Author Jacqueline Woodson lives in a quintessential Brooklyn brownstone with her partner, two children, a cat and two huge, friendly dogs. A similar house is at the centre of her new novel, Red at the Bone, representing the struggle of a multigenerational black family to honour its past and stand firm against change.
The novel opens in 2001, as 16-year-old Melody descends the stairs in a debutante’s traditional white dress. An orchestra is playing the Prince song she’s insisted on, against her mother’s wishes, while white passersby stop and gawk through the windows. Her coming-of-age party is a declaration of family pride, class status, and an effort to repair a broken link with the past, when Melody’s mother, Iris, skipped her own ceremony after becoming pregnant at 15. The novel explores this rift and its consequences over time, shifting between the perspectives of different family members and offering unusual narrative freedom for Woodson, who writes primarily for younger readers. “With adults, you can play around with time,’” she says. “I have a much larger canvas.”
Red at the Bone is Woodson’s second novel for adults, following 2016’s Another Brooklyn as well as her widely praised 2014 memoir-in-poems, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won the prestigious National Book Award for young people’s literature. That genre-tweaking bestseller brought to life Woodson’s early childhood, moving from her birthplace of Ohio in 1963, to South Carolina later in the 1960s amid the fierce battles of the civil rights movement, to Brooklyn, where the author has spent most of her life since.
Brown Girl Dreaming expanded Woodson’s audience. She had already written more than 30 books for young readers, winning numerous awards including, in 2018, the Astrid Lindgren memorial prize, which she’s using to fund an arts organisation supporting early-career writers of colour. Since the publication of her first book in 1990, Woodson has been tireless in arguing the need to diversify the predominantly white publishing industry and for children’s literature to better reflect the lives and identities of its readers. Balancing writing with advocacy, she has recently served as the US young people’s poet laureate and the national ambassador for young people’s literature, and counts Judy Blume and the Obamas among her many fans. She is clearly not a writer who feels hemmed in by genre – her next projects include a novel for readers aged eight to 12, several articles, a screenplay adaptation of Red at the Bone, a television project and a book of non-fiction. She doesn’t choose the format ahead of time. Instead, she says, “the story dictates” who the audience will be.
“I know when I’m writing something poetic and the voice feels young, it’s going to be a picture book,” she explains. “If there’s an immediacy to it, I know it’s probably going to be for middle graders. If there’s a spareness to it, I know it’s probably young adult or adult, because there’s a lot more that older people can infer.”
All of her books place black children and teenagers at the centre of their own stories, and even in her adult fiction she writes young characters with deep respect and sensitivity. It’s common to describe a children’s author who produces a book for adults as having “developed” or matured in some way, but Woodson believes it’s much harder for adult authors to write well for children than the other way round.
“A lot of adults want to forget that period, or have forgotten it, so when they come back to writing for children, it becomes didactic,” she says. “They don’t remember that as a young reader, you didn’t want to read to learn, you wanted to read to escape.”
Those dismissive attitudes to children’s literature are connected, Woodson believes, to the many ways that young people are overlooked and misjudged by society at large. Teenage boys, especially boys of colour, may be the most misjudged of all, which is one reason why, in Red at the Bone, which explores Iris’s pregnancy, Woodson chose to slant her narrative toward the perspective of Aubrey, the sensitive, overwhelmed young father. Raised in poverty by a single mother, and moving often between shabby apartments, Aubrey is in awe of Iris’s confidence. But it’s not until he sees inside her home, with its “upright piano beneath framed portraits of ancient family members” that he becomes conscious of the class divide between them.
“I really wanted to write against that stereotype of the macho guy,” she says. “So much of what becomes toxic in masculinity is that young men aren’t allowed to talk about the fear of their first sexual encounter, or the pain of it, or so often the reluctance.”
As the mother of a pre-teenage son, she was particularly keen to represent those unspoken emotions honestly. But her interest in Aubrey’s point of view doesn’t overshadow her empathy for Iris, the young mother who finds the responsibility of family suffocating and escapes to college, where she is free to rediscover and reinvent herself.
“I didn’t want to make her a villain, because I think that’s my instinct in thinking about what kind of mom would want to leave her child,” she says. “But when you really start excavating it, you see that all kinds of mothers do – regardless of economic class, regardless of race. Someone who gets pregnant at 15, who’s not even out of childhood herself, of course it makes sense that she changed her mind.” Just as with Aubrey, Woodson’s interest in writing Iris’s story lay in subverting expectations and avoiding easy judgments.
