Jacqueline Woodson is America’s Young People’s Poet Laureate. A major voice in children’s literature, she is the author of more than 30 books, including her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won multiple awards, including the 2014 National Book Award. It’s a striking recreation of an African-American childhood and family in the troubled times of the 60s and 70s. Her gorgeous poetry is easily readable, yet negotiates complex relationships, experiences and political contexts as the author’s family moves between Ohio, South Carolina and New York.
Another Brooklyn, her new novel, has a thematic and stylistic overlap. It also explores black girlhood and relocation, and while not poetry, it is beautifully lyrical. The narrator is August, an international anthropologist specialising in death rituals, who has returned to Brooklyn to bury her father. She was eight and her brother four when their father uprooted them from the creaky old family farmhouse in the Tennessee outback, where “honeysuckle vines bloomed thick and full in our yard every summer”, to a rundown apartment in drug-addled Brooklyn where a small boy ran down the street, “a bent hypodermic needle he’d just found aimed like a gun”. Their mother, grieving the death of her beloved brother Clyde in Vietnam, has been left behind in the South. The children never see her again, and it’s not until the end of the novel that we understand why.
August’s grief at losing her mother infuses the novel with melancholy and loss. She longs for friendship, affection, to belong. Her father doesn’t allow his children out to play, fearful of the dangerous city. “If anyone had looked up, they would have seen the two of us there, as always, watching the world from behind glass”. Eventually he loosens up and she befriends three girls she’d previously admired from afar, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi, who walk the streets proudly linking arms. “How safe and strong they looked. How impenetrable.” The girls are fired up by their individual hopes and dreams, but also weighed down by family problems, poverty and expectations. Friendship is their salvation and support. Woodson is particularly good at describing their wonderful, growing camaraderie. “We envied each other’s hair, eyes, butts, noses. We traded clothes and shared sandwiches. Some days we laughed until soda sprayed from our noses and hiccups erupted in our chests.”
But the New York streets are dangerous and girls, in particular, are vulnerable to sexual predators. As August reflects, “At eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, we knew we were being watched.” Not only watched, it transpires. As they get older, some of them are preyed on by those predators, from the junkie who lurks under a stairwell, to the older teenage boy who seduces an impressionable girl who likes the attention.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn is subject to white flight, people are packing up and moving out. Her father finds solace and a community in the Nation of Islam. His hijab-wearing girlfriends come and go. They are perhaps surrogate mothers. For a while August, too, is a follower.
The novel successfully defies any sense of a traditional plot. There is a lot unsaid, a lot implied, which creates suspense and a curiosity, in particular, about what happened to the mother. This is, instead, a novel to be enjoyed for its visual and impressionistic prose style. Paragraphs are short and resemble prose poetry. August’s memories are fragmented and questioned. What is real? What is imagined? The overall effect is a collage of experiences and reflections that intersect geographically, temporally and sexually.
Comparisons have been made between Toni Morrison’s early novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula, also about young black girls. While this literary lineage is evident, James Baldwin’s seminal 1962 novel, Another Country, which foregrounded racial and LGBT identities in New York, also springs to mind. More recently, Colm Toibin’s 2009 novel, Brooklyn, foregrounded an Irish, female, immigrant experience to the borough. Another Brooklyn echoes both titles, but Woodson evokes a New York of the 70s seen through the prism of young black females who are least likely to be portrayed in literature or any other art form, at the centre of it. “We were four girls together, amazingly beautiful and terrifyingly alone. This is memory.”
• Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson is published by Oneworld (£10.99). To order a copy for £9.34 go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
Source: The Guardian