I was fortunate enough to be able to take a long lunch break from work and go to Jacqueline Woodson’s interview for the OPB radio show Think Out Loud. It aired live on April 4th, the same day she read at the Portland Arts & Lectures series. The live audience was small and included students from Ockley Green Middle School, who appropriately got priority for Q&A. They had read several of Woodson’s books in their classes, over several years–a school experience I’ve envied since reading Vivian Paley’s The Girl With the Brown Crayon.
Host Dave Miller, like all radio people, didn’t look like I thought he would. Also he dressed up, in a jacket and orange silk tie. I’ve always liked his show–he excels at listening to an answer and asking a follow-up question that immediately seems like the very next thing you’d want to know, even if the answer sounded complete before he asked it.
Woodson was smiling and butch and luminous. I snapped a photo but unfortunately it’s terrible so I’m not posting it.
Before the show went live, Miller explained to us that it is difficult, but important, not to talk about anything of substance before the show starts, because it never goes as well if you try to rehash a conversation on the air.
“So,” he asked Woodson, “did you get breakfast?”
Yes, she’d had an omelette with arugula and mushrooms. She doesn’t like mushrooms, but tries to push the boundaries a little when she travels.
Miller told her about his friend’s “slightly different muffin” theory—even if you eat a muffin for breakfast every day, you should sometimes eat a slightly different muffin.
Then we were on the air.
All the reading was from her memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming, which led into talking about how her reading and writing life began. As a child Woodson read very slowly, so much so that by the time she finished reading a passage the class had left her behind for the next thing. She still reads very slowly–as though reading in a different way or for a different purpose than other people, taking time to feel how the letters and words and paragraphs are put together, and to inhabit them before moving forward.
“So when someone says something we usually think of as a compliment,” Miller asked, “like I loved your book so much I read it in one evening—?”
“I tell them go back and read it again, because it took me three years to write!”
Woodson wanted to write from the first time she wrote her name. She talked about the library she went to, the books she loved, most by white authors and all from the children’s section (because the librarian was strict about that). The thrall in which words and books have always held her was so apparent that Dave Miller blurted, “It’s like you were made in a laboratory to be a children’s writer!”
Now she writes adult fiction, memoir, poetry, young adult fiction, middle grade fiction, and picture books, which she loves for “the revelation that each line affords.” When she finishes a book, she gives it to the friends who are her first readers and asks them, “Tell me everything you love about this book.” Only that. Then she works on it again, gives it back, and tells them to ask her three questions about the book.
Her family was part of the Great Migration, South Carolina to Brooklyn. She talked about the code-switching she learned between home and school, and between the South and New York, enforced by her grandmother: “She wanted us to be able to survive in a country that didn’t speak our language.”*
Woodson is currently the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, focusing on visiting Title I schools and juvenile detention facilities, which don’t get many author visits.*
*These asterisks stand in for stories that made my heart stutter and I don’t want to summarize them. The interview is available as a podcast at https://www.opb.org/radio/programs/thinkoutloud/segment/jacqueline-woodson-at-literary-arts/
I witnessed some White Women Behaving Badly at this event. Taking all the seats up front so kids had to sit behind them where it was harder to see. Asking questions that were…not tuned in to the conversation.
Three things about this that I’m still thinking over:
Lots going on in the canyon. (But no turtle yet.) The Canada geese were VERY LOUD contesting who’s gonna be whose mate.
When I went to upload the photos, I found that I take an almost identical photo of skunk cabbage every year.
Sang and I watched Crazy Rich Asians this weekend. Spoilers for the film below; I haven’t read the book.
The main impression the film left on me was how passive or absent the men were, and how it was the women wielding power and playing politics. I mean, Nick is such a cipher! Rachel’s a professor in the U.S., so even if she’s a new-ish adjunct she’s of an age to have a Ph.D. Nick maybe went to college and grad school in the U.S., and then…? does he have a…job? or…interests? I think he and Rachel were dating for a year, so what did they talk about if she’s got no idea of his family background? Gotta say, between his lack of a life and his unwillingness to stand up to anyone, Nick is not looking like a great prospect.
When they get to Singapore, Nick’s grandmother is on scene, but no grandfather. His father is…away on business for this whole thing? Part of the plot turns on Rachel’s father’s absence from her life. Astrid’s husband is emotionally absent and having a non-specific affair. Nick has one supportive guy friend among the wastrels; they have to flee friend’s own bachelor party to be able to have a conversation in peace. The plot is driven by Eleanor vs. Rachel with assists by Peik Lin, Astrid, and Su Yi.
Rachel is presented as the romantic, individualistic down-to-earth American. But I don’t think it’s an accident that she’s a professor of economics. The movie passes pleasantly with makeovers and wealth-flaunting parties. (To be honest, the biggest impression the wealth made on me was that Rachel and Nick arrived in Singapore well-rested and ready for several hours of partying. The rest of the spectacle– having a mega-party on a container ship instead of, say, a cruise ship that is literally designed for that? Having a wedding in which the aisle is flooded so pretty lights are reflected but also the bridal party is wading ankle-deep? –eh, I guess wealth brings pressure for novelty.) But when it comes down to it, Rachel literally turns down Nick’s ring and accepts Eleanor’s. Game is on! It doesn’t matter that Nick has been secretive and passive; he can go right on doing that or whatever (while looking hot), cause Rachel’s found her match and is gonna play with the big girls. I see her in a faculty position at YaleNUS during the sequel, getting ready for some competitively non-competitive child-raising–although they’ll still be socializing with all the tedious friends because they’re part of the playing field too. This movie is about what wealth means for women’s power, and I think Jane Austen would watch it with interest.
(I gather, from the Wikipedia articles about the book series, that Kevin Kwan does not share my vision.)
I took the stairs to the office. This reminded me of The Number Painter skits on Sesame Street.
I’m about three fourths of the way through Shaun Tan’s Tales From the Inner City. Not all the stories and images have stuck with me, but two of them have been in my thoughts many times a day– the first story, about crocodiles, and the one about lungfish.
I won’t say more lest spoilers, but it strikes me that these two favorites are also two of the most story-shaped stories. When I review them in my head, each of them has movement and an ending.
The book as a whole–a brief story or poem with at least one accompanying illustration in oils for each animal– has, on the other hand, made me think about how static I find Shaun Tan’s work. I’m making it sound like this is a bad thing, but I’m not sure it is. I love his paintings. But a Shaun Tan book is a collection more than a storybook, for me, even the ones that are not officially collections. Like the way some dreams feel like settings I’m exploring, more than events moving past like a film.
Anyway, those lungfish, man. And his website has preliminary drawings and models that he used to develop the paintings, and a little about the thoughts behind each story. (Personally I would wait on these until after reading the book to experience its magic cold.)
I’m also reading Gaudy Night along with friends. Harriet is rather horrible in her head! (but, I have an uncomfortable feeling, no more than I am.) I’m not looking much up, so arcane academia is washing over me.
I don’t have snow boots, but these are usually fine in the modest amounts of snow we get in Portland. I never did track down the original shoelaces again after swapping them out to make a pastel-goth ballerina costume.