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.
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.
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. She also wanted to fill
in the "yawning gaps in the literature about black
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
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."
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
what did they do? "We drank a lot of wine,"
she said, laughing.
couple live in Park Slope, a tony part of Brooklyn far
removed from Bushwick.
an interracial family, and we’re dealing with all that
entails at this juncture in history," she said.
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
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."
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
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.
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
she saw, growing up, was different from what she read or
saw on the news.
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."
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."
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 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.
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."
maintains a regimen for her health and her writing life.
She jogs to purge her head. And she meditates.
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.
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."
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.
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.’
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.
is the thing that we can hold onto and can own. No one
can steal it or say it wasn’t so."
that to the hipsters.