World-Building as Resistance: YA Author Junauda Petrus Discusses the Importance of Speculative Fiction and the Limits of the White Imagination

"But though I’ve been deeply indoctrinated by the white imagination, I don’t invest in it." Junauda Petrus, author of the Coretta Scott King Honor Book The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (Dutton; Gr 8 Up), discusses the power of speculative fiction, removing racist statues, and navigating whiteness.

Junauda Petrus is the author of the Coretta Scott King Honor Book The Stars and the Blackness Between Them (Dutton; Gr 8 Up). Petrus, in-conversation with her editor Andrew Karre, spoke about her work as an activist and a writer and the public call for the removal of racist statues and monuments.


VW & AK: On your website, your bio states: “Speculative fiction and magical realist elements are central to her work.” How can speculative fiction offer a chance to reenvision history or rectify real-life injustices of our society? How does the genre function in the context of Afrofuturism?
JP: So much of my sense of self and of history came from colonialism and white supremacy. As a young person, I was always told that these stories were necessary. For me as a person who is really trying to identify hope, speculative fiction and magical realism by creatives of color give me permission to see history differently. How can you imagine a world beyond slavery when people tell you this real world is all there can be? Speculative fiction and magical realism don’t take colonial white supremacist history for granted. They ask different questions. What can we imagine? What can we create, what stories can we dream for ourselves to walk into?

World-building becomes so important for oppressed bodies. We need to ground in imagination in order to understand what’s going on in the real world.

VW & AK: When writing The Stars And The Blackness Between Them, how did your life inform the characters and the world you created? How can the retelling of personal histories serve as a radical rejection of a culture’s collective memory?
JP: The more [The Stars and the Blackness Between Them] is out in the world, the more people help me see aspects of myself in the book. There are ways the characters are comfortable with their queerness that I definitely was not at their age. I see my adult self giving my younger self permission. I see so much of the seeds of my adult activist work, my reading from people who were incarcerated.

In writing the book, I think I was making medicine, an offering for young people. For me, it is a book I very much needed as a young person.

VW & AK: Speaking of activism, which is a big part of your artistic practice, many activists are attempting to get statues and monuments honoring white supremacists removed from public spaces, including the Confederate flag. Some people on the opposing side have argued that preserving these symbols, especially the Confederate flag, is a matter of “Heritage, not hate." 

How does such an argument depict an example of cognitive dissonance? Can we truly separate the racist and/or oppressive actions from the person in question or an institution?
JP: For me, I think of Toni Morrison saying it’s less about you thinking I’m a [N-word]; it’s more why do you need me to be that? Why do white people rush to claim this heritage?

There’s a lake in Minneapolis named Bde Maka Ska that was until recently named for a white supremacist slave owner—John C. Calhoun—who never set foot in Minnesota, and this restoration of the Dakota name was controversial. Folks are literally fighting to preserve the names of dead men who believed that a whole group of people was built to be beneath white people.

But though I’ve been deeply indoctrinated by the white imagination, I don’t invest in it.

And honestly, the American flag feels like the Confederate flag to me. When I go around and I see an American flag, I only look at it with a sense of shame. When I think of Black Americans and certain individuals who were born here, who make up the United States—that’s different. But when I think of what the American flag symbolizes to me as a Black person born on this land? I find no pride. There’s just so much more work to do.

Which is why the Confederate flag to me is the ultimate in white mediocrity. Y'all lost that crap and y'all proud of it?

And it’s only acceptable because it’s against Black people. People in Minneapolis were outraged when a white couple walked into Walmart with swastikas on their face masks. Of course, people saw the swastika as an outrageous symbol, a symbol of so much murder and destruction and shame. There’s an ability to see that with the swastika but then ignore it completely with the Confederate flag.

[Read: Weeding Out Racism’s Invisible Roots: Rethinking Children’s Classics]

VW & AK: Speaking of the white imagination (and acknowledging that you’re not invested in it), do you think it fears what might be lost—or what might be revealed—if it were forced to strip away the “heritage” euphemism from America’s white supremacist roots? Is that why white people on Facebook are still fighting duels over George Washington?
JP: I think so. We’re taught that to be American is to be white. And as much as I want to ignore whiteness, it’s just so blatant. I’m really interested in the counterpoint: How do people decolonize themselves?

There’s an exhausting quality to navigating whiteness. Whiteness always demands attention, always wants to bring us along for the ride. And by contrast, there’s a deliciousness when I just get to be in my own skin, just be in relationship to my Blackness. That’s such a deep world for me. Black people are just so interesting. How did we survive? There’s so much limitless joy and possibility in us. And I wanted to show that in my book—all the ways that Blackness is able to shapeshift and hold and caress itself in spite of its surroundings.

VW & AK: There’s a moment in The Stars and the Blackness Between Them when the main characters go to the north shore of Lake Superior and stay at a cabin, which is a quintessentially Minnesotan experience—and also an experience that probably codes as white for a lot of people. But in your book, you imagine your Black characters in that space and you give them an experience that is purely joyous. They are their Black selves in nature.

That scene came to mind when I read a story about a white couple from Iowa who recently removed the Black Lives Matter sign from the front of the Lake Superior resort where they were staying. The couple stole the sign in broad daylight and were caught on camera. I was so struck by the sense of impunity they seemed to feel as they tried to erase Blackness from a space they clearly felt entitled to.
JP: “Impunity!” I’ve been using that word a lot with these recent caucacious behaviors.

My mother—my single Trinidadian mom—would take me and my sisters up north when we were kids. And we would just kick it on the water. That was our saving grace—to be around so much water even though we’re not near the ocean. And I was just back up there on Lake Superior last week with my wife. I love being there. Being by the water is just so healing and transformative to me. But I really have to give myself permission to take up space and feel like I deserve to be there as much as anybody else up there, even though I’m typically the only Black person up there.


Junauda Petrus is a writer, pleasure activist, filmmaker, and performance artist, born on Dakota land of Black-Caribbean descent. Her work centers around wildness, queerness, Black-diasporic-futurism, ancestral healing, sweetness, shimmer, and liberation. Her debut novel, The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, earned a Coretta Scott King honor. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and family. Visit her website at www.junauda.com.

Read SLJ's review of The Stars and the Blackness Between Them.

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