L&S Author Interview: Judy Juanita

September 18, 2023

Judy Juanita, Berkeley College Writing Programs lecturer, speaks about her award-winning book, The High Price of Freeways.

In this interview, Judy shares her inspiration for her book and how her personal narratives influenced her short stories in The High Price of Freeways. Incorporating humor and attitude into her stories, Judy explores the "oddity of living in a place where freedom is touted, but its costs are often hidden." Judy also reminisces about her time spent as the editor-in-chief of The Black Panther, the newspaper of the Black Panther Party, as she explains how the position influenced her work. To learn more about Judy, The High Price of Freeways, and her other books, visit her website here.

When the freeways came, the businesses shut down. I-80 decimated Black houses and business zones. I was there. I saw these things. I lived through these events.
Judy Juanita, lecturer

What inspired you to write The High Price of Freeways?

The stories in The High Price of Freeways are set mostly in California, and three are set in New Jersey and New York City. Born in Berkeley, raised in Oakland, and educated at San Francisco State University, I was a California kid, meaning I spent a fair amount of time on freeways and in cars. At age 26, I moved to New Jersey, outside New York City, where I was stunned by the congestion on the roadways, high toll fees at the bridges and tunnels, and the pollution, stench, and truck overload on the New Jersey Turnpike.

I left Oakland in 1972 as the social revolutions of the 60s wound down and the hedonistic era of the 70s and 80s unfolded; I returned 18 years later. All along, I wrote poems, plays, essays, and fiction exploring how societal changes impact the black community. 

I didn’t perceive how strongly freeways and infrastructure undergirded (pun intended) my writing until editors and critics commented on it. Setting is a key element in literature. In 1940, Oakland's population was 3 percent black. By 1970, it was 35 percent. The expansion of the city's black population coincided with the Civil Rights era (and my first 25 years of life). Some critics—geographers and historians—assert that the peak interstate construction period in the 1950s and 1960s was a deliberate design to marginalize slum neighborhoods. The catch is that these neighborhoods were full of black people, home to black-owned businesses in cities like St. Louis, Boston, Birmingham, and Oakland. When the freeways came, the businesses shut down. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and the mammoth U.S. Post Office in West Oakland did exactly that. Prior to BART, Oakland had a thriving blues scene on 7th St, known as "Harlem of the West." I-80 decimated black houses and black business zones. I was there. I saw these things. I lived through these events. Personal witness is one aspect of my writing. I didn’t realize how pivotal that was for decades.

The story, “The Hand,” published in Crab Orchard Review, takes place in New Jersey, as the main character, a black reporter, goes through a traumatic divorce driving all over. Her car is in the shop as the story opens with a train anecdote, trains being another passion of mine. A second story, “Lucky Day,” using the same protagonist, Ouida, delves into gender and sexual politics, family politics, intergenerational politics, and color-line politics within the black community. Even black-white interactions are emphasized, as with dialogues between a white woman landlord and Ouida, her tenant.

“Cabbie” uses the narrative voice of an Oakland cabdriver to detail actual events on March 21, 2009, when Lovelle Mixon killed four Oakland police officers. My father and mother, Albert and Marguerite Hart, owned and operated the only black cab company in the Bay Area in the 1940s. I never tired of their recounting that history. Nor did my brother, a cabbie and cab manager who invented a dispatching system for the industry. My brother’s voice provided much of the story as he lived three blocks from where Mixon and the police officers confronted each other.

Historians of 60s/70s Black Radicalism will appreciate “Huelbo” and “Waterzooi.” The protagonist of “Making Room” sees ghosts. In “Driving,” just two paragraphs long, the narrator’s poor skills at the wheel tie her to the other motorists who keep her safe. “Between General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz” is set near two key freeways in Oakland. It is the story of a luckless woman who tries her relatives’ patience one time too many.

Personal witness is one aspect of my writing. I didn’t realize how pivotal that was for decades.
Judy Juanita

Of all the featured stories in this book, which was your favorite to write and why? Which was the most difficult?

“Triplets” is my favorite. I enjoyed researching the 60s and 70s and writing it was homage to my childhood. My parents and their friends, black Berkeleyites in the 1940s and 50s, visited and supported each other often, children in tow.

“Huelbo” borrows from my own life in its depiction of a young woman editing the Black Panther Party’s newspaper, with fictional characters joined by historical figures.

I am by no means a conservative, yet my work has a pronounced anti-romantic view of the 60s. My dismay has long been that radicals made many strides for black people as a whole, while black women suffered and postponed their own dreams and careers to support their warriors. My consternation comes through in this story though it might displease some who would want to view the black revolution through rose-colored glasses.

How did you go about integrating humor into your stories, which depict gentrification, sexism, feminism, etc.?

In “Not a Through Street,” one of the more lighthearted works, I use a comedian as the central character. She works on her material while dealing with an attraction to her acupuncturist. “If 9/11 Had Happened in Harlem, This Would Be a Different World” captures its premise in the title, and then dives into a satirical other possibility of this historical day. For meta-political tragic-comic negative capability, one might examine the dialogue and characters in “Between General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz.” 

How would you say your position as the editor-in-chief at The Black Panther influenced you as a writer?

Some stories have characters who are political activists, working for the Black Panther Party and attending student conferences, while others are more practical than intellectual, focusing on day jobs, chronic pain, and failing relationships. It brings in family, ghosts, politics, love, bafflement, wisdom, what it’s like to be a young reporter writing about Miss Bronze California 1966 and inadvertently eavesdropping on infidelity at a party, or a young woman making a place for herself in the Black Panther Party in its early days, or a woman obsessed with her acupuncturist or a would-be sorority pledge with a huge secret.

Are you currently working on any other projects?

I am shepherding two projects, a novel based on the character Ouida featured in two stories in The High Price of Freeways, and a finished manuscript, The Funkitude: a fable, an Afro-Futuristic literary fiction that has been rejected umpteen times. I keep sending it out, knowing that it only takes one publisher to get it to market.

I keep sending it out, knowing that it only takes one publisher to get it to market.
Judy Juanita

What’s currently on your bookshelf or nightstand? (What are you reading strictly for pleasure?)

The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther Party in American Visual Culture 

Alice Sparkly Kat, POST-COLONIAL ASTROLOGY: Reading the Planets through Capital, Power, and Labor

Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance

Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (link is external)

Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (link is external)

John E. Clark Jr., Railroads in the Civil War: The Impact of Management on Victory and Defeat (Conflicting Worlds: New Dimensions of the American Civil War)