October 13, 2014

Jacqueline Woodson looks back on a life full of dreams

Interview by

After Jacqueline Woodson spoke to an eager audience at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books, BookPage chatted with the award-winning author about her new memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, her love of words and her complex relationships with music, the South and so much more.

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Why did you write a memoir? Why now?
I finally have something to say. [Laughs.] No, I think what I was saying in the session was, when my mom died suddenly, I realized there was so much I didn’t know, that I wanted to find out, so many questions I couldn’t ask. I felt like I wanted to get the stories down from people before they passed on because so many of my relatives are older. I wanted to get a sense of who my mom was before she was my mom. I felt like it was time. I had written almost 30 books—I’ve lost count—and this was the story that was coming to me, that I wanted to tell now.

Why did you think verse works so well for this book?
It’s how memory comes. Memories come in these small moments, with all of this white space around them, but the moments are very distinct. I feel like I have all this information, [but I’m] not sure what it’s connected to. And then the exploration of years and months and days brings the connection together. But it wouldn’t have been a straight narrative. A straight narrative would’ve been a lie. It’s not how you remember things—you remember them in small moments.

Some people say it’s poetry. I think the language is very poetic, but I think the verse is less intentional than poetry, so that where I have the line breaks are moments when I want you, the reader, and myself to pause and see this moment. Verse does allow for things to be more visual because of the minimalism.

What sort of challenges do you think verse poses?
I think one of the biggest challenges was consistency. There were points where I just wanted to tell the whole story and put it on the page because I had so much memory about it. I had to make the choice to say, “This is not the place for that story.” John Gardner talks about the “dream” of fiction. In On Becoming a Novelist, he says, when you’re reading and you’re in the fictive dream, if something happens that dream can be broken. I didn’t want to—it’s not a fictive dream, it’s a memoir dream—but I didn’t want it to be broken by suddenly the reader seeing a chapter pop up and thinking, This doesn’t belong here. It didn’t feel like anything [other than] the verse belonged there.

At this moment, this is what I know. Here’s something else I know. Here, read these memories. This is what I know.”

How did you decide on the poetic forms for the different subjects?
All the “How to Listen” pieces are in haiku—except there’s a typo in there, I’m so cranky! Those were just kind of writing guides that I was learning as I went along and that, once they were in the book, they were writing guides for people coming to write. So much of what I learned about writing I learned from reading. With Brown Girl Dreaming, it is a memoir, but it is also, this is how you write. You listen. You let yourself be still. You let the stories you’re being told become memory. All of these moments—those small moments of haiku are moments of instruction. That’s how I decided on that. I wanted it to be part of the story, the narrative, as it was being formed. At this moment, this is what I know. Here’s something else I know. Here, read these memories. This is what I know. That was very deliberate.

Speaking of learning to write—as there is a lot in Brown Girl Dreaming about loving words at a young age—what is your strongest influence in fostering your love of words?
Reading picture books. With a picture book, you can look at the pictures and know the story without having to read the words. Back when I was a pre-reader, I’m sure the pictures were telling me stories or I’d make up the stories, and then once I was able to attach the words to the pictures and the story, it gave me a whole new level.

Picture books are accessible, I think for anyone. College kids, high school kids. It’s one of the most approachable ways to learn about writing. . . . It really does crack the code for you, in a way. I feel like for me as a really young kid, that code began to get cracked with the reading of picture books.

And then the poems of Langston Hughes, you know, the people who were writing poems that I could understand, that were not coded. I think of, “Well son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” It was the language. Langston Hughes was writing in a language I understood. It was the language that people I knew spoke. “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” was OK, I understand what he’s saying. Life has been jacked up along the way, but I keep climbing. I’m going to push through this.

You depict an incredibly complex relationship with the South.
[Laughs.] I do! Well, with the South and the North. The relationship with the North is complex in a more nuanced way because that’s what I had by the time I got there. Remember, when I was in the South, I was very young. The South, you know, this is Jim Crow, the laws were very blatant and very much understood out loud. Whereas in the North, the laws were not understood out loud and not written down, but they still existed in some way.

It is complicated for so many African Americans. The lush South, the beauty of it, the food, the people, the magic of it is so complicated and shrouded in the history of that oppression and the resistance. All of that is very complicated. But without complexity, you don’t have richness, right? The simpler something is, the less memorable and less of an impact it has.

You mentioned during your session that when you started writing this memoir, you went back to South Carolina and started interviewing family and writing down your family history, and in that process you learned something about yourself. What’s something you learned about yourself?
I feel like I learned what I already knew—that I was loved, how much I was loved and that at every corner there was someone moving me toward being a writer, even without knowing it. That came through the love. I always knew that I didn’t just wake up and say, “I’m going to be a writer.” It had to come from somewhere. And when I started to investigate and put the memories down on paper, I really got a sense of, OK, I am here because of them. I am here because of the South and because of the North and because of Ohio and because of my great-great-grandfather and the Civil War. The depth to which my history informed myself today was really both humbling and, of course, empowering.

You mentioned your favorite piece in your session, “Music,” which is about the music of your childhood and how your mother wouldn’t let you listen to any song that had the word “funk” in it. Why is it your favorite?
I love music so much because it speaks to the other complexity of my childhood. Here I was in this environment, and Jehovah’s Witnesses say that you’re in the world but you’re not of the world, and every step of the way that was true for me! [Laughs.] Including, here I am in this predominately black and Latino neighborhood in the ’70s, where the word “funk” is everywhere, and my family’s saying, “Step out of that, you’re not a part of that.” And here I am trying to define my myself and saying, “But this is what I know! This is what’s having an impact on my life!” And it’s just funny to look back on it and say, “Wow! Of course I’m writing, of course.”

I don’t know if it’s disparity, but there’s a difference between here and there, and that’s so much of what the book is talking about. Will I always have to choose between home and home? The funk was home for me, and then the white music became home for me, because that was informing so much of who I was. . . . When I get to the end of the book, I talk about, when there are many worlds, you can decide [which] you’re going to walk in. I think about the Robert Frost poem, “Two roads diverged . . .” It’s kind of all of these roads. You can take that one and you can take that one and you can take that one, and they all lead you to this one place, and you’ve always been walking all of them. The one place is the self and the complexity of the self. When you’re a writer, you have to have your eyes wide open and be aware of all of that. You can’t have tunnel vision and shut down what you don’t want to experience because that closes off the roads.

Any new projects in the works?
No, not really. [Laughs.] This book tour. Jonathan Demme’s making a movie of Beneath a Meth Moon, so when I get back I’m going to hopefully have a script to read and advise on. And then I’m going to take a little bit of a break. I’m just going to be Mom for a couple of months.

Get the Book

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming

By Jacqueline Woodson
Nancy Paulsen Books
ISBN 9780399252518

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