Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"Damned" Post: Part 2

In the comments of my last post, Laura Atkins, Children's Book Specialist and former editor for Lee & Low Books (and brilliant essayist), left a link to this article by Jacqueline Woodson, originally published in the Horn Book. I thought I'd read the first few paragraphs while breakfast was cooking, but I could not get up. I was riveted by the beauty of language and honesty of emotion in her words. Breakfast subsequently burned. For anyone who wants to write from an experience not their own, or anyone who is trying to express why they're skeptical of others writing about their experience--and what would make it better--this is a must read. Here is a small excerpt:

"At conferences, I am often asked to speak about my experiences
as a writer. I talk about the early days, about what propelled me
to write certain books. I talk about my friends, my goals as a
writer, my home life, even my pets. Invariably, there is the ques-
tion and answer period. Invariably, there is The Question. Al-
though it is phrased differently, it always comes. At every confer-
ence, at every adult speaking engagement, at my breakfast table
at the Coretta Scott King Awards, at my dinner table at the
Newbery/Caldecott, even at book signings. How do you feel about
people writing outside of their own experiences? How do you feel about
white people writing about people of color?

More than the question, it is the political context in which it is
asked that is annoying. As our country moves further to the right,
as affirmative action gets called into question, as race related bi-
ases against people of color soar, as the power structure in our
society remains, in many ways, unchanged, why, then, would a
person feel comfortable asking me this question?
When I asked my white writer friends how they answer this
question, I was less than surprised to find that none of them had
been asked. Why was it then that white people (because I have
never been asked this by someone who was recognizably a per-
son of color) felt a need to ask this of me? What was it, is it, people
are seeking in the asking? What is it about the power structure our
society was built and remains upon that leads a white person to
believe that this is a question that I, as a black woman, should, can,
and must be willing to address?"

Woodson then goes into her own experience of writing from another's perspective:

"I have just finished the final draft of a novel, If You Come Softly,
about the love affair between two fifteen year olds. In the novel,
the boy is black and the girl is white and Jewish. As I sat down to
write this novel, I asked myself over and over why I needed to
write it. Why did I need to go inside the life of a Jewish girl? More
than the need, what gave me the right? Whose story was this? And
the answers, of course, were right in front of me. This, like every
story I’ve written, from Last Summer with Maizon to I Hadn‘t Meant
to Tell You This to From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, is my story.
While I have never been Jewish, I have always been a girl. While
I have never lived on the Upper West Side, I have lived for a long
time in New York.  While I have never been a black male, I’ve al-
ways been black. But most of all, like the characters in my story, I
have felt a sense of powerlessness in my lifetime. And this is the
room into which I can walk and join them. This sense of being on
the outside of things, of feeling misunderstood and invisible, is the
experience I bring to the story. I do not attempt to know what it
is like to come from another country. Nor do I pretend to under-
stand the enormity of the impact of the Holocaust."
The whole essay is lovely, heartfelt, and on point. Go read it.


Color Online said...

This is why I love her, why I'm her number #1 fan (she doesn't know this of course).

Neesha, you know you're high on my list, but Woodson (sigh).My girl crushed heart beats for Ms. Woodson.

Thanks for highlight this.

Neesha Meminger said...

Ha! Susan, I am right there with you ;).

Zetta said...

I'm not a Woodson gusher/crusher, but this essay was interesting--thanks to you and Laura for introducing it into this ongoing discussion.

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