Another constant in her fiction for all ages is her fascination with the diverse and ever-changing New York borough that she has called home since the 70s. Like Aubrey, Woodson grew up in Bushwick, a mostly black and Latino neighbourhood at the time, which has since gentrified visibly: “The block I grew up on is now predominantly white.”
The dedication in her novel Another Brooklyn is: “For Bushwick (1970–1990) In Memory”, marking the loss of people and culture that occurs when the hipsters and the money move in. Woodson recalls her own struggles to rent an apartment as an adult in the 90s, repeatedly being told that somewhere was no longer available. “Landlords were saying: ‘Don’t rent to black folks, don’t rent to queer folks, don’t rent to single moms.’”
Yet Brooklyn’s density and variety are what make it easy to bring characters, like Iris and Aubrey, together across a class divide and to investigate what unites and separates them. “I think the thing that’s so interesting about Brooklyn is that you can walk 10 blocks and be in a very different neighbourhood ethnically, in terms of economic class, even in terms of architecture,” Woodson says. “I feel like I could write about Brooklyn for the next 50 years, and I’ll write a different story every time.”
The story of Iris and Aubrey’s reluctantly intertwined families shows how class is connected to the larger history of race in the US, and the exclusions and reversals that have historically undermined black prosperity. Following the civil war and the abolition of slavery, many African Americans who managed to join the middle class struggled to hold on to their wealth or pass it down to future generations – especially in the face of rising discrimination and violence in the early 20th century. These legacies of loss, Woodson suggests, affect what’s possible for their descendants. Aubrey’s mother is a hardworking, educated woman who nonetheless remains trapped in poverty, while Iris’s family is more financially secure, yet haunted by the destruction of its property in the Tulsa riots of 1921. Over the course of 24 hours, a wealthy black neighbourhood was attacked, looted and set alight by a white mob, a wholesale spree of destruction that claimed between 100 and 300 lives, and whose perpetrators faced no consequences of any kind.
Woodson thinks it a “travesty” that the history and impact of the Tulsa massacre are not more widely taught in American schools. She didn’t learn about it herself until she was in her 20s, “and then I was mad”, she says. “How could it not be written down? When I have questions, they usually become novels.” Accordingly, the violence becomes a powerful origin story for Iris’s family, and especially for her mother Sabe, who insists on repeating the story to her daughter and granddaughter as a way of teaching them to protect what’s theirs. Red at the Bone’s dedication is a fragment of poetry, “for the ancestors, a long long line / of you, bending and twisting / bending and twisting.” It describes the contortions necessary for survival, but also the length and strength of a family story.
The other major historical event that shapes the novel is 9/11, one that has also been vulnerable to distortion and myth-making. It’s important for Woodson that the memory of the attacks includes the victims who were not white-collar workers or emergency responders but “the janitors, the secretaries, the people working in the kitchens” who often came from communities of colour, and whose losses tend to be overlooked. “I think the further we get away from 9/11, the more it becomes this theoretical thing,” she says. “We remember the planes hitting the buildings, but do we remember the photos everywhere you went: ‘Have you seen my wife? Have you seen my husband? Have you seen my child?’”
Woodson herself was on a book tour in Pennsylvania, and five months pregnant, when the attack happened. She recalls talking to her partner, a junior doctor, who was helping in one of the hospitals. “I asked her: ‘Is it crazy there?’ And she said: ‘No, there are no bodies.’ And there was that moment where it just hit me.” As Sabe realises in the novel, such visceral memories are hard to hold on to and hard to pass down through the generations. Woodson thinks the attacks are still “obscure” to her children as a historical event. “My daughter’s graduating high school and she knows what it was, she knows that we know people who died, she knows that there was a war directly afterwards,” she says. “My son knows that once there were buildings there, but he’s always only known the Freedom Tower. He doesn’t know the gap that existed.”
She is fascinated by the unpredictable ways in which what we call our “private” lives become part of a wider shared history, noting the rise in pregnancies that occurred after 9/11 “because people were panicked, and they clung to each other”. And the patterns of the past repeat. Her daughter was one of many children in Manhattan and Brooklyn affected by asthma in the fallout from 9/11. For Woodson, this recalled the prevalence of lead poisoning from paint in the 60s, which affected her younger brother. “And then, we look at Michigan and what’s happening with the water, and the kids are getting poisoned again.”
For a different writer, that repetition might be a source of despair. But over her years of writing for children, Woodson has learned that even if a happy ending isn’t required, there still has to be some hope in the story. “It’s so important to know that whatever moment we’re in, we’re not in it for the first time,” she says. “Knowing that something like this has happened before, and that we survived it, is really important for me as a writer.”
• Red at the Bone is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 23 January (£14.99).
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