Told in two distinct and irresistible voices, Junauda Petrus's bold and lyrical debut is the story of two black girls from very different backgrounds finding love and happiness in a world that seems determined to deny them both.
Port of Spain, Trinidad. Sixteen-year-old Audre is despondent, having just found out she's going to be sent to live in America with her father because her strictly religious mother caught her with her secret girlfriend, the pastor's daughter. Audre's grandmother Queenie (a former dancer who drives a white convertible Cadillac and who has a few secrets of her own) tries to reassure her granddaughter that she won't lose her roots, not even in some place called Minneapolis. "America have dey spirits too, believe me," she tells Audre.
Minneapolis, USA. Sixteen-year-old Mabel is lying on her bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to figure out why she feels the way she feelsabout her ex Terrell, about her girl Jada and that moment they had in the woods, and about the vague feeling of illness that's plagued her all summer. Mabel's reverie is cut short when her father announces that his best friend and his just-arrived-from-Trinidad daughter are coming for dinner.
Mabel quickly falls hard for Audre and is determined to take care of her as she tries to navigate an American high school. But their romance takes a turn when test results reveal exactly why Mabel has been feeling low-key sick all summer and suddenly it's Audre who is caring for Mabel as she faces a deeply uncertain future.
Junauda Petrus's debut brilliantly captures the distinctly lush and lyrical voices of Mabel and Audre as they conjure a love that is stronger than hatred, prison, and death and as vast as the blackness between the stars.
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An excerpt from The Stars and the Blackness Between Them
Chapter 1: Audre
“Yuh fas’ and arrow and sensual and mango,” Queenie tells me, “so, Audre, please put some molasses in yuh feet for dis walk, it ain’t supposed to go fas’,” she says, as we walk through the woods. 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. My heart feeling like it get bus’ up for calling somebody mother a jagabat.
Queenie is pure light and sweetness and obsidian skin. She smell like spicy earth things, like sandalwood and cinnamon and dirt itself. She is strong and warrior, moving through the trees like a river, carving her way through mud, elegant, dark and slow like the molasses she say we should invoke for this journey. She have on a long white dress, with a white scarf wrap around she short white hair and shoulders like a woman in prayer. The woods are a green and quiet bush between her house and ocean that I know very well. Too well. I have cover every part of them bush, with the bottom of my feet and the eyes of my soul since I young.
Queenie got silver bangles ’round she wrist like broken Saturn rings, jingling each of her movements through the forest. She moves with her walking stick made of bamboo and mahogany and wrapped tight in thin copper, rose quartz, and citrine, so it could be strong and light and absorb power. She takes the lead on our journey and let me cry in her wake.
Queenie stops quick and backs me up with her forearm. She looks up and reads the air. She smiles. She points and I see leaves whisper at us, shimmying with breeze and speaking Spirit. She looks at me to see if I am reading the signs. I barely able to lift my head, so soaked am I in my own river and ocean, my eyes cloudy. And to be real, I ain’t want to see the full story yet.
I’m already feeling a change. I’ve been soaked in the feeling of Spirit’s song since we started walking into the bush and up through the hills by Queenie’s house. When Spirit speak to Queenie, she says she sees it first, and it feel like life become a dream and has a whisper of iridescence, “like the world get soft before I get revelation.” For me, it is different. The only way I can say it feels is like a tingle, a feeling, from the earth through water, and I is surrounded in a power that’s bigger than me. Queenie can shape her magic like she feels, but I feel like mine shapes me, controls me. I can sometimes feel what anyone else feel, but I never know when or why I have to feel it.
I look at her, and my body still trembles. She pulls me up in her arm, while she holds us steady. She ain’t afraid of my bawling, and she kisses me on both my cheeks and forehead, blessing me with my own tears and her Queenie love. She turns forward and keeps walking. My sob follows us and is whisper, then wail. We move into the curve of the hill like we’re walking into heaven, then the path bends down and we are walking easier and I is feeling it, the pull of Our Water Mother, in my skin. I keep crying, following Queenie to the sea.
Queenie swing an orange blanket onto the ground. She grab dried cocos, big rocks, and shells to secure the blanket into the sand. I is numb and just looking at the ocean and feeling like I is going to fall over. Queenie sit me down and pull out her machete and start busting fresh cocos she bring.
“Drink dis, nuh. I sure you did dry yourself out, with all of that crying and grieving of love, my dahlin’,” she say, handing me a coco. “Your first tabanca is a heartbreak that feel like a bit of death, yes. It hurt me to see you going through all of this hurt for love and your mother is totally out of place—” She stop talking before she finish that thought and she look like she is hurting too.
“I know how it does feel, yes.” She sucks she teeth, and I find it hard to believe Queenie ever was hurt for love like I is now.
