A Great Good: An Interview With Jacqueline Woodson

by
Rigoberto González
8.17.16

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.