something serious.
At first, the book was a screenplay. At first, Mabel was a young man. But author and activist Alexis De Veaux told her: "You know you wanna write a gay book," Petrus said. "And I'm glad she did, because I did!"
Petrus was 30 when she came out. In August, she married her wife, who is from Cameroon, in a ceremony overflowing with art and rituals. "Our 'Big Fat African Caribbean Queer wedding' was a healing and aligning moment in our lives and ancestral lineages," Petrus said on Facebook. "A ceremony of Sweetness."
Petrus is a gatherer, so the book will be celebrated at a Minneapolis Institute of Art event she and Sharkey curated. Petrus is a performer, so she recorded Mabel's voice for the audio book, a copy of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" at her side. Petrus is a poet, so the book features poems marking the astrological seasons.
Categorizations and taxonomies can be oppressive and diminishing, said Minneapolis author Shannon Gibney — especially for black women and folks from marginalized communities. But Petrus transcends them.
"That's the libratory power of Junauda," Gibney said. "That's who she is in the world, and that's who she is on the page." And on stage, too. "When you're around people like that, when you engage with their work, it changes you."
Still, it's rare to see a novel populated by loving black, queer people, Gibney noted. The University of Wisconsin's Cooperative Children's Book Center calculated that out of 3,703 children's books it received last year, 402 were about Africans or African-Americans. Of those, just half were written by black authors.
"The Stars and the Blackness Between Them" is lush and earthy, spiritual and erotic, said Gibney, whose first young adult novel "See No Color" was published in 2015.
"All of it melded together in ways we don't hear about or see or read in mainstream white, western culture," she said, "and certainly not buttoned-up Midwestern culture."
In April, at a Twin Cities teen lit conference, a kid with a big Afro approached Petrus, expressing love for her book cover.
That cover features a pair of black girls, one sporting her own big, natural hair, holding hands. Petrus wanted an image that black kids could see themselves reflected in, she said, in "a way that I'd never seen myself depicted as a young kid — and I so yearned for it."