There are some wise books, such as the Bible, the Q’uran or the Ramayana, where you can turn to nearly any page and divine a sermon in the poetry. Jacqueline Woodson’s “Another Brooklyn” is cut from similar cloth.
A lyrical coming-of-age novel about four girls in New York’s Bushwick neighborhood in the 1970s, “Another Brooklyn” is told in verse, like Woodson’s previous book, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” which won a National Book Award. Her spare poetry conjures way more than what’s on the page to bring the girls, their world and their dreams to vivid life.
“I wanted to make an ensemble piece where one story was just as important as another, and all the storytellers had to rely on each other for a sense of completion,” said Woodson, who will be in conversation Wednesday in St. Paul as part of Talking Volumes, the Star Tribune/Minnesota Public Radio book series. She also wanted to fill in the “yawning gaps in the literature about black girlhood.”
“Young people are often ignored and disregarded, but they are acute observers and learners of everything we say and do. My own daughter knows a heck of a lot about racial profiling.”
Woodson has spent most of her career writing for youngsters. This is her first adult novel in 20 years. “Given what I know about black girlhood and womanhood, a lot of it was gonna be about the body and walking through the world in my black skin.”
She spoke by phone in early September from her home after a sojourn in Europe. She and her partner, Juliet Widoff, a physician, spent the dog days traveling mostly in Italy and Scotland.
And what did they do? “We drank a lot of wine,” she said, laughing.
The couple live in Park Slope, a tony part of Brooklyn far removed from Bushwick.
“We’re an interracial family, and we’re dealing with all that entails at this juncture in history,” she said.
Conjuring an era
Woodson was born in Ohio but soon moved to Greenville, S.C., to live with her maternal grandparents after her parents separated. Her mother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, eventually found a home in Bushwick in the late 1960s, sending for her daughter and son just as an exodus was underway.
A wave of families of color was moving into New York, while “white families were taking flight,” she said. “Those who could afford it moved to Long Island and those places. Those too poor just moved across the tracks, literally.”
New York City in the 1970s was a heady cultural stew where immigrants from all over the world interacted with native-born strivers to create a dynamic culture. The city itself was mired in neglect and devastation underlined by drugs and shellshocked Vietnam vets. Against this backdrop, DJ Kool Herc hooked up speakers and toasted over records to give birth to hip-hop, and graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat perfected their lines.
Brooklyn was ground zero for much of this creative ferment. Woodson’s book evokes the milieu as we see August, Gigi, Sylvia and Angela — all with mothers who, for various reasons, cannot be present for them — turn to one another for support and comfort. The girls go through puberty amid the rough streets, learning to be wise and feisty in an inhospitable world.
“Another Brooklyn,” published a year ago, recently came out in paperback and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Woodson said she wanted the book to nod, stylistically, to James Baldwin’s novel “Another Country,” set in 1950s Greenwich Village, and Nina Simone’s song “Four Women,” about black female archetypes. These works helped broaden the dream space for young people, especially those who felt like outsiders.
What she saw, growing up, was different from what she read or saw on the news.
“Our stories have been told by outsiders, and what they saw were junkies or addicts or crime. They saw pathology,” she said. “But this was a neighborhood of strivers who were trying to make their way. I knew these people, and they had decency and strength and majesty. They were troubled, definitely, like all people.”
Tragedy is present in “Another Brooklyn,” but it comes with heart-rending poetry and evokes empathy — not pity, as so often happens in accounts by outsiders. Woodson points specifically to Meryl Meisler’s recent photo book about 1970s New York, “A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick.”
“She took photographs of the worst block in Bushwick to represent us, and juxtaposed that with Studio 54,” said Woodson, still offended. “All the houses on that block were condemned or burnt down except for maybe five. My street, Madison — not far from there — had big Caribbean, Latin and African-American families. Strivers all, but she didn’t see us at all.”
Churn, churn, churn
The churn is continuing in her old neighborhood as Brooklyn rapidly gentrifies, with white hipsters displacing poor and middle-class people of color. “It’s getting Columbused, as we like to say,” she said, laughing.
The author is careful not to try to be a spokesperson for causes or to posit herself as an expert. “I always say I write because I have questions, not because I have answers,” she said. “It’s true that you begin the conversation — that’s the role of the artist. But it’s not my job to tell us what to do next. I wish I had those tools.”
Woodson maintains a regimen for her health and her writing life. She jogs to purge her head. And she meditates.
She returns frequently to the neighborhood where she grew up, even if her connection to it has changed. In “Another Brooklyn,” she wanted to bring a high literary imagination to bear on people who were often misunderstood or dismissed in the popular culture.
“What I write comes from a place of deep love, and a deep understanding of all kinds of otherness,” she said. “People who are living in economic struggle are more than their circumstances. They’re majestic and creative and beautiful. I wanted to take readers inside the joy of Double Dutch, running through the spray of a fire hydrant, or bringing out a grill to barbecue. In response to the outsider gaze, I wanted to show a place of love, where queer people and people of color had their joys. It’s time we started taking up space inside our own narratives.”
The author was surprised by the sensations that came rushing back as she did research for the novel. During the Reagan era, government trucks used to roll up in the neighborhood to hand out cheese.
“That was so offensive,” she said. “People who took overprocessed government cheese were so pissed. I was a teenager and I understood it. ‘What do they think we are, rats?’ I remember the offense my mother took when they were handing out free lunches in the park, too. I wanted a baloney sandwich so bad, but my mother was like, ‘I’d better not see you on that line.’
“The thing I found out is how much I held onto, how much stayed with me without my knowing that I needed to hold onto it,” she said, pausing. “From people plugging their speakers into the lampposts to very graphic and very visceral moments of seeing the effects of heroin. My family was pretty religious, but I had friends, aunts and uncles who died of overdoses, or HIV from shared needles. Going back to those memories helped me to figure out what the book was going to be and what it was trying to say.
“Memory is the thing that we can hold onto and can own. No one can steal it or say it wasn’t so.”
Tell that to the hipsters.
NEXT ON TALKING VOLUMES
Amy Tan speaks about her new memoir, “Where the Past Begins.” (7 p.m. Oct. 19)
Ron Chernow, the “Hamilton” biographer, tackles another U.S. icon in “Grant.” (7 p.m. Oct. 31)
Dan Brown, author of “The DaVinci Code,” on his latest book, “Origin.” (7 p.m. Nov. 16)
The series is produced by the Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio, and hosted by MPR’s Kerri Miller.