The Rumpus Interview with Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline Woodson has been winning lifetime achievement awards since her early forties. An Olympian in the event of taking home Newbery and Caldecott Honor Medals, Woodson won the Margaret A. Edwards Award for her outstanding contribution to writing for young adults in 2006. She’s also won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, an NAACP Image Award, and the Sibert Honor Award—and those were just for her bestselling memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014).

Now comes Another Brooklyn, Woodson’s first adult novel in twenty years (and the latest to land on prominent shortlists). On a trip home for her father’s funeral, August, a professional anthropologist, runs into an old friend she’d once dreamed of becoming, whose “promised future” she was convinced would outshine her own lackluster path. This brush with her past kicks off a series of memories—memories of her mother’s death decades earlier; of how motherlessness creased across her childhood to shape who she would become; and of Bushwick, where she came of age with her three best friends.

I recently caught up with Woodson over the phone, calling her at her home in another Brooklyn entirely. She lives with her family in Park Slope.

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The Rumpus: Congratulations on heading into your second year as the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate! At the beginning of your tenure, you wrote: “My hope is that by the end of my two years as YPPL, each of you will know—no matter who you are or how you read or where you live—that you have a voice.” How are midterms looking? What’s the score at halftime?

Jacqueline Woodson: I still have a lot of work to do. Last year I was on the road a lot, talking to a lot of people in middle class and independent schools, and also a lot of public school kids. This coming year is all underserved kids.

Rumpus: You have a great moment in your Fresh Air interview on Another Brooklyn with Terry Gross, where you’re talking about Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son,” which starts, “Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” You said it was a poem that you could understand immediately, that it was accessible to you.

I often feel as though I’m outside of poetry as a tradition, and so shouldn’t attempt to write it because I haven’t done enough close reading of meter and verse to feel syllables and line breaks inside of me properly.

Woodson: But that’s about you believing that form matters. I think that happens for a lot of people, they have this idea that there’s only one type of way to write poetry and that you have to have this information. You have to know about meter, you have to know about form, you have to know about iambic pentameter, and all of that. We do inherently know that poetry is about the way we speak. It’s about where we pause, where we drop our words in the middle of a sentence. It’s about the rhythm and the cadence of the way we speak. It’s about putting that down at the end of the day.

What you say is what matters. The rewrite begins to inform how it’s being said.

When you look at someone like Langston Hughes—“Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”—that makes sense to everyone. As a poet who has the tools for interpreting the poem differently, you can begin to deconstruct it. But the human being who’s like, “I know about conversation, I know about language, I know about hard times,” will approach the poem differently.

That’s what I’m trying to get across to people, that you don’t have to have all of these tools to be able to have a conversation with the poem.

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Rumpus: Had you previously ever been afraid to write in a tradition because it felt like it wasn’t yours?

Woodson: I’m still afraid. I’m still afraid every day. That’s what writing is. It’s moving past your fear.

I think I had gotten messages really young that poetry wasn’t for me, that it was for, basically, some dead white men. My experience and my intellect was on the outside of understanding that. I think that’s what’s so destructive. And I think even as Poet Laureate, there are those people who are thinking, “Well, she’s not a poet.”

So the question is, what makes a person a poet? What makes a person someone who is trying to move everybody else outside of poetry, and just own it as theirs and theirs alone?

I feel like I’ve learned a lot as Poet Laureate. I’ve learned a lot as a writer about poetry. I’ve learned about marrying poetry and prose and making both accessible. I feel like so much of what I’m doing is making a road where there is no road and inviting people on that road with me. It’s scary. It’s scary, but I can’t listen to the voices that are saying form is the only way, or that there is only this kind of form or that kind of form.

Rumpus: What does Another Brooklyn borrow from poetry and preserve from fiction? When you were absorbed in writing it, how did you feel out where to cut to the next take and what size each of those breaks were, whether something was the end of a paragraph, the end of an image, or the end of a chapter?

Woodson: I listen to it. Everything I write, I read out loud. It has to sound a certain way. It has to look a certain way on the page. I pay a lot of attention to whitespace. I pay a lot of attention to the rhythm of words together. I felt it.

The book is a very emotional book. I either feel it emotionally or I’m absorbed in the rhythm of it. I know where it works and where it doesn’t, where I need to rewrite or change the rhythm of the words, change the way the sentence begins or ends to get the piece to feel and say what I’m trying to say.

Rumpus: The novel is called Another Brooklyn. What’s the first Brooklyn?

Woodson: It’s called Another Brooklyn for a number of reasons. One is that the characters are aspiring to move beyond the Brooklyn that they are existing in. For August, the first Brooklyn is that window with her brother, looking at the world outside of that window and the dream of moving beyond that. Moving beyond the gate, moving beyond the block, and, eventually, moving beyond the world.

