Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for her memoir, written in free verse, called Brown Girl Dreaming. Now the author of more than a dozen books for children and adolescents is out with a new novel, Another Brooklyn. Woodson sat down with Morning Shift’s Jenn White to talk about the book’s themes of identity, friendship and memory.
What do you think it is about those adolescent friendships that are so informative?
Jacqueline Woodson: I just think we look for ourselves in the world. And we look for ourselves and our friends. And we look at our friends to be our mirrors, right? And to show us back at ourselves. And we want to be loved.
Those early relationships are so intimate, they’re so physically intimate, they’re so emotionally intimate. It’s the first time outside of your family where you can really share who you are. And not the “you” that your family sees. This “you” that you can be out in the world.
And it was one of the things that I was questioning in writing this book. And I knew a few women who don’t have female friends. Or who say “I don’t have female friends. I only trust men–I don’t trust women.” But I was always like, “Who are you without your girls?” Like, “How can you walk through the world without your girls?”
We’ve all had relationships as young people. And what happens to make you grow up and not have them any longer. To break up from your friends. And it was intriguing for me to investigate it through the four main characters in Another Brooklyn.
One of the other themes that weaves itself way through books is death. And we see death and experience death in a number of different forms–death of a loved one, death of friendships, death of innocence. How did writing this book make you think about death differently?
Woodson: It’s such a good question. What writing does is it allows you to sit with yourself for many years sometimes and just ponder. A different kind of pondering than navel-gazing. You’re pondering the bigger world and the greater good.
And, in writing Brown Girl Dreaming, one thing that happened is that my mom died suddenly. And I went through the grieving process. At the same time, I think that the grieving process is never over. There’s different stages of it. And there’s so many different ways we grieve.
How other cultures do it is so interesting. And looking at it in the very different, specific moments of our lives. Like you said, the death of childhood, the death of adolescence, the death of girlhood in that moment when the girls are constantly negotiating. The girls are growing up, becoming so visible to the world. The way it is for girls is that the world sees us develop and grow in this way that we’re not ready to be seen. That is, in and of itself, is a form of dying.
I really wanted to look at August’s relationship with her mother and that grieving. And also the way the world grieves. And also the small moment in these girls lives when they all have their own small deaths constantly.
The other thing that plays through the book is memory. It’s almost its own character. There is a line that is repeated: “This is memory. This is memory.” And sometimes it’s a question, “This is memory?” How did you play with how we remember things? And whether those things are true or not?
Woodson: Well August is an unreliable narrator. You want to trust her but then you raise an eyebrow sometimes. Then you finally get her when they go back to the water and things begin to fall into place.
But I think about memory a lot. Every moment is memory, right? This question that you just asked me is now part of our memory because it’s part of the past. The past comes up on us so quickly. If you have any desire to hold onto it, it already starts to become muted and muddled. It becomes this other thing.
For August, it’s the thing she owns. She doesn’t have so much now. But the one thing she does have is her memory. And basically she’s repeating it to say this is mine no matter what anyone says. She says, “This is memory.” You can argue it; you can say it happens differently. But it’s memory so you have to own it as what it is.