Making mistakes is a part of life, whether it’s falling for the wrong person, misunderstanding a friend, or showing up late to work or band practice. Mistakes are absolutely ordinary, but what’s extraordinary is being able to understand and forgive, especially to further a friendship and forge community. These values are central to Punk Rock Karaoke (Viking, April 23), the debut graphic novel by Bianca Xunise, in which three friends navigate the sometimes bumpy path to adulthood that starts the summer after high school graduation—a summer that culminates in an unforgettable performance by their band, Baby Hares. During the ups and downs of that summer, Ariel Grace Jones, Michele Covarrubias, and Gael Certi learn that their friendship and the support of their punk community in Chicago are everything. Kirkus recently spoke with Xunise, who wore a Bad Brains T-shirt during our conversation, via Zoom from their home in Chicago. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In Punk Rock Karaoke, the three protagonists—friends and bandmates Ari, Michele, and Gael—are people of color, and two are openly queer. How important is this representation?

It’s important to see people who look like me represented in media, and I want to disprove the myth that we weren’t always here—as if we haven’t all shared this planet for millennia. That’s why I got started in comics in the first place: I just wanted to put characters like Ari, Michele, and Gael at the forefront. Growing up, I really loved characters who were different, like Lydia from Beetlejuice and Enid from Ghost World. They were strange and unusual, but they were white. And I’m not. At the time, I thought maybe there was something wrong with me that I felt like this character, but we didn’t share the same background. With Punk Rock Karaoke, I want young readers, and even adults, to see themselves and to know that You exist, you matter, and your story matters. Your story is nuanced and beautiful and deserves to be told.

Queer identity in Punk Rock Karaoke isn’t a big deal; it’s practically incidental. No one comes out; the characters just are, and even one of their parents casually remarks on a past crush on a delivery girl. What message do you believe young readers—some of whom may be queer—will receive in seeing queerness presented this way?

Having grown up as a queer kid myself, it’s just part of who I am—as much as being Black, being from Chicago, and growing up in a single-parent home. It’s just not something that I felt needed to be explained. I didn’t want that to be the struggle. I wanted to focus on other parts of their lives that we all experience as human beings, like that year of graduating from high school and entering the world of adulthood. I wanted to focus more on that and on the community aspect, lifting each other up. People who are different from each other all come together in the end, which is the more important takeaway for me. It’s the importance of community and friendship.

This graphic novel is a love letter to community, but it’s also a celebration of friendship. I found the friendship between Ari, Michele, and Gael to be very well drawn, and the dynamic between Ari and Michele especially realistic, specifically in terms of conflict and its resolution. What do you hope the book communicates about friendship?

Friendships aren’t black and white. We can accept each other despite our flaws; even Ari, as bold and cool and interesting as they are, isn’t perfect. They sometimes make a dizzy choice instead of a safer choice, which might lead them into some sticky situations. We’re all human beings. I wanted to show characters who are able to work together to love each other, even with their flaws. For instance, there’s a moment where we find out something about Michele and why she’s always late. Having grown up with a disability, I run late a lot myself. Michele’s storyline shows there’s always something going on in the background that affects how [a character is] behaving. It may not always be personal. And they’re still friends. We can’t always just drop somebody because they do something that doesn’t fit our narrative. We should learn to have more empathy and compassion for each other and build community. Again, it’s about the importance of community.

How has your community supported you as a queer punk of color? And how have you benefited from community through the writing and publishing of this book?

I wrote Punk Rock Karaoke when I was coming out of a depressive state, and my friends were there for me. We were under lockdown, so they couldn’t do much, but they were there to make me feel safe and brave enough to reenter the world. I know my community has my back. With everything that’s going on in the world, community is key. As a queer punk of color in Chicago, [I find that] having queer punks who are able to express our frustrations and our anger in a healthy and safe environment through music and dance is freeing. As someone socialized as a Black girl, [I’m] not allowed to be angry, to be seen as angry. But in this space, it’s like, Let it out, and I support you. We’re gonna dance. We’re gonna put it all out there. Then we’re gonna go back to our lives and be able to handle society. That’s why I love the punk scene so much. And I love Chicago. I feel like every Chicagoan says that, but it’s true. Coming back to the [idea of a] love letter to my community, [the book] is a thank-you for catching me. It’s a thank-you for being here and for uplifting other people like me. I can’t wait for all my friends to read it.

On Instagram, you said Punk Rock Karaoke is also a love letter to your younger self. What would this book have meant to you then? 

Having this story would have been so important, because as a teen I felt like no one could hear me. I felt like whenever I expressed my pain, it was dismissed as “young people problems.” Never “I hear you, and you’re not alone.” Some people who’ve gotten previews of Punk Rock Karaoke have told me, “Man, I wish I had this when I was 17,” or “I wish I had this when I was 15.” When you’re younger, you feel so ashamed when you make mistakes and [feel] that you should have gotten it all right. But you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to scrape your knees. That’s all part of [growing up]. But that’s why you need the community to be there for you, to catch you when you fall and be like, Hey, it’s OK to be a little dizzy sometimes, as long as you come back and know that we’re here for you. Know that you’re not alone.

Gina Murrell is a Black queer librarian, writer, and copy editor in New York.