Interview with Jacqueline Woodson

Posted by Goodreads on August 1, 2016
Jacqueline Woodson, the award-winning author of Brown Girl Dreaming and Miracle's Boys as well as many other books for young adults and children, returns with her new novel for adults, Another Brooklyn. In it she explores vivid and personal themes, like the power of memory and the search for home, the pull of family and Southern roots, and the perils and joys of city street life, particularly 1970s Brooklyn. Here the setting is Bushwick, where Woodson grew up, and the novel revolves around four girls—Angela, Gigi, Sylvia, and narrator August—as they navigate adolescence and begin to "dream" their way out of Brooklyn. There are echoes of the classic works of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, but Woodson's voice is breathtakingly her own. In almost a whisper, she evokes the powerful bonds of the four young friends as well as the haunted soul of a neighborhood and world. Goodreads interviewer Andy Tepper met with Woodson in the kitchen of her Park Slope brownstone and spoke, among other things, about past and present Brooklyn, saying good-bye to childhood, and the importance of stillness and white space within a text.

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Goodreads: Thank you for inviting me to your house for this interview, Jackie. As I passed through the various neighborhoods on my way here from Queens on the G train, I was thinking of your book and the idea of multiple Brooklyns.

Jacqueline Woodson: It's so true, there are so many. I think that's what is so interesting about Brooklyn. Now Brooklyn is on the "map," and people have this idea of what it is. But it is so different—I mean, you have Park Slope, which is so different from, say, Bushwick or so many other parts of Brooklyn.

GR: Tell me about the Brooklyn you write about, in the 1970s. I kept trying to figure out where the book is actually set. There are a few passing clues, mentions of Bushwick and Ft. Greene parks and other spots. Do you want the reader to know where it is?

JW: Yes, it's definitely in Bushwick. In the beginning of the book, I actually dedicate it to Bushwick as it once was—that 20-year span from 1970 to 1990, when, for lack of a better word, it was static. This was post-white-flight and before the artists started getting pushed out of Williamsburg and moving in. It was a solid working-class black and Latino neighborhood, and I wanted to pay homage to that period, just before it changed and got recognized by the outside gaze and became "legitimized."

GR: Goodreads members Erin and Nada ask, "How is this book different from your teen books, and what inspired you to return to adult fiction?"

JW: I missed writing from the perspective of an adult. After Brown Girl Dreaming, I wanted to return—feeling I'd spent years writing picture books, middle-grade novels, and books for young adults. Another Brooklyn moves through time differently, among other differences.

GR: Let's talk about the four girlfriends in the book: Angela, Sylvia, Gigi, and August. They are each, in their own way, trying to find their place in this Brooklyn.

JW: Bushwick was the character I knew the best. And then I wanted to create a narrative around it, so I invented these four girls and their stories. I also wanted to talk about girlhood, what it means to grow up a girl of color, and what it means to grow up inside the backstories and dreams of your parents, who have their own ideas of where you should go while you're trying to make your own space in the world.

I decided on four girls because I was thinking of two things: I was thinking of the four girls who were killed in the church bombing (the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama) and I was also thinking of Nina Simone's song "Four Women." So you have Gigi, who is kind of stepping outside of herself to be an actor as a means of escape. You have Angela, who has this whole secret life. And August, who is stuck on the idea of her mother returning, which we find out is a narrative she's created herself. And also Sylvia, who's living inside the story of what her father wants for her. And then when they're all together, you have the strength and legitimacy that comes with that bond.

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GR: I thought it was interesting how the families come from such different places, like Tennessee and Martinique, in the Caribbean. I also found the internal dynamics very telling, the girls' relationships with their mothers and, especially, their fathers.

JW: I think one of the things that we get a lot of narratives about is the absent father, especially in communities of color. I wanted to show that's not always the case, that fathers can have an impact on their daughters.

GR: For better or worse, like Sylvia's father.

JW: Exactly. Sylvia's dad, for me, was a heartbreaking character to write because he wanted the best for his child, he just didn't know how to do it—which is the whole question of parenthood, right? How much do you push your kids, how much do you let go, how much do you guide them?

GR: On the other hand, the mothers—or "ghost mothers"—bring up themes of absence and death, which are major ideas in August's life.

JW: Oh, yeah, very much so. Even with Sylvia's mom, there's this way that she's there but in the shadow of the father. Even though she very rarely speaks, August talks about the way she looks at them and makes very clear where they're allowed to be and not be in their house.

GR: Yes, there's a sense of the judgments that come from the adult world. The girls feel strong and beautiful when together but can also be made to feel worthless by people like Sylvia's parents, who see them as "ghetto girls."

JW: Yes, those are completely different perceptions. And then there's the gaze from the boys, who are more used to girls kind of shrinking away from themselves because they don't want attention. But when the girls form this unified front, they create this other kind of power.

GR: Their friendship becomes a kind of refuge or home and helps give them a sense of identity. They all have T-shirts with their names and zodiac signs on them, and this is who they want to be.

