Lesbian Life: How did you get started writing books for young people?
Jacqueline Woodson: I always wrote in the voice of a young person. So even when I was publishing adult stuff it was the point of view of someone younger. So, I met an agent who read some of my stuff and said, “This is young adult fiction.”
You also deal with what might be considered controversial subjects in your writing: racism, teen pregnancy, incest, gay and lesbian issues. What draws you write about these subjects?
I write realistic fiction. If I was writing realistic fiction and I wasn’t dealing with real stuff, then I would be lying. The characters and situations wouldn’t seem real. There are all kinds of people in the world. If I leave out queer people, if I leave out people of color, if I leave out deaf people, I can go down the line, then I wouldn’t be speaking the truth to the people.
Has there ever been a backlash? Have any of your books been banned?I don’t really know so much about it, I always hear about it second hand. I know when Judy Blume was putting together her anthology Places I Never Thought I’d Be, a collection of censored authors. I was like, “Why me?” and she said, “Well, you have been censored a lot.” I was in Tennessee last week and I was told one of my books wasn’t being circulated because of an interracial relationship between a black guy and a white girl. So, I get to see second hand what’s happening.
I also get a lot of negative mail coming from the Pacific Northwest. It’s a lot coming out of Washington State and a lot coming from more right wing thinkers about what thye think should and shouldn’t be in literature.
What’s your reaction to that?I just ignore them. I just think if anyone is going to preach hate, it’s not a message I’m going to listen to. If anyone is going to preach intolerance, I’m not going to need to listen or respond to it. I have better work to do in the world. And if people are hating on me because I’m writing about something like an interracial relationship, then they are starting from the letter “A.” They have so much work to do, that I can’t even begin to have that dialogue. But if they’re in my face and we’re across from each other at the lunch table, then I will have the dialogue with them.
Now that you’re a mom, has that changed what you write about?No, not at all because I started writing from this place of wanting to make the world of literature a more tolerant place for all young people. Now I have a young person and I want it for her with a voracity because I am a mom, but I wanted it before. I voraciously want the world to be a more tolerant place.
I read that you view yourself as an outsider. What did you mean by that?In a world where too often white is the qualifier, anything other is on the outside. Having grown up a Jehovah’s Witness, I grew up feeling a sense of watching the world instead of being a part of it. Being African American, there’s so many parts of my identity that cause me to have to step outside of any kind of mainstream. Walking through the world, I mean look at Portland. Walking through the streets here on the river, I saw one other black person, so what I see is a mirror of who I am not constantly coming at me. And being forced into that kind of invisibility, seeing that in the majority of the world and the places that I am are not like me. Is not only disruptive, but also reminds me that I am on the outside of a lot of people’s worlds.
Seeing yourself as an outsider, does that help you as a writer?I think one way it does help me is in not being afraid. Not being afraid to write about the things that I bear witness to. Also, not having a sense of having once belonged and now not belonging. It does help me shut the world out. It definitely spurs what I write about. It definitely allows me to have a different gaze.
One thing that happens in the neighborhood where I live in Brooklyn is a lot of our white neighbors don’t have to think about the issue of diversity. We live in a pretty predominately white area. They have a white kid and they send their white kid to the predominately white school. And for us, our child is biracial, we have to think, are there any teachers of color, are there any kids of color, is she going to see mirrors of herself, what is the literature she is going to read? Is she going to be exposed to ideas of what a family is that doesn’t represent who we are? [We’re] constantly having to think about that and having to do the work around that makes me definitely a better writer. It allows me to see things with better clarity. I think a lot of times it’s easy for people to shutter themselves in or say this does not exist, or I don’t have to think about it because it doesn’t have an impact on me. I feel like everything has an impact on me.