Memory Rendered into Poetry
Jacqueline Woodson's visit and her novel, Another Brooklyn
“What's tragic isn't the moment, it's the memory,” Jacqueline Woodson writes in Another Brooklyn, the powerhouse piece of fiction that was a National Book Award finalist, authored by the four-time Newberry Honor Award-winning author. Published last year, there was scant a 2016 “Best Of” list without this title on it. Memory, is in fact, the sole means of transport into the themes at the core of the book. August, our main character, returns to her home borough to attend the funeral of her father, and in the process dredges up adolescent dreamings, recollections of girlhood friendships and, in elegiac tones, renders the childhood and the Brooklyn that once was. Now an anthropologist, August studies burial rituals of different cultures the world over, but it is excavations of the past that now consume her as she whirls the reader backward in time to New York City in the 1970s.
Two-parts poetry and one-part prose, Woodson brings to life the Brooklyn August sees when she leaves her apartment to go to the chancy world below—recently returned Vietnam vets nodding off in the stairwell, the corner mecca-like pulse of the local bodega, the sex workers tottering down the darkened streets. And she spies a group of girls, too, from her window. “I was beginning to hate them,” August muses, “I was beginning to love them.” And so the book sets off on perhaps its most compelling path—exploring the closeness that soon grows between those three girls and our narrator.
Over the course of the short but complex novel, the bonds between these young women are explored and their power as a group is illustrated, drawing striking comparison to the vulnerability they feel when alone. Ever on the defense against the unsafe world around them, in particular, the could-be-risky world of boys, August observes of the friends: “The four of us together weren't something they understood. They understood girls alone, folding their arms across their breasts, praying for invisibility.” It's lines like these that cut through the murkiness that sometimes comes with memory, proving just how clearly Woodson remembers adolescence. The sentiments, merely August's asides, are that jarring, that woefully true.
It's not just the story that resonates, but the knack that Woodson has (has always had) for infusing the world she creates with the contemplativeness that comes with her earnest poetry. To say Woodson is a talented writer undermines her creation—she is a precise archivist of memory, an interpreter for what gets worn down, what is left altered. Perhaps most importantly she translates the wisdom born of all this for those who have forgotten—or those who never had—the experiences particular to August. That is, as a young black woman in a city whose change is rapidly underway, who is weighted by memory. Storytelling, in August's case, is the triumph over silence, it is what relieves the burden. Woodson unpacks the weight mightily.
Woodson will be in Albuquerque on Tuesday, June 13, at the KiMo Theatre (423 Central NW) discussing Another Brooklyn and the whole of her expansive career. The event is hosted by Bookworks and the Albuquerque Public Library Foundation. For more information and tickets ($20) visit bkwrks.com.