Poet, playwright, professor, and former Black Panther Judy Juanita makes her debut as a novelist with the semi-autobiographical Virgin Soul.

What made you decide to write this book, a novel, when you’ve previously published poetry and plays?

I joined the Black Power Movement when I was 20. At 23 I became the youngest faculty member in the first Black Studies department at San Francisco State. By the time I was 24 or 25, I began to realize how historic a time I was in and had participated in. I began to write down recollections that led to the first stories to eventually make it into the novel. The final version took about a year and a half to write, but several attempts before that took out chunks of my life in terms of years.

When you’re writing a semi-autobiographical novel, how do you decide what experiences to fictionalize?

With my writing I want to be surprised. I want something that interests me. So my imagination takes me far afield of the actual facts. Also, I feel like you get at a deeper truth when you go more into the realm of fiction.

Your protagonist, Geniece, grew up sheltered and is drawn slowly into the Black Power Movement. Though it’s from the periphery, Geniece eventually encounters poverty, violence, and the criminal justice system. The reader doesn’t realize how deep she’s gotten until some very shocking moments near the end.

That matter-of-factness comes from real life, but it took a long time to write. I went through several drafts, which starts with Merritt College [Oakland City College] and the soap box orators on the front lawn of the college, who were a continual presence. Going out and listening to them was entertainment at that time. I didn’t intend to become a radical, but ideas were seeping into my consciousness. Later on the California Attorney General said that Merritt College was a hotbed of radicalism. So I was immersed in it without really knowing exactly what it was.

Did you always intend to write using idiomatic language?

The language of the street fascinated me and I never forgot it. In my family we were taught to speak correct English. We couldn’t even say the word “pimp,” which my mother called an “underground, horrible word.” But I’ve long held that black people are bilingual. Both our slang and English are part of our daily experience. It’s a high functioning mental trait to be able to switch quickly and intuitively. I heard the language everywhere, and churchy language too. All these different languages were always there, however, when I was a late teen, it was so important to be cool that I tried to speak that language. The language was freeing even if it was quickly archaic.

Geniece has dark skin and refuses to straighten her hair.

I made Geniece dark-skinned so I could address colorism in the black community. Historically skin tone has determined one’s destiny. Geniece changes her destiny by confronting her skin color. She confronts herself and others confront her. It’s an important barrier that that generation of black youth had to break through. Remember “Black is beautiful?” Geniece as a dark-skinned sister is the voice of a story that hasn’t been told about the Panthers.