We are super excited to share the first of our 5 Questions series, which celebrates great YA authors as well as YARN’s 5th Anniversary. How lucky are we that this first one is with the one and only JACQUELINE WOODSON?? Enough said, right?
YARN: You write a lot about memory and the making of memories, in Brown Girl Dreaming, often in relation to writing. What has been the relationship of memory to your writing, in your career overall? Has it always been a harmonious relationship, or have there been times when your writing has had to overcome memory, or at least shove it aside?
JW: My writing always starts from a place of memory. Often that memory is a feeling—some way of being I remember from my past that inspires a story. I hold fast to memory, believing that it’s important to know our past to understand our present so memories from long ago stay with me. Has it always been harmonious? Yes and no. But what is? At some point I do, as a writer of fiction, have to say “This is not about YOU, it’s about the character.” At that point, I have to move away from memory into a more creative space. But I can’t write without both the creative self and the self that’s steeped in memory.
YARN: Your writing and ruminations feel very inclusive (your beautiful “poetic” friendship with Maria and the tone of the last 2 poems in Brown Girl Dreaming bring this strongly to mind). Is this something you strive for consciously? Part of what I’m asking is, with so much emphasis recently on diversity in children’s literature (which we applaud!!), do you ever feel there is a difference, when it comes to the actual writing, between celebrating “difference” or “inclusiveness”? Or is this a false dichotomy?
JW: That’s a really great question. I think it’s about honesty and a deep sense of self. I deeply believe in my past and the many moments that brought me to this place. The specific becomes universal so I know I’m not going to “lose” a reader by staying true to what matters to me. I love being African American. I love being female. I love having grown up in South Carolina and Brooklyn. I love the part of me that steeped in Buckeye pride. So I want to bring this love to the page. It’s not a fad or something that I’m trying to do to sell books. It’s not something I’m trying to reach for. It just is what it is—my truth, my passion. And I think that this love coming through speaks to so many people across lines of race, class, gender, ability, etc. Because even as it remains specifically mine, it becomes part of a bigger, more universal truth. I like to believe that we all have love for who we are, and we love seeing it mirrored in the lives of others.
YARN: With you winning the National Book Award last year, and Kwame Alexander winning the Newbery Medal for The Crossover, we wonder if you think that books in verse are having a moment—and why that might be? (We’re asking Kwame the same question, so it will be fun to compare your answers!)
JW: You know… Our attention spans are shorter. We tweet 140 characters and call it correspondence. We zip from link to link, check our phones as we’re writing emails on our computers. And here in New York, we’ve always carried on many conversations at once. Of course this is the perfect time for poetry (and graphic novels / memoirs). I think the way we read and write is changing quickly. I’m reading one of those multi-layered, many-paged chaptered novels and it feels almost luxurious to immerse in this kind of book in this present day environment. That said, I like to believe that poetry is always going to save us. I read so much Rumi when I was younger. Whenever I was feeling lost, I’d picked up his work and get centered again. I have so many poets that do that for me now. So I think there is something about the way verse grounds us.
YARN: You’ve written in many genres, from children’s picture books to middle grade and YA novels. How did you know that Brown Girl Dreaming was definitely going to be a memoir, as opposed to a more fictionalized account? How did you know it needed to be in verse?
JW: It’s memory. Memory comes in these small moments with all of this white space around the moment. Writing this as a straight narrative, given what it is, would have felt insincere and wrong. My mom died suddenly and I knew I wanted to go back and understand who she was before she was my mom and how I came to be the writer I am. It was time for a memoir. It was time to understand.
YARN: What kind of reaction did your family members have when they heard/read about their involvement in the book? Did you ever worry about their reactions while writing? What did you do with those worries in order to continue writing?
JW: I can’t worry about my family while I’m writing. That would make me censor myself. When I first write, I say to myself “No one is ever going to see this.” And then I let myself write whatever it is I want to write. I didn’t show my siblings Brown Girl Dreaming until I was pretty close to being done with it. They trust me to remember — My family has always been amazed by my memory. My siblings are pretty awesome. My sister loves the book. My brothers are just proud about whatever I do. I think if my mom and grandma were still alive, they’d be happy. My dad showed up to Cover To Cover in Columbus and bought two copies! I call him Jack—I didn’t really know him until he and my mom got back together when I was 13. I was like “Jack—I can give you copies for free!” He just chuckled and said, “You know I got to support my girl!” I love that guy!
YARN: Well, we love your writing! Thanks for much for answering our 5 questions, and for writing Brown Girl Dreaming.
….But Readers, she’s written way more great stuff than Brown Girl Dreaming (in case you didn’t know)! Children’s picture books like Every Kindness and This Is the Rope; Middle Grade novels like Maizon at Blue Hill; and YA novels like Beneath a Meth Moon, Hush, and Behind You. Find out all kinds of cool things about who, where, and why she wrote her books, plus some excellent little biographical FAQ-toids at her website, http://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/.