I think Jacqueline Woodson has won every award she could possibly be nominated for. (At the very least, she’s won most.) A poet and prose writer of books for children, young adults, and grownups, Woodson’s work is marked by persistent, purposeful empathy. Her National Book Award-winning memoir-in-poems, Brown Girl Dreaming, as well as her recent novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, are perfect distillations of her vision: generous, lyrical, clear-eyed. Brooklyn has not seen a chronicler like her since Betty Smith.
While, yes, you’ve written a whole National Award-winning book about it, tell us once again: how did you become the writer you are?
I think writers are born watching the world. From a very young age, I feel like I was taking everything in—people, sounds, smells, sadness, anger, fear—It was like I had this antenna that picked up the world around me. I loved being read to, loved hearing stories, loved making up stories—and loved the physical act of writing. Graffiti was big in my childhood—Growing up in Bushwick and riding the subways as a young person, I saw it everywhere. And there was always something about people putting messages on walls and then disappearing that made me think—I want to do that, I want to write words and get lost in them, hide behind them, exist inside them—even learned from them. So I guess given that I didn’t have a backup plan if writing failed (aside from wanting to be the first woman drafted by the Knicks) writing had to be the thing. So how did I become the writer I am today? I wrote past not only my own fear, but other people’s fear for my future. I knew, even if no one ever published me, there were things I wanted to do and say with my writing and was going to do and say these things whether or not they were ever seen by anyone besides me. I wrote all the time. Writing made me feel better about the world, helped me to understand what I was bearing witness to… And thankfully, some people read it and liked it. Then more people read it and liked it. Then some more…. and here I am.
What are you working on now? What is at stake?
I’m working on how to stay sane in this country, working on an emotional exit plan. Working on not taking in so much of what’s going on that it renders me powerless but just enough to know what my next battles will be. What is at stake right now—everything.
What is your proudest achievement? Your greatest challenge?
You know, I am truly happy that people read my work, love it, give me medals and awards and book contracts. Everyday, I’m grateful for the people who have either let me stand or their shoulders or put their hands on my back. And there are so, so, so many. So I think my greatest achievement is being part of the creation of a village of people who I love and who love me and support me. My greatest challenge is always the same—beginning a new book, having faith in the creative process and believing that I have something to say. No matter how many books I’ve written—doubt is always looming.
What do you hope changes or improves in your field?
I want more people of color and first nation people and trans people and queer people in every aspect of the arts—from working in publishing houses to getting and/or judging grants and fellowships, to winning awards. I want a truly diverse, not a diverse-lite publishing and arts world to exist.
What does Brooklyn mean to you?
Brooklyn is a complicated mix of things. I’ve gone from being a child in Bushwick to being an adult in Park Slope. I’ve gone from being single to being partnered with children. I’ve been a part of both public and private school communities. So I’ve seen neighborhoods change. I’ve seen schools change. That antenna I talk about earlier has seen the class and race intolerance grow in this borough, in my own neighborhoods, in the schools (going back to the diverse-lite thing). Brooklyn’s a hot mess in some ways and I love it, warts and all. I love being a writer here. I love both my invisibility and being able to walk the neighborhood as Toshi’s mom or Jackson’s mom or Toffee’s dog-owner. Brooklyn has broken my heart and put it together again.
Who would you nominate for this list?
Toshi Reagan. Chris Myers. A. Naomi Jackson. Nicole Dennis-Benn. My list can go on and on.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.