'Nothing about my book that is anything but love': Mpls. author responds to Texas book list

A person posing for a picture near a bush.
Activist and writer Junauda Petrus wrote the poem "Give the Police Departments To The Grandmothers" following the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. Petrus lives near 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.
Courtesy of Junauda Petrus

Texas school districts face a Friday deadline to report to the state's legislature on whether they use hundreds of books that one lawmaker there has deemed problematic. Four of them were written by Macalester College professor Duchess Harris, one includes writing by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and another is by Minneapolis author and poet Junauda Petrus.

Texas Republican lawmaker Matt Krause requested the accounting of books that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress." He's running for attorney general in an election that follows successful Republican campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia that focused on the way race is taught in schools.

Junauda Petrus, author of "The Stars and the Blackness Between Them," joined MPR News host Tom Crann to talk about her book being included on the list.

Below is a transcript of their conversation. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

A lot of people might brush this off as a political stunt, and some of the authors on this list have done just that. I'm wondering, how are you reacting to this?

It was a fascinating development to find that I was on the list, especially because I feel like my book is so love-filled and wants to affirm, and make people feel safe and included and like they exist, particularly in times that want to erase and oppress people just for being who they are. So for me, it’s interesting in this moment that people are using gaslighting and confusing language to pinpoint texts that are trying to uplift and empower and love on people who have not felt loved or seen forever as a way to act as though these texts are violent or disruptive or negative. It's just really fascinating to be alive in these times.

So while I do feel that it clearly is some kind of political stunt, I don't underestimate the impact that it can have, as far as who gets access to reading things. I think sometimes we don't realize that the line between limitless possibility and freedom, and draconian existence is a very thin line. So there's a part of me that [feels] a sense of sobriety even though I think it's, like, totally silly in other ways, too.

What is your book about?

My book is about two Black girls, one from Minneapolis and one from Trinidad. And the girl from Trinidad has a really sweet and mystical relationship with her grandmother and a complicated, tense relationship with her mother. Her mother sends her to live with her Black American father after she's discovered making out with a girl from church. And when she comes up to Minneapolis, she befriends and starts to have feelings for another young woman who's going through a serious illness that's really making her live in an existential space. And that existential space is really kind of opened up when she discovers a book written by a man on death row who's also experiencing what it is to be Black and existential while looking at the possibility of death and being gone.

It's very juicy and young adult sexy in a way that I felt was important to include in a work like this that deals with queer lives and wanting to send joy and sweetness, even though there are hard topics discussed.

A review from Kirkus says, “readers seeking a deep, uplifting love story will not be disappointed, as the novel covers both flourishing feelings and bigger questions around belief and what happens when we face our own mortality. A cosmically compelling read.” So after reading reaction like that, I'm wondering, do you have any idea why your book would have shown up on this Texas book list?

It just feels like this very ambiguous and nebulous way to be anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ, because there's nothing about my book that is anything but love. There was just so much love that I put into it, because I was a kid who loved to read. To me books are where I went to feel safe. It's where, as a low-income Black girl, I got therapy through books.

And I don't know anything about this this politician, but I think the sort of hubris of politicians to feel like they know what academics should be saying, what artists should be saying — like, politicians need to stay in their lane. I think part of what they can do is empower artistry. I think that is the role of politicians, to allow the constituency to have access to affirming and enlightening components of artistry.

Some people might be thinking, “Great. Buy the books on your own, but schools shouldn't necessarily be providing them or promoting them.” What do you say to that argument?

I mean, schools promote white supremacists and call them our forefathers, people who enslaved Black people and made wealth that generations are still living off of. And that's included in school, not in truthful ways. When I went to school, I had to read and learn about so many things that took me away from my truth, and my beauty, and the history of my ancestors. I was told things about Black women that were harmful and incomplete.

Now, a ton of educators, and a ton of administrators, and a ton of schools are working to do beautiful and healing work. But I feel like the school space does need to be interrogated and questioned as to who does it actually serve? White kids need to also learn the history of their ancestors — their ancestors that were doing beautiful, healing things and the ones that weren't doing great things. All of us need to learn the truth of these things so that we can be better.

What's really pathetic about this politician is that you're literally holding onto the dried and raggedy bones of a country that can actually be reborn, Phoenix-like, into something special and sweet and tender.

What's interesting right now is that there's a case in Prior Lake of a young white woman, going on one of these social media platforms, calling a classmate of hers the “N” word and telling her she's ugly and that she should kill herself. What ways could a book have interrupted that confusion on the part of that young white woman? What ways could she have understood that as a white girl, she could do so much to end this hatred and violence? But instead, she's getting access to things that further deepen her hate.

Instead of us focusing — which we should focus on this — but instead of the entire focus being on empowering BIPOC kids, we also need to place focus on white young people who are coming up. To really be like, what ways have your ancestors and your parents been given a very sort of sick way to be in this world? It's like, how can we advocate for young people to have new vision, rather than what we've all had to absorb and are now trying to detox and heal ourselves from?

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