Connecting with Jacqueline Woodson, Author of RED AT THE BONE

Connecting with Jacqueline Woodson, Author of RED AT THE BONE

“Iris.

She had just turned twenty-five and was living on the Upper West Side in an apartment owned by the parents of some friend from Oberlin. A pied-a-terre they’d abandoned for full time life in Florida.

What the fuck’s a pied terre, Iris? What the hell are you talking about?

Pied-a-terre. An extra apartment. She gave him that how can you not know this look that burst into shame inside his chest.”

--conversation between Iris and Aubry, main characters from Red at the Bone

 I had the opportunity last month to hear acclaimed author Jacqueline Woodson at Boswell Books speak about her new book, Red at the Bone. Hearing her read aloud from her latest, I was reminded of Another Country by James Baldwin, the book and author that first inspired me so many years ago to become a writer. Woodson’s prose, like Baldwin’s, reflects such a deep love and understanding of the human heart. I learned that Baldwin was actually one of Woodson’s earliest influences, in addition to Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Langston Hughes.

Woodson told us: “The idea of generational wealth within communities of color [helped inspire this book]. What does it mean when economic classes collide? There is a deep shame to being poor, and a deep shame to being wealthy. I hoped to investigate the intersectionality of it.” This statement struck a personal chord: I, too, explore this theme in my upcoming novel, American Betiya.

The impact of a couple’s differing socio-economic backgrounds on their budding first love is woven throughout American Betiya. Protagonist Rani and her boyfriend Oliver come from not just different cultural backgrounds, but socio-economic ones as well. My story traces how their differences both deepen and darken their relationship over time. I rushed home with my newly signed copy of Red at the Bone, and studied Iris and Aubry’s relationship as I read, seeking strategies on how she manages their complicated journey with such fluidity.

Woodson excavates deep truths within a relationship between two people from vastly different worlds who find themselves forever connected by a teenage pregnancy. I was blown away by this book. It is heartbreaking, honest, and so sensitively rendered. Woodson has a gift for drawing the reader in, getting us to care about her characters with profound immediacy. Her prose is poetic while also somehow staying accessible, and her characterization is pitch-perfect: Aubrey is a character I will never forget. I love how she manages to weave history into the plot, incorporating the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, where mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the economically booming Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma (also known as “Black Wall Street”). Throughout the novel, she utilized intergenerational points of view, ending with a blindsiding twist that took my breath away.

Red at the Bone also touches upon intergenerational trauma—the idea that different types of trauma can be passed from generation to generation in some way. This concept is also handled in American Betiya: My protagonist, Rani, finds her daily life impacted by the past history and struggles of her parents and grandparents. Their immigrant experiences and traumas bleed into Rani’s daily life and colorwash her teen world, including her burgeoning love. Anyway, go read Red at the Bone. It will transform you.

So grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from this legendary author. Hearing her speak jumpstarted new ideas regarding the writing process, reading like a writer, how to connect kids to specific titles that will resonate (an issue especially close to my heart as a mom and educator), and so much more—all of which I’ll be sharing with you in upcoming months. That second picture is me getting lost in Red at the Bone right after Woodson's talk while wearing a shirt that matched the cover of her book (not planned, but I mean…)!

I’d love to hear from you! What authors/makers have you seen lately whose work and wisdom got your creative hum humming?

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