Jacqueline Woodson has had quite a week. On Thursday, her novel Another Brooklyn was announced as the featured reading selection for One Book, One Philadelphia 2018. And two other Woodson books came along for the ride: Brown Girl Dreaming is next year’s One Book, One Philadelphia middle-grade companion book for younger readers, and the picture book This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration is the children’s companion book. Such a three-fer is a first for One Book, One Philadelphia. Woodson says she plans to be in Philly a lot in the coming months.
She spoke by phone from her family home in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood about how the Brooklyn she grew up in has changed, about her writing process, and about writing as resistance.
When you start writing something, how do you know who the narrator is going to be? How do you get to know him or her?
I start with the voice, how I hear that voice telling the story. The voice is going to tell me a lot about the person it belongs to. Sometimes, the voice starts as a child’s voice, but it has an adult perspective. I tend to figure the voice and its story early, and I begin to shape the narrative from there on.
With the four girls [August, Angela, Gigi, and Sylvia] of Another Brooklyn, it was so fun getting to discover who they were, adding on layer after layer. Eventually, I get to see who the character is becoming, yet at the same time I’m peeling away layers to reveal the character to the reader. I love and hate that process … when you think of all the work of drawing someone, each girl and what she needed to say, girl by girl.
In Another Brooklyn, you portray the Bushwick neighborhood where you grew up in the 1970s. You live in 21st-century Brooklyn now. What do you think of what it’s become?
The great thing is, you can walk a block in any direction and find a place where you can have a nice meal, if you can afford it. The bad thing is you can walk a block and not be able to afford anything because the bodega of your youth is now a fancy restaurant. Writing Another Brooklyn, there was the deep sadness of seeing that that time doesn’t exist any more. And the people living there now don’t know. They’re contending with gentrification … people lose their homes and their history because they can’t afford to have it any more.
And the neighborhoods have gotten segregated by economics. When I was growing up, even with white flight, there was still some mixture there. There were white folks even in poorer neighborhoods. Even into the 1980s, my classes in school were truly diverse. And that kind of energy, where people were very different from each other, that’s going away. It’s much more bubble living. It breaks my heart. We live on Park Slope, we’re a mixed family, and right now we’re the only people of color on our block.
I grew up speaking Spanish and English, and you don’t get that in the same way today, people crossing cultures. And you don’t get Double Dutch! You need to go to a schoolyard in a poor black neighborhood and then, maybe, you’ll see schoolgirls with ropes. Maybe. I miss that. I miss the street games, the special silly songs that got handed down, that sort of oral storytelling. Even the way we ran into and out of one another’s houses, your parents kicking you out, “Don’t come back till dinnertime.” It’s an era now of helicopter parenting, and that speaks to a city that has transitioned. It’s a much richer city. It’s much harder to get started here, to rent, much less to buy.
Would your writing have been different had you not come up through adversity?
Is there anyone who doesn’t come up through adversity? The kids back in my neighborhood, we didn’t know! We had nothing to compare it to. I had no clue someone would call what I was coming up in “adversity.” A discarded mattress was like Christmas. Suddenly, we had a trampoline! Now, I’ve seen pictures of black kids jumping on mattresses, and these pictures are being presented as images of poverty and adversity, and I say, “Heck, no, that was the bomb!”
And refrigerator boxes.
Yes, we could live in those for hours. My son, Jackson Leroi, he’s 9, whenever a big box comes into the house, he says, “Don’t throw that away, I want to play in it.” He can spend hours in it, just like I did on the sidewalk. “Is this some kind of genetic memory?” I said to him.
You’ve written about the choices you’ve had to make in sending your kids to different schools, the public school vs. private school dilemma.
These are tough calls. I have a friend who said, “You have to decide what part of your kids’ mental health you’re going to compromise.” If you send them to a private school, they’re one of two kids of color. If you send them to a public school in Coney Island, they’re one of the few Democrats around. All I want is for my kids to see reflections of themselves in the world, in their teachers, in their classmates. In an older Brooklyn, it wasn’t so much of a struggle. In the new New York, it’s more of one. Schools are becoming less diverse in a lot of cases — and that’s because, in part, a lot of people don’t want it.
You’ve mentioned that you’re thinking of taking your family out of the country for a while and writing about it, a nonfiction adult project.
It’d be like a memoir of a year abroad. Last year, I started planning to take my family out of the country for a year, writing about what it means to leave and/or stay. Trying to figure out where it’s safest for us. It is that whole question that arose in the Great Migration: the people who stayed and the people who left. Which is better? Leaving or staying? What’s the best work we can do as resisters? A very complicated question.
Isn’t writing itself, very often, a form of resistance? In being so conscious of the world, and writing about it, aren’t you, as a writer, pitched into that situation almost by definition?
For me, writing is both cathartic and empowering. At the end of the day, it can be powerful, because this is your tool. It’s what I have. It’s how I get myself and others through this world. And sometimes it feels exhausting. Because there’s so much left to be written.