The High Price of Freeways
by Judy Juanita
Livingston Press, 2022
Reviewed by Barbara Riddle
“But I’m still scared of white people. You know, not individual white people that I know, just individual white people that don’t know me. I’m scared of em. They invented Godzilla and Frankenstein and the fun house. Blacks invented the ironing board, the stoplight, blood transfusion and the elevator, all stuff to make life easier. Who invented tear gas and bomber jets? It’s the difference between can I help you & can I kill you.” (p. 177, “If 9/11 had happened in Harlem, this would be a different world”)
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I’m writing this shortly after the terrible mass shooting tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, where 4th graders and their teachers were slaughtered by an armed shooter just past his 18th birthday. Never has it seemed so urgent to turn to literature for answers about the root causes of the physical and emotional violence that humans continue to inflict on each other. Judy Juanita, an American poet, playwright and novelist as well as a teacher of writing at the University of California, Berkeley, has been writing and teaching for many years— but I sense that now is the time in our overheated, fraught culture for a calm, wise voice like hers to be more widely heard. Her poetry collection, Manhattan My Ass, You’re in Oakland, was one of the winners of a 2021American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and her just published story collection The High Price of Freeways received a Tartt First Fiction Award from the University of West Alabama. Mind you, this is not a “white gaze” at black culture and politics and daily life, this is the deeply felt report from the trenches of a writer who is fearlessly (and tenderly) chronicling the people and places she has been immersed in her whole life.
Judy Juanita’s work first came to my attention when an early draft of her coming-of-age semi-autobiographical novel, Virgin Soul (Viking, 2013), was handed to me to evaluate from the slush pile of an eminent New York literary agent for whom I was interning in 2007-2008. I immediately knew this writer was the real deal, and was completely riveted by her bittersweet account of an idealistic young black woman’s initiation into the realities of black activism and male chauvinism in the form of volunteer work for the Black Panther Party in Oakland and San Francisco in the 1960’s. My boss foolishly passed on the manuscript, but Judy Juanita persevered, found an agent and a publisher for that novel and has continued staking a claim to unique literary territory with work that speaks to specific issues of the day in her own personal—powerful—voice.
In her most recent story collection, The High Price of Freeways, she covers some of that same ground but expands her characters to range from bright, insecure young women in California to a highly paid newspaper professional in New Jersey, always limning the ways in which the color of their skin affects and limits their prospects or creates dangers to which whites are oblivious. In 2022 we have words and phrases for this—white privilege, systemic racism, environmental injustice, microaggressions— and yet, unbelievably, many Americans are still unable to acknowledge these realities. Judy Juanita’s stories illustrate these concepts, but also don’t shrink from depicting colorism within the black community that causes so much pain (“the paper-bag test”), or the sexism of even the most forward-thinking black political activists in the 1960’s. Many of her settings are familiar to me as a native New Yorker who has lived in NYC, New Jersey and Northern and Southern California, but her characters mostly inhabit a ghostly parallel universe to that of my own life, even as their geographic or professional paths overlap my own, as single mother and writer.
If, like me, you find yourself alternately mystified and irritated by the appeal of much current short fiction about alienated 30-somethings navel-gazing and bed-hopping in their Ikea-cluttered flats, desperately seeking ways to make their lives meaningful, you’ll find these stories a bracing jolt to your awareness. Seriously, people, there’s work to be done! How refreshing it would be if stories like Juanita’s were read in well-meaning, genteel book clubs across America. (Well, I can dream.) Authentic is the word that keeps coming to mind. How rare and precious is that quality. Juanita is not writing to shock or ask for sympathy—she is writing to testify. The rest is up to us.
Harking back to the feminism (and activism) of writers rooted in the everyday, like Grace Paley and Tillie Olsen, and the recently re-discovered Lucia Berlin, Juanita’s stories bring us vividly into the specific worlds of her characters, inspiring anger, sorrow, and empathy. Whether she’s writing about a reluctant sorority pledge in Soros or a high-powered journalist facing housing discrimination in A Lucky Day, Juanita’s quiet, powerful prose puts us into the sandals and boots of her characters and forcefully reminds us of many American realities that we already know—but what would prefer to forget. Sometimes the news is good, but ignored. In “Between General Macarthur and Admiral Nimitz, ” she casually refers to events that the stereotype-hungry media prefer to ignore, such as a swarm of vacationing black skiers who joyfully descend on Aspen, Colorado, “with money and attitude for the altitude.” In that same story, a father shocks his adult daughter by buying her a top-of-the line tent to occupy in his front yard (advice from the pastor) when she mistakenly thinks she can just rely on a cozy escape to the parental home after her careless life blows up.
It’s the ordinariness of her stories, the calm authority of narrators, that’s so radical. You just fall in love with her characters. One of my favorites stories is “Waterzooi.” It ends like this, with a brilliant summation of a young woman’s leap into adulthood:
“I never saw him again. First plane ride. First black power conference. First one-night stand. I guess sometimes once around does it.”
The High Price of Freeways is a necessary book; it will take you on a ride you’ll be grateful to take and will deepen your understanding of race relations in America. I hope for many more books from Judy Juanita. Remember her name.