It’s also Another Brooklyn because of the gentrification of Bushwick. I dedicate the book to Bushwick 1970–1990 because those were the years that I knew that place as a space of black and Latino people, before it got “discovered” by a hipster movement that saw it as a new thing. I really wanted it to be recognized as a place that existed before another gaze came in on it.

It’s also called Another Brooklyn because of this idea that people have, that one place exists as their interpretation of it. For the people living and thriving inside of it, it’s another place.

Rumpus: How do you write about a place as you used to see it, while still living in it now? Does it help to be able to walk similar streets, or do the streets of 1970s Brooklyn feel that much more lost to time? Are you more concerned, in writing from and about memory, with what you see when you close your eyes when you’re everywhere else?

Woodson: It’s a good question. I don’t live in Bushwick anymore—I live in Park Slope now—but I do visit it a lot. I visit it and I see the enormous change there. I also have a deep memory, a very clear memory of what it used to be.

I never left that Brooklyn. I never left it mentally, so I’m able to write from it. Even living here in Park Slope, which is kind of the opposite of where I grew up. Where I grew up, it was all people who were black and Latino, people who look like me. Now I live in a neighborhood where very, very few people look like me.

I think even my existence today informs my memory of that past, in kind of a longing way, but also in the way of a kind of despair. I want that place remembered. I want people to understand the history of a place, and not take for granted that it mattered to someone, to a whole bunch of people, at another time, in a different way.

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Rumpus: There’s a line early on in the book, “Don’t trust women, my mother said to me. Even the ugly ones will take what you thought was yours.”

Halfway through, August starts to incorporate that warning, realizing that she and her friends Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi are going to be women one day. She says, “When we were women, there would be nothing. We couldn’t be friends, my mother had said. We couldn’t trust us.”

Do you think women trusting women would pan out the way it does if August had never received this overt warning from her mother? Is that distrust passed down and learned between women, or would the girls still have as much jealousy to sort out without that inheritance?

Woodson: You know, I don’t know. I don’t know how women stop being friends with other women, and that’s partly why I wrote Another Brooklyn. I have met women who don’t have close women friends, and I’ve always been like, “How could that possibly be?” I think also, in terms of what I say in the book, that we live inside our parents’ backstory, right? She talks about having this warning from her mother, like an early lesson for her that she’s thinking she’s rejecting, but in the end she’s not. It’s coming to pass.

If her mother had never said that, if she had had friends, would August have turned out differently? I don’t know. I always say I write because I have lots of questions, not because I have any answers. This was an investigation of that.

Rumpus: On the first page, August says, “I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.” How did that play out in the writing, in the structuring and presentation of the tragedies in the book? Is there a plot to tragedy that isn’t complete until that tragedy is replayed in memory and understood as one?

Woodson: I think the tragedy comes in the deepening of the understanding. When you’re in your moment and you’re experiencing it, it’s just that. It’s that moment that you’re in. But a moment later, that moment is memory. There’s this beginning to unpack what the experience is, and it becomes much more complicated.

The idea of stepping outside of yourself, or stepping outside of your experience to look back on it, is, for me, the beginning of the plotline. Suddenly all of this stuff starts falling into place and starts making a different kind of sense than it made in the moment that you’re experiencing it, where you’re too close to even begin to deconstruct it.

Rumpus: I read Another Brooklyn through twice, and the first time, the book that I read was almost a full-on mystery. I was thrown as an otherwise with-it, perceptive reader by how thoroughly I shared August’s denial that her mother was dead. I couldn’t have said I was sure who was in the urn, either.

The second time through, the book did read as a deliberate mystery around a different question—this question of which events and betrayals unraveled such vivid friendships. But the very first sentence of the book, going back, is, “For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet.” When you truly are in denial, what’s being denied is what feels false, not your inability to face the truth.

Woodson: It’s so true.

Rumpus: I wonder what the relationship is between denial and memory in the book for you. Is August too young to understand death, or do Americans at any age have denial embedded into their response to death, since we lack these shared rituals and understandings of other cultures that August studies as an adult?

Woodson: She’s definitely, first of all, an unreliable narrator because of her deep denial. She is in denial because she is too young to understand, but also because she doesn’t want to understand.

When you think of how a child experiences a series of events, it feels, for so long, like she’s looking at everything from behind this glass and it’s obscured, right? August is looking at her past in that way, too, to some extent. Her mother’s suicide doesn’t make any kind of sense to her until it finally does, and even as she learns about other people’s rituals of death, she’s coming more and more to understand these little deaths that happen. The little death of her friendships, the death of Angela’s mother, and then eventually the bigger death that she has to pay attention to. By the time her father takes her back to the water, suddenly there’s this new clarity. She is beginning to understand what dying means. As she continues to study the rituals of other people dying, of the other cultures that are talked about throughout the book, she’s understanding that there are all kinds of ways that people die.

