Orsayor: After many award-winning books for young readers, what inspired you to write Brown Girl Dreaming, which is more like an autobiography, and why now?
Jacqueline: Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir. It’s written in memory – small moments in time that I’ve put on the page. The white space on the page represents the white space in memory because memory is not always linear. There is often a haze surrounding it so that the moments that came right before or right after the memory are not known/seen. So that’s why I put the memoir on the page this way. Some people say the book is written in poetry. While I do think it’s poetic – words and the way they look and sound on the page are very important to me – I do think it’s less intentional than poetry. I have a deep respect for the poets in my life as I’ve learned so much from them. I am honored when people say Brown Girl Dreaming is poetry. Still, I like to think of it as poetic memory – which I guess is kind of redundant because to me, all memory is poetic.
Orsayor: What was the first thought that came to mind when Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award?
Jacqueline: Wow!! They just called my name! And did Sharon Draper just say it was a unanimous decision? Wow! Wow! Wow!
Orsayor: How did you come up with the title?
Jacqueline: It made sense to me because it was a memoir and I was writing about my life, myself becoming. I was/am a brown girl dreaming. Also, there are SO many brown girls dreaming. I wanted a title that held up a mirror to brown girls and all girls. But I really wanted for brown girls in that rare moment that we see ourselves front and center to know that I see them, I’m one of them, we matter.
Orsayor: Is there a story behind the cover design?
Jacqueline: It was a long time coming and when it was right, I knew it. I love, love this cover. It has so much light and hope in it.
Orsayor: What is the significance of the all-lowercase chapter headings?
Jacqueline: That was a design choice. To me it speaks to this being a story in continuum, not just one moment.
Orsayor: If there is only one message you would like readers—young and old—to grasp from Brown Girl Dreaming, what would you like that message to be?
Jacqueline: We all have stories and a right to tell them.
Orsayor: There have been many articles about prisons holding more black men today than slavery ever has. There are also many debates around whether children should be subject to visiting family members in prison. In your book you write about the visit to see your uncle in Dannemora. Do you feel the experience had a negative effect on your childhood? Would you like to address the ongoing debate on whether children should visit prisons to see their family members?
Jacqueline: How will we raise children who are ready to go into the world and change it if they have no experience of life in the world? The numbers are staggering – Mass incarceration has tried to annihilate families. 2.2 million people in this country are incarcerated. Throw a stone and hit the toe of a family that knows or has someone in jail. I think, if I’m not mistaken, that it’s not more than slavery ever has – because over the course of black enslavement, millions of people were enslaved but at the height of slavery, when there were the most slaves at one time, when slavery ways were ‘thriving’ –(um…not for the enslaved), THAT’S the number we’re talking about here. Mass incarceration is thriving. Prisons are privatized. There’s an economic windfall (um…not for the incarcerated) for those who get rich from the money made through mass incarceration. My uncle was amazing. He was beautiful, smart, a great dancer, loving – and he broke the law and went to jail. Does the rest of him disappear because of that? Should my family have stopped loving him because of that? Should we have abandoned him because of that? What about recidivism? If there is no family support, if a family turns its back on someone who has been incarcerated, what does that person have left? It’s heartbreaking to me. Of course, kids should visit their fathers and brothers and uncles and mothers and aunts and cousins in prison. Of course mothers and fathers should visit their sons and daughters. Of course we shouldn’t let mass incarceration repeat the history of slavery by attempting to tear apart black families. If my parents hadn’t taken me to visit my uncle, I wouldn’t have been the activist I am now. I think there is a danger to overprotecting kids. I think we should teach them about the world but from a place of deep support and love. “This is the world but we got you!” I think we should remind them everyday how deeply human we all are – incarcerated or free-ish, we all have a right to be loved and supported.
Orsayor: What is your favorite motivational phrase from an individual of African descent?
Jacqueline: Anything out of Nina Simone’s mouth meant the world to me.
Orsayor: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Jacqueline: Stay honest – even if the world would love for you to be otherwise. Believe and breathe deeply. Learn how to explain stuff – You’re going to be doing it a lot!
Orsayor: What can we use as motivation today to encourage young, brown boys and girls to write whether it be for film, television, books, or for themselves as an escape?
Jacqueline: Let them see themselves on the page and on the screen. Let them have mirrors everywhere in their lives. My daughter wants to be an actor and I’m constantly making her watch films amazing black actors in them as a means of saying ‘Look, there you are. That’s your mirror. You are there.” And books do the same thing – find the books with brown people in them written by writers of color. Show them their mirrors so that they know this can be done by us. Mirrors legitimize us – show us ourselves already in the world.
Orsayor: What have you learned growing up in Greenville, SC that New York City could not have taught you? And what have you learned living in New York City that was beyond your wildest dreams in Greenville?
Jacqueline: In Greenville, I learned patience. In New York, I learned patience wasn’t always what I needed. Sometimes I needed to be impatient and demanding and assertive to get what I wanted. So I walk the world with both these things now.
Orsayor: How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Jacqueline: Website: Jacquelinewoodson.com Blog: Jacqueline Woodson (tumblr) Facebook: Jacqueline Woodson Page Twitter: @jackiewoodson Amazon Author Page: Jacqueline Woodson