A Great Good: An Interview With Jacqueline Woodson

Rigoberto González
From the September/October 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen acclaimed books for young adults, middle graders, and children—a body of work that places African American characters at the center of richly drawn narratives that have helped young readers engage with real-life situations such as interracial relationships, child abuse, poverty, and homosexuality.

Her own childhood story—she was a precocious daughter of parents in a troubled marriage, who found solace in the imaginative world of books, and eventually in writing—forms the basis of her New York Times best-selling memoir Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014), which won a National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Newbery Honor Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award. Brown Girl Dreaming also traces Woodson’s journey from Ohio to South Carolina to Brooklyn, an eye-opening childhood in which she learns, among other things, about the regional differences of the black experience during the 1970s.

With the release of Another Brooklyn (Amistad), her first adult novel in twenty years, Woodson revisits that important period of dramatic social changes. August, a young black girl who moves with her father and brother from Tennessee to the culturally rich Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, comes of age during a time when her empowerment as a black woman offers new freedoms as well as familiar demons: classism, racism, and sexism. Another Brooklyn follows August as she learns the hard lessons of adolescence, uplifted by the strength of her girlhood friendships and guided by her family’s religious conversion. All the while, the terrible truth of her mother’s fate back in Tennessee weighs heavily on her emotional well-being.  

I sat down with Jacqueline Woodson at her home in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn for a conversation about her new book, New York City’s literary legacy, gentrification, Islamophobia, and happiness.

The dedication of Another Brooklyn reads “For Bushwick (1970–1990) In Memory,” which covers the span of August’s coming-of-age in the novel. The reader also gets to observe Brooklyn come of age, as it negotiates the changes and challenges of those eras, through the perspective of a young black woman—a point of view that’s relatively absent from the portrayals of Brooklyn in literature. What drew you to tell this story at this stage of your career? Why this book now?
The Bushwick that’s on the page is a true place, as it exists in the book. I wanted to put that on the page in its true existence because when a neighborhood becomes gentrified, its new inhabitants think they’ve discovered someplace new, but that place had a story before them. Bushwick is its own character, and this book is one of its biographies. I wanted to pay homage to the Bushwick I grew up in, so my dedication also suggests this book is an elegy to a place and time that is no longer with us. Overlaid on that biography is the narrative of the four girls, which is fiction. After having written Brown Girl Dreaming, which is a memoir, I really wanted to move away, just for a moment, from children’s literature and explore something I felt was invisible, which is the story of the black girl in Brooklyn. 

In the novel, we meet August as an adult looking back at the place where she grew up. But what does Jacqueline Woodson have to say about the Bushwick of today?
August in the book is looking back with a kind of melancholy or longing for this intensity of that period she lived through. Jacqueline Woodson looking at the place now—I look at it in wonder because I still go to my old neighborhood a lot and I’m just surprised by the fact that I grew up with white flight. Most of New York City was on the edge of white flight at the time, but now I’m watching the reverse of white flight, with white folks coming back into the neighborhoods their ancestors fled from. It makes me marvel at how cyclical everything is.

I’m trying to place Another Brooklyn as part of the borough’s writer-of-color lineage. I see Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, published in 1959, and there are a few contemporary works, such as Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper, but one has to really dig hard to find those narratives that are not centered on white characters. What areas need that literary attention in order to expand what is celebrated as Brooklyn’s—and New York’s—cultural heritage?
There is so much territory left to explore in New York City in general. I feel like Brownsville is not on the page, East New York is not on the page; there are stories from the Bronx and Harlem, but since Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas not enough books about the black NYC experience are getting talked about. DJ does a great job in Shadowshaper, writing the black Latino perspective on the page, but we need more. Even in the Bushwick I grew up in there was a larger Dominican, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorean population—I would love to see those stories, that Brooklyn.

And I’m even remotely interested in the vision of the kids of the hipsters who are growing up in those neighborhoods now. I know their stories are not going to be my story because of our differences in class and race, but I feel they too are part of all of these deep pockets that are not represented. I’m waiting for more stories from Queens—from Jackson Heights and the Hindu population. There’s so much that still needs to be told in order to shape this city in a way that’s nuanced. We still have a pretty flat narrative.