For me as a writer, it was understanding that we’re so far behind in our way of dealing with death. We put someone in the ground, we bury them or we burn them, and then we’re supposed to just move on and kind of get over it. All these other cultures go back and even unbury their dead, to talk to them, to ask them questions, to guide them. So here’s this girl who at a very young age was supposed to forget about it and move on, and as a result, she can’t move on: “My mother wasn’t dead yet.”

Rumpus: Have you read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing?

Woodson: I’m reading it now. I just started.

Rumpus: I don’t want to spoil anything for you. I’ll keep it very, very vague. There’s a chapter in Homegoing that has some very interesting parallels with August’s brother and father and their faith, and what those relationships look like.

Later in the book, a teacher asks one of the daughters in this familial line whether or not she likes a book that she’s reading in class. She answers yes. Then her teacher asks a clarifying question: “But do you feel it inside you?”

Do you feel the next book you need to write inside you? Do you have another way of asking children the same question about what they’re reading?

Woodson: That’s such a great way of asking it.

Kids tell me that. They don’t always say they feel it inside them, but they say, “This is my life.” I think I heard it the most with If You Come Softly, which is a young adult love story from the point of view of an African American boy and a white Jewish secular girl. It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. So many kids were like, “This is my life.” They wouldn’t even have to have been in an interracial relationship or to have experienced a tragedy, but the emotional upheaval of the relationship and the response of the parents to the relationship, I just hear again and again from so many kids, “How did you know? How do you know this? How do you remember this? This is my life.”

In my young adult work, that always helps me know they are feeling it inside of them, the way I felt it when I was writing it.

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Rumpus: What was the last conversation you had about a book?

Woodson: It was Carolina De Robertis, The Gods of Tango. I was in the South of France this summer with my family and my extended family, so the kids’ other aunts and cousins. I had read The Gods of Tango twice, and then I’d passed it on to my partner and she was blown away by it.

We go to France every summer, and we always bring the books we’re excited about for our French family to read. My friend Jane, who was with us, had taken it and she just disappeared. We were playing tennis and it’s like, “Where’s Jane?” “She’s reading.” Then we passed it on to Joyce, who’s from Mauritius and lives in Paris now, and she started reading it and she’s like, “Okay, goodbye.”

It was so great to cross all of these lines of race and culture. Everybody was so connected to this book. It’s one of those books where I trip over my tongue talking about it. I would say that is my go-to wow book. It’s that good.

Rumpus: How would you describe Park Slope, where you live now?

Woodson: Where are you calling me from? Where do you live?

Rumpus: I’m calling you from Harlem.

Woodson: Oh, so you know where I live!

Rumpus: I do! But many readers will not.

Woodson: You know, I have a love/hate relationship with Park Slope. It’s very different than Bushwick in many, many ways. It’s beautiful, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s also heartbreakingly homogenous.

I love it here. I love being able to walk to the corner and take my kid to the park, or walk to the corner and get some really good food. I would love to walk to the corner and see more people who look like me. And that’s not gonna happen. So I definitely have a love/hate relationship with this neighborhood.

I mean look at Harlem. I remember I was going to a party for Amistad, my publisher, which is part of HarperCollins but it publishes all Afro and Caribbean and Latin American books, so it was this pretty black party in Harlem. I was on the corner and I didn’t know where I was. I had to ask three white people how to get there. When you look at Harlem ten years ago, fifteen years ago, that wasn’t the case. It was much more of an African American place.

Rumpus: Does Brooklyn as a larger place still feel like home? When you come back, does it feel like you have come home, or does it feel, neighborhood by neighborhood, like you can’t, because where you grew up isn’t the same?

Woodson: You know, it’s funny. I was in Mississippi yesterday and I ran home. The Confederate flag, the deep Southern ways of the white folks, the places where I felt like it was kind of dangerous for me to be there… Give me Park Slope any day.

Even with all of its changing, Brooklyn’s architecture still feels like home, the language feels like home. It’s changing so quickly that it’s surprising. It’s surprising still, when someone looks kind of askance to see me walking towards them. I’m almost six feet tall. I’m brown-skinned. You know, all of these ways they’ve learned to be afraid of people of color like that. I’m like, “But wait a second. This is my home.” To watch your home change in front of you is surprising. But at the same time, going someplace like Mississippi, makes me appreciate even this.


Catherine Cusick is a writer, producer, and standing advocate for independent bookstores. She lives in Harlem and tweets @CusickCatherine More from this author →