We is on sand between edge of water and forest, and she asks for me to pull out my pouch. I hesitate, hoping that I can deny what I already feeling is true by not doing a reading. Still, I pull up my skirt and untie the pouch from my thick and dark-brown thigh. This is where I hide it from my mother and the world when I is traveling. Queenie asks me to drop my shells. I take them from the pouch and hold them in my hand. I feel the smooth indigo shards until I hear their song in my marrow. When their pitch is ripe, I throw them on the mat of lavender silk, raffia, and leather we use for reading our castings. The shells tumble around and reveal their message. Queenie nods and then looks up at me with her blue-rimmed brown eyes. She smiles, showing her ivory teeth with a gap twice the size of mine, but her eyes are sad. We can both read the confirmation.
The pathway is open, and this journey across the ocean is anointed for me to take. She says that tonight we will prepare a new pouch for me for the States; my child one has dried up its purpose. I touch the soft, faded, light-blue leather pouch. The one my mother don’t know of. I sleep with it under my pillow at night, and it has held every dream I have had since I was nine.
Queenie pulls up her skirt to bring out her own pouch, deep-green-and-silver leather with a cowrie design. Whenever she does this, I feel like I looking up God’s skirt. She have the prettiest legs to me. She starts rolling a spliff of lavender, damiana, marshmallow, and fresh ganja and does a quiet prayer to the spirits of the herbs, asking that they honor her temple. Queenie is beautiful and still look like she did in the pictures in her house from when she was a professional dancer. On our walks in the hills and the country, she moves like a gray-haired teenager, her legs are muscular and smooth with scars and dents that I have memorized and made her tell me each of their origin stories. My favorite scar, though, is the one she got on her cheek when she was being initiated as a young woman. That is all I know about it, but I love it ’cause it make she look real gangsta.
My grandma does only sometimes let me smoke with her after ritual. She says don’t smoke with my Rasta cousins, Episode and them. “Just us old ladies know how to do everything right with ritual and sweetness,” she say with a wink and smile, revealing her back four teeth, which are dipped in gold. Queenie can roll a spliff faster than it take to light the flame. When we first started to take our walks together, I was nine and I used to love to just watch the smoke push wild from her mouth and circle her head into a cloud. Now I is sixteen, and she passes the fire my way and lets the news of my imminent trip sink in.
“I always barefoot and I ain’t wan’ lose my roots. I know I go miss the ancestors. I Aquarian and Oya.” I crying all of these things, and Queenie corrects me.
“Audre, you are a wild nurturing. You are a complicated specialness. You are ancestral perseverance and sacred erotic,” she says, like she praying, holding me close to her. I cry louder.
“Gyal, you been in constant communication with Spirit your whole life and you been taught that Spirit speak loudest when we deep in the water, drowning in trouble and fear.” Queenie suddenly closes her eyes and is quiet and breathing, which I know means she is receiving messages. “And that is when you must let yourself get quiet and still. You must let yourself float above it until you are safe and levitating on the water and beneath the sky and just listen, Audre.” She opens her eyes and looks at me. “And, dahlin’, let me tell you something for truth: America have dey spirits too, believe me,” she say, and she puts out her spliff, rubs my back, and starts humming a song into my spine. It a quiet and low song, and I feel my heart inhale the love of it.
“Audre, I was at a ceremony in Brooklyn in ’84. The brothas and sistas in there, from everywhere—Cuba, Nigeria, Mississippi, Peru, and India—and they beatin’ them drums good, gyal.” I look from the ocean and up at my grandmother and her storytelling. “And I is with Auntie Mahal, who bring she cavaquinho and play it good right with them drums and she almost in a trance. You woulda think we was back in the motherland. But every land is a mother’s land, I discover.” She laughs at this thought. “And I is in there, winin’ and spinnin’ and slicin’ my arms in the air, gyal, ’cause the rhythm find me and hold me. They is in their singing. I swear I was going to disappear, but I can’t stop.” Queenie stands up and starts twirling and twisting she arms in the air with her barefoot drumming on the sand.
I can never cry when Queenie dances.
“And, Audre, somethin’ take over.” She starts to kneel down low, her movements flowing and soft. With each cypher she is lifting and ascending into the air. The sound of drums seems to be coming from my heartbeat. Her feet are flying sand all around her, until I see my grandma rising above me. She is in the rapture of her memory. I lie back and watch her flowy, all-white attire, a cloud of origami, fold and contain and blossom her from movement to movement as she hovers above me several feet in the air. I watch her embrace the sky and the sky lift she up like a child of feather. She whipping in the wind, living in the rhythm of the breeze she create. After she finishes her celestial windup, she starts to descend, stair-stepping on air. Once her feet touch the ground, she crouches down next to me. She is laughing hard, and it rumble the ground beneath me. She fall back and lie on the sand, heart toward the sky.
