Junauda Petrus-Nasah Crafts Stories Out of Black Minneapolis

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Junauda Petrus-Nasah started writing her young adult novel The Stars and the Blackness Between Them not long after Jamar Clark was killed by Minneapolis police. At a time of intensifying activism against the dehumanization of Black people, Petrus-Nasah dreamt up a richly detailed, remarkably tender story—a novel about Mabel and Audre, two Black girls at Minneapolis’s South High School who meet and fall in love.

“The story blossomed from looking at the existential aspects of Black life in a way that captures the multidimensional reality that we genuinely live in,” says Petrus-Nasah, “and isn’t always in conversation with whiteness and our oppression.”

And even amid the novel’s heavier themes, she wanted to center reverie and joy.  Mabel is a basketball star, and Audre is a bright, passionate girl who’s just moved to Minneapolis from Trinidad. The novel follows their romance as both explore their identities, navigating all the pleasures and turmoil of that murky terrain between child and adult.

And Petrus-Nasah, who has Caribbean roots and a Minneapolis upbringing, even dug up her own archives of adolescent diary entries and letters to channel the girls’ heady narration.

“The energy out of that is teen angst, like ooooff,” she says.

The Stars and the Blackness Between Them was published by Dutton (an imprint of Penguin Random House) in 2019. The book won a Coretta Scott King Award, and Petrus-Nasah—also a playwright, activist, and performance artist—gained praise as a novelist. Will Smith even called her in for a table read of his memoir, Will, after hearing about her book, which made waves among teen readers who, many for the first time, saw themselves reflected on the page.

It was kismet, then, to create another story about Black queer teen protagonists when In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, Lake Street’s resident arts center and puppet menagerie, asked Petrus-Nasah to collaborate. Fast-forward to June 16–26, and alongside puppet artist Steve Ackerman, Petrus-Nasah will present Impact Theory of Mass Extinction—a story of two Black teens in 1980s south Minneapolis who travel through a prehistoric portal to the realm of dinosaurs.

Impact Theory subverts a few blockbuster tropes—like the one that paints dinosaurs as angry, flesh-eating machines.

“We project our humanistic identities of man-versus-nature-type vibes—and really nature just be naturing. Nature don’t be thinking about us until we come and make all the drama,” she laughs.

Her dinosaurs are magical beings: 20-foot puppets embellished with extra wings, eyeballs, and feathers, set against vibrant prehistoric greenery filling the Avalon Theater. Ackerman and other puppet artists are also crafting table puppets and shadow puppets, which they’ll animate using an old-school projector.

Much like her novel, Impact Theory is about the characters understanding themselves as much as the world around them. Stuck in a time before harmful human constructs like homophobia and colonialism existed, they’re able to explore their queerness, gender identity, and ancestry.

“So much of queer existence is feeling like it has to rebirth every generation, because so much of our existence has been oppressed and repressed,” says Petrus-Nasah. “When I think of times before colonialism and settler identity and all of these inherent homophobias—our ancestors got to live in the multiplicity of gender and desire. I’ve been reflecting on, like—ancestors are the ancestors’ ancestors. There’s a kind of quixotic limitlessness that I wanted to let the dinosaurs hold for us.”

The other character central to both stories, of course, is south Minneapolis. Impact Theory is set in the 1980s Phillips neighborhood where Petrus-Nasah grew up—where she read Jurassic Park for hours at the Franklin Library and hung out among graffiti artists at the train tracks (the site of the play’s time portal) that are now the Midtown Greenway. The play intentionally captures south Minneapolis before gentrification: a diverse area where artists, working-class families, and immigrants could afford to live, recalls Petrus-Nasah.

In The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, too, Black Minneapolis is a place of rich life and abundance. Mabel’s father transforms the empty lot next to his family’s house into a “Black Eden” bursting with raspberries, collards, and herbs. In a way, says Petrus-Nasah, Minneapolis has been put on the map for its association with murder and the destruction of Black life. But as a writer, she wants to capture the vibrant, multiplicitous, cherished Black life that’s present in this city—like Toni Morrison, who told stories of Black families living in the steel towns of Ohio, the places her ancestors called home.

“We’re here. We’re creative. We’re innovators. There’s something about being raised around lakes, something about Dakota land,” says Petrus-Nasah. “I could have very well written work that’s in New York, where people already have an imagination for Black people. But [I wanted] to create these lush spaces, these green spaces—this is also a site of Black upbringing.”

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