JW: Exactly, they're saying: This is who I am!

GR: But as they get older, they're also looking for a way out of Brooklyn. Especially for August, the idea of a bigger world starts developing, something she'll eventually embrace in college and through the study of anthropology.

JW: Yes, because in a way she's always been studying the dead. Long before I started writing Another Brooklyn, I was doing research on different cultural practices around death and dying. When you look at how other cultures make peace with death, I think you realize how backward we are. Maybe it's also me growing older and thinking about my own mortality. But there's this sense that part of living involves constantly transitioning to the next stage, first from childhood into young adulthood—that's a little death for these girls, too, right? They see themselves as children, tottering around having fun in their mothers' high heels, but then they recognize the gaze that comes with their changing bodies and how precarious that is for them. Then we move into August as an adult, and Sylvia, the two we see. And we realize how much each moment is a final good-bye to something. And how from that point on, it's all just memory.

GR: You have this wonderful way of directly, and very quietly, returning to the idea of "memory." Tell me about the style of this book—the evocative silent pauses that separate each short episode. I'm also curious: Was this novel something that was bubbling up in your head for a long time?

JW: That's such an interesting question. I love what white space does to reading, and I think, sadly, society has no time for it anymore. There's a lot going on in the book, and I was tempted to overwrite it and explain everything. But that would've been antithetical to what the book is trying to talk about—about stepping outside the moment and looking at how memory changes the moment. So in the book you read a paragraph, and you need that moment to just absorb what happened to you three minutes ago when you read it. I have such a deep respect for the power of white space and also for language. I'm not a big fan of adjectives. I always feel it's so important to just tell what you're trying to tell. For me, that process involves being in a very quiet space, and I read what I've written out loud and just sit with it. I listen to the sound of it and ask myself whether it's doing what I need it to do. And whether, emotionally, it's making me feel the way I want it to. Because even though the story is not physically autobiographical, there's definitely an emotional quality that feels autobiographical—every emotion that my characters feel is an emotion that I've felt at some point.

GR: Goodreads member Paige asks, "What are the hardest emotions for you to write about?

JW: I think fear is hard to write. I never quite know how to enter it.

GR: Speaking of style and language, who are some of the writers who have influenced or inspired you as a writer?

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JW: In terms of past writers and minimalism, Raymond Carver was certainly a major influence. A lot of poets have really inspired me as well, people like Cornelius Eady, Audre Lorde, and others, who have managed to address social justice issues and talk about race, economic class, and gender in their work. Definitely James Baldwin. And also more contemporary writers, like Junot Diaz, in terms of the way he thinks about language. Toni Morrison, of course. I just feel like I've gotten braver because of the writers who've come before me. And I feel like I can take more chances now because I'm older and I'm not afraid. I think when you're a younger writer, there's this kind of fear: Is this going to be good enough? But for whom? Now my question is, Am I saying exactly what I want to say, exactly how I want to say it?

GR: Do you have any special routine to your writing process that allows you to find that necessary quiet space? Where do you like to write?

JW: I actually have an office downstairs in the house, but the kitchen feels like a more clean and open space for me to write. I also always wear headphones so I can listen to music. I have one playlist that survives a book. So it can be the same music for three years!

GR: Do you read much while you're working on a book? What are you reading now?

JW: Oh, no, I can't; I put things on hold. But now I've started reading again. I've picked up Gayle Forman's new book, I Was Here, and I just finished rereading Naomi Jackson's The Star Side of Bird Hill. I love her book so much. It's also a coming-of-age story set in Brooklyn, like mine, and also about the whole immigrant experience. But in general, I read very slowly. I mean, I write slowly, too. You had asked me earlier about whether Another Brooklyn had been bubbling up for a while. Well, the book had been in my head for a long time. Every time I heard something about Bushwick, I was, like, I want that Bushwick on the page. I want people to see this place the way it was.

GR: Lastly, on a heavier note, Goodreads member Imani asks, "What gives you hope in light of recent events like the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling? And as a mother, how do you begin to explain to your children the injustices in the world?"

JW: As a people, we've always survived—through enslavement, Jim Crow, all kinds of persecution. I get hope from remembering the people who came before me and knowing that if they survived, no matter how dire the time they were living in seemed to be, I, too, can survive. I am very transparent with my kids—we talk about all of it. I make sure they know they are loved and that we'll protect them as best as we can. I try to teach them how to walk through the world safely and remind them daily that what's most important is to walk through the world with love.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Pat (new)

Pat Garcia Hi,
I am smiling because I have taken over my complete basement and that is where I write. I feel like I am entering another world when I go to my office to write. I don't think I could adjust to my kitchen like I have to my basement.
Enjoyed the interview and I look forward to reading Another Brooklyn.
Shalom aleichem,

message 2: by Diane (new)

Diane "what's most important is to walk through the world with love " For me, this was the best part.
Really enjoyed this interview with Jacqueline Woodson.

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Great interview. The new book sounds very good, I'll keep my eye out for it. Love books about towns, nostalgia, friendship and memories.

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