“Crazy, nuh? I feel I is not in my body no more; I feel I is of some next world. I ain’t know I could do dat until dis day in the States of all places, I tellin’ ya. But, Audre, that is when I begin the journey to figure out my spirit, who I is, for real.” She gets up and moves to sit next to me, and we look on the water together. I lie into she shoulder, wanting to feel the wind and sky she pull down cool my chest and lift up the space my heart is crumpled in.
“Life is strange, and it will break you to help you heal ancient wounds, me dahlin’.” She rubs my back and my head fall into her lap.
My tears fall across her thighs. I really don’t want to leave. I don’t know if I ever going to see Neri again. I feel like I don’t exist if Neri don’t look at me. I miss the pulse of holding Neri’s hand and I caved in with suffering, missing Neri’s body next to mine.
Chapter 2: Mabel
I’m trying to sleep and I can’t sleep. My belly hurts and my hips too. All I can do is lie in bed and think of young Whitney Houston from the eighties. I have her album Whitney next to my bed. I found it at the thrift store last week when I was there with my mama, and I been sleeping next to Whitney every night ever since. My mom thinks it’s cute since Whitney was her idol growing up, and she was inspired by her singing and style and stuff. But I feel like Whitney and I are connected in a special way for some reason. I have loved her since I was a kid, when my mom and I would play her greatest hits and dance to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” At the part when Whitney says, “Don’t you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance! Don’t you wanna dance?!” Mama would pull my dad in. He would do his reliable and raggedy two-step, thinking he is killing the game and she would be in her intricate Afro-modern-hip-hop choreography—which is a lot of shoulder-shimmying, lyric dancing, and old-lady twerking. My mom can dance though, for real, and she could always get my dad to just let go and be goofy.
Anyway, I’m up staring at my ceiling, in my memories and my feels as usual, listening to my “quiet storm” mix (as my dad calls it). It’s all emo and soft music. Soon, I’m thinking of Whitney and her fine self from back in the day again. She just had a lot of layers to her, which is a thing I think I like in people, like Ursa and Jazzy. Even Terrell has layers. I like that sometimes Whitney was graceful and poised like a church lady, but she was really kind of wild and cray, and straight hood, too.
I’m like that, I got a lot of layers too, but I think other kids think I’m just this whatever tomboy Black girl, who always reading and playing ball or working out or something. I basically fit in, which is okay, but sometimes, I wish I felt comfortable to put my layers out there more.
If I’m honest, part of my renewed curiosity is because recently I found out Whitney Houston fell in love with this other girl, Robyn, when they was teens and working a summer job in New Jersey. I was just looking stuff up online and found some things about her “rumored romance” with her basketball-player best friend, Robyn. I don’t know, but it just seems cool to know that she had this connection with this other girl. And that the other girl was a beautiful basketball star, and Whitney fell for her butt, called her the “sister she never had.” Mmm-hmmm. I feel that. I think I’ve felt that way before. With Ursa, my bestie, I felt that somewhat and in another kind of weird way with Jada, this girl from math.
I read that when Whitney hit it big, Robyn was her for-real, ride or die. That she became Whitney’s assistant and her confidante and always had her back. For real, for real. They shared a huge apartment together that was bad and beautiful and was living that good life together.
When I listen to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” after reading more about their connection, I imagine Whitney and Robyn slow-dancing in an icy and lit penthouse in the eighties and it’s all back-in-the-day fresh. A world of windows, looking over the city lights and skyscrapers, black and white everything, with leather couches, a big sound system with mad tapes and CDs, glass tables and a neon chandelier. Old-school and tasteful. They are two Black girls, slow-dancing, teen twin flames who loved each other. Inseparable.
I feel it.
Anyway, some people deny it, but when I look at pictures of young Robyn and Whitney and how they are smiling and close, a part of me thinks it’s true. I just do. I can totally see why Whitney loved her. She is cool and smooth, more swag than any of those cheesy, Jheri-curled dudes probably trying to push up on her. I also read that one time, Robyn also maybe whooped Bobby Brown’s butt. I wanna be like that—smooth like Robyn. Just a tender thug who Whitney would love.
Maybe Robyn was her true love. I wish she coulda stayed with her if that’s what she wanted, and they’d be in love forever. Maybe the world would’ve loved her if she was queer. I would’ve, no doubt. Whitney was an angel and what if Robyn could’ve been her bodyguard? Why did that basic-white-boy Kevin Costner, with no swag, have to save her? It should’ve been Robyn’s cool self. Ain’t Black women always saving everything anyway? Why can’t we save Whitney?
When I listen to Whitney sing, I’m feeling every feel there is to feel. Lighthearted. Melancholy. Joyous. Romantic. Her voice can do anything, and I get chills hearing her riff and vocalize. I put my head under my blankets, bring my knees to my chest and cocoon myself with Whitney and the darkness and softness surrounds me.