There are a few parallels between Jackie’s story in Brown Girl Dreaming and August’s in Another Brooklyn: Both young black women have roots in the South and eventually journey north with one parent. One gives shape to her memories through her affinity for language, the other comes to terms with her losses through her knowledge as an anthropologist of the rituals of death and dying. Agency is an important fire in your work. So is memory. How do you see these as critical components of a young black woman’s experience?
Starting with memory, when you look at who we are as a people and how we got here and what we were allowed to hold on to: We were allowed to hold on to our spirit—a certain amount—and we held on to our memory. No one could take that away unless they beat us unconscious. I believe in genetic memory, that our ancestors are pretty much with us. And I believe in asking questions about the past to make historical connections because that’s what gives us strength. And in terms of agency, I grew up in the 1970s, which was so much about black power—taking your power, owning your power, making yourself visible in the world even if the world wasn’t reflecting you back. So as a writer I feel that every time I sit down to tell a story it is to create that mirror for myself and for other readers who have historically not seen themselves in the pages of literature, and to talk about how badass we are, because there’s so much strength in being a person of color and having survived.

Another Brooklyn is being marketed as an adult novel. But with contemporary YA novels being edgier, taking risks that keep their stories ahead of their time, could you imagine your younger fans reaching for the latest Jacqueline Woodson title? Is the YA designation fast becoming a fuzzy category?
Oh, I think I see my audience reaching for this book the way I once reached for Judy Blume’s Forever—“Wait, she has an adult book? There might be some sex in it!” So I definitely see that happening. Also, having been publishing for twenty years, my population has grown up now, they’re adults. So I definitely see them reading it. But I do think that distinction between YA and adult is fast becoming a fuzzy line in terms of subject matter. There are still differences in the approaches to writing the two narratives, but today’s YA author is claiming more permission to take risks in order to keep up with a changing world, which is why our books continue to be banned. 

Is Another Brooklyn an adult novel because of the treatment of sexuality? Not only August’s own sexual desires but also all of the lessons August learns about women and their bodies: from Muslim women, from prostitutes, from her own friends who are experimenting and pushing boundaries. Why is this still important work to do on the page?
For too long we were given the wrong messages about our bodies, especially as women of color, and I wanted to show that a girl’s sense of her body is really shaped by the outside gaze, by the mirrors in her community. But I also wanted to show her agency and the way women can come together more powerfully. At one point in the book I have August with her girlfriends, and she’s thinking about how boys don’t understand why girls cover themselves even when they’re alone. It’s important work to do on the page because we are sexual beings and we have a right to be so and to walk through the world with these bodies. Living in the age of Beyoncé is really exciting for me—she’s not only celebrating the black body, but also the big body. I grew up with Twiggy as an idea of what is a beautiful body, but thankfully I also had Angela Davis and Diahann Carroll. I was informed differently, but when I’m coming to the page—because the narrative is so much bigger than real life—I have a responsibility to write what I believe in, in terms of representing more fully who we are as women.

There are so many rich layers to the life of August—her girlfriends, her brother, her love interest, the father’s love interests. She’s at the center of a complex support network, but one character who really stands out is Sister Loretta, who guides the family through their conversion to Islam. August says, “My Muslim beliefs lived just left of my heart,” meaning she understood everything that religion was providing for her and her brother, including structure and a mother figure. Was this a decision that came about given this country’s escalating Islamophobia? What do you hope readers take away from this encounter with a black Muslim family?  
It’s really a scary time to be living in. And Islamophobia happens when people are thinking, “Muslims are those people over there and have nothing to do with us.” Putting their humanity on the page was really important to me. We exist in all kinds of religions and this is the religion of this family, and the book deals with how this girl is taking in this religion because she’s negotiating it against this space and time of friendships and sexuality and puberty and adolescence. And faith. That’s all part of August’s journey.

I was talking to a friend about the shooting in Orlando, and during these times of crisis it’s so hard to remember the kind of work we do as artists. It’s nonstop. Much of it is economic, but so much of it is also emotional and at the core of who we are. Like Audre Lorde said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.” And writers, especially, every time we sit down to work we are working to impact a great good. And even though I am not always conscious about what is happening, when I sit down to create the narrative I know that all the information coming in from the world is informing that narrative.

The four young women at the center of Another Brooklyn—August, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi—create such a special bond that it’s difficult to see those friendships begin to crumble. You once said that one question you wanted to explore through writing was “what is the happily ever after?” After completing this novel, dozens of books into your career, and as times change, what have you come to understand about happiness?
That it ebbs and flows like every other emotion we have. I think that if I were happy all the time I’d be the most boring person in the world. The nuance comes from working towards happiness and not always getting there, or some days getting there surprisingly so. That I can wake up in the morning and get to write is amazing to me, so the mere fact that I’m here and that I’m able to tell my story is the happily ever after for me.


Rigoberto González is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.