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Festival of Books

Judy Juanita and her 'Virgin Soul'

The former radical's experiences during the 1960s in San Francisco inform her new novel. She talks hippies, Black Panthers and revolution.

April 19, 2013|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
  • Author Judy Juanita.
Author Judy Juanita. (Kingmond Young / Viking )

In the late 1960s, Judy Juanita was a college undergraduate in the Bay Area and editor of a Black Panther Party newspaper. Now her new novel, "Virgin Soul" (Viking, $26.95), recounts the story of Geniece, an undergraduate who joins the Panthers. But "Virgin Soul" is not thinly veiled memoir. "This young woman and I are two different people," Juanita says.

Unlike many books written by former radicals, "Virgin Soul" isn't aiming to settle old scores. Instead, Juanita — a poet, playwright and academic based in Oakland — has penned a witty and deeply engaging coming-of-age story about ideas and the passions generated by revolution and romantic love.

Juanita will appear at the Festival of Books Saturday at 4:30 p.m. on the panel "Fiction: the Family You Choose"  along with Pamela Ribon, Peggy Riley and Janice Steinbger. More information: latimes.com/festivalofbooks

This was a book you started more than four decades after living events similar to those in the novel. Why the wait?

I was very active in the Black Panther Party and in the Black Student Union and in the black studies department at San Francisco State. A few years after that, looking back, I realized how historic it was. I started taking notes and writing down recollections: people's names, nicknames, everything I could remember. But I didn't have the chops to write a novel then. So I started taking writing workshops, writing poetry and taking playwriting workshops. Eventually, I had enough maturity to tackle the novel.

Books about radicals can make for grim reading. But "Virgin Soul" is often a very funny and lively book.

There were just so many colorful personalities. And we were placed together in a cauldron. San Francisco is a compact city, and many of us lived in a very tight little area in the Fillmore-Haight district. My [college] roommates and I walked everywhere. To parties and nightclubs. People were out walking all the time. You'd see hippies and Volkswagen buses. And there was a protest every day.

But it was also a time when African American identity was in flux. There's this lovely passage where your protagonist's new boyfriend tells her all the books she should be reading: from James Baldwin to Frantz Fanon.

Many dogmas were being destroyed. There were books that you were being told to read. It was an eye-opening time. The fundamental theories of blackness, color and race were being challenged. I was very mouthy. And I got into a lot of arguments with people, including my father. I remember a lot of debate. There were so many cultural events where people read from novels or journals like Freedomways or the Negro Digest. People were arguing, but it wasn't violent arguing like we have today. People were more informed.

Geniece works as a militant, but she never stops going to school. And she doesn't destroy her life for the revolution.

No, she isn't going to go down for the revolution.

Was that you? Were you able to avoid some of the more self-destructive parts of the '60s counterculture?

I'm definitely a survivor. I could see self-destructive patterns at an early age. I could see people getting involved in drugs. My boyfriend did LSD, and I could see the very negative effects of it right away. I never did want to do psychedelics. I tried mescaline once, but I didn't care for it at all. Friendship was such an important support system because your friends kept you from going over the brink. Everyone didn't go crazy all at the same time. My roommates and I all came from two-parent, solidly middle-class working families. We checked each other.

And there were weapons floating about too.

I think that the guns were fascinating and for different reasons. Probably because they were expensive. They became a status symbol in certain circles. People began to brag or show off about getting hold of these weapons.

The Black Panther Party has been mythologized, by both the right and by the left. What are the biggest misconceptions?

One misconception is that it was about black people and only about black people. The Black Panther Party had great alliances with the white left and the radical left. Another one is the images that have become iconic: of Huey Newton and the peacock chair and men in black berets. People don't realize that women were integral to the entire movement. There was certainly a lot of sexism. But that was dealt with at the moment. There were a lot of feisty women.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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