In Which the Blogger Conducts an Interview with a MacArthur Fellow (Hint: It’s Jackie Woodson!)
To hear that the MacArthur Foundation announced just the other day the selection of writer Jacqueline Woodson as a 2020 MacArthur Fellow just felt right, y’know? Generally speaking, the MacArthur awards no-strings-attached grants to individuals who show “exceptional creativity in their artistic, intellectual and professional pursuits, which help resolve historical issues, refine knowledge and improve the world for everyone.”
Jackie checks each one of those boxes.
Now here’s the twist. The MacArthur folks reached out to me recently to see if I might be interested in speaking with Jackie about this fellowship. One does not pass up the opportunity to speak with Ms. Woodson, no matter what the context. I mean, she could win a game of Monopoly and I’d interview her about that, if it came to it.
But first! For the five of you out there who don’t know Ms. Woodson, here’s the quickie bio:
Jacqueline Woodson is a writer redefining children’s and young adult literature to encompass more complex issues and reflect the lives of African American children, teenagers, and families. Her works in a number of genres evocatively portray the search for self-definition and self-acceptance among young people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and circumstances. Woodson is the author of over thirty publications that span picture books, young adult and middle grade novels, and poetry. Among her most widely acclaimed books are Black Girl Dreaming (2014), After Tupac and D Foster (2008), This Is the Rope (2013), Miracle’s Boys (2000), and Locomotion (2009). She has also written novels for adults, including the Another Brooklyn (2016) and Red at the Bone (2019).
Jackie recently hurt her hand so I’m transcribing her answers to my questions. All odd sentences, curious spellings, and generally creative uses of grammar and punctuation I own as my own.
Betsy Bird: Jackie, you’ve been an Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate (as of 2018), a recipient of the Children’s Literature Legacy Award (2018), an Ambassador of Young People Literature (2018-2019), and winner of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal (2020). Now you’re a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. What is the responsibility of the author when presented with this form of recognition?
Jacqueline Woodson: I think the one thing that it gives me is a larger platform, right? The MacArthur is an award that lots of people know. So I think the larger the platform, the more responsibility you have.
The responsibility has always been to write good books that respect the reader and that impact the greater good while telling a good story. That’s always been my motivation. What does this book in the world mean and who is it going to help (besides me, of course, that’s why I began writing)? And with this gift, how do I use it to make the world better? I think that’s the question I ask myself every day. I’ve always asked myself what am I going to do today to make the world just that much better for someone. So that hasn’t changed from even before I got any recognition. I think it is to pull up other writers who have the same kind of integrity and platform. The desire to do that kind of work for the greater good.
I think the responsibility is a deep one. We have a platform and we have a gift and the question is how we use it. But I do feel a deep deep responsibility to use my platform to begin conversations and hopefully change the world and make it a little better when I leave it than it was when I came into it.
BB: Can you tell us a little bit about how you received word that you were being presented with a MacArthur Fellow’s grant?
JW: My phone had rang a couple times the day before. It was a Chicago number and I didn’t know anyone in Chicago and I’m one of those people who doesn’t answer their phone if they don’t know who is calling. I tend to ask people to text me because I just don’t like talking on the phone anymore.
I was coming home from Costco, of all places, getting a huge bag of dog food (because now we have three dogs, not two) and other supplies and the phone rang again. I thought it was my friend Eve Ewing (I don’t know why I thought it was Eve). So I decided to pick up the phone, and I picked it up and it was Cecilia saying, “I am calling from the MacArthur Foundation”. The minute she said “MacArthur Foundation” my hair stood up. I had no idea that this call was going to come! My understanding of the MacArthur Fellows was that people get the call sometime in early July and they have to keep it a secret til the announcement happens. And so with this call coming in August I was completely caught off guard, in the same way I had been completely caught off guard with the Astrid Lindgren when it came at 6 in the morning, and in a whole different way. It caught me in deep and utter surprise and if you ask Cecilia, or anyone on the panel who was there when I answered the phone, it was one of the rare times when I was speechless.
BB: This fellowship is, according to the website, awarded to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The phrase “a marked capacity for self-direction” is what stands out to me the most in this statement. With an eye on your own career, how do you personally define “self-direction”, particularly as it pertains to your work?
JW: [laughing] Sorry, I just had to laugh. I was always told that I didn’t have that (a “marked capacity for self-direction”) as a kid.
I definitely feel like I was on a mission for that first book Last Summer with Maizon. Actually, even before that I wrote Martin Luther King and His Birthday, which was one of those books you write for a flat rate because someone needs it in some educational platform. I was working for a book packager and I got this deal. It was my first book, and Floyd Cooper did the illustrations. I remember I had written it and they changed the ending when the book was published. The ending was that Martin Luther King died and that was the last page. He was shot and he died or something like that. Which is not how I would ever end a book. Even if I’m ending it with something like Each Kindness and the chance of a kindness was forever gone, there is still some hope in that whole story. But they had taken this book and made it this bad end to activism and I was livid! Because in terms of self-direction, it had never been my mission to start my career with a book that didn’t have any hope at the end.
I thought it was a racist gesture. I thought it was really a wrong way to end somebody’s book and touch someone’s work. I am not super connected to my darlings, to the words in my books, in that way. Someone can say, “Well, maybe you wanna tweak this,” or “I had a question about that,” or “Maybe you want to revisit this paragraph and make it more clear what you want to say.” I can be edited. But when they did that, when the people changed that ending, it baffled me because it was not my intention. And so I learned that I had to have in my contract final say, and that I had to be very very very clear about wanting my books to have hope in them.
I didn’t come to Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop‘s words till much later, but I wanted these windows. I wanted reflections of black and brown people in the literature. I wanted us to see ourselves in this positive light, which is not to say a magical light without flaws, but a light where we existed whole and human and extraordinary in our everydayness. So when I think of self-direction I think that I have always been on a path to try to tell these stories that matter, asking myself, “Am I navel gazing? Or does this really matter? Does what I’m saying really matter to anyone besides me?”
I definitely wanted to create from a very young age. To fill the gap that was there when I was a young person. To tell the stories that weren’t being told or weren’t in my classroom when I was young. And I wanted people to not have an excuse for not sharing them. I didn’t want them to say, “Well, I didn’t share this because it was a really badly written book.” Or, “I didn’t share this because it felt like an incomplete story.” I wanted to create stories where the characters were fully formed and the writing was painstakingly good because of all the pain I staked into it. So that people couldn’t not share these books.
The reason they would not share them, I would come to find, was because of censorship, but that’s a whole other story.
BB: Digging just a little deeper into the fellowship’s description, it states quite clearly that, “the fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.” How do you intend to approach the grant, with an eye to your own writing?
JW: You know, it’s interesting because I’m planning to use the money for Baldwin for the Arts. You can check it out at baldwinforthearts.org. Named for James Baldwin it’s a residency for BIPOC writers and composers and visual artists so they can create work. And I feel like, as it was in the beginning, so it is until the end. I’m not going to be here forever and I think that is one of the responsibilities of the artist is to raise up other artists. Is to help other artists get their shine. And so I’m creating a space where people can come and create work and be taken care of. They’ll be fed, they’ll have a place to stay, they’ll have other artists to engage with, and they won’t have to pay any money to do it. So it’s a way of leaving those financial responsibilities behind so that you can create art without that. And me, coming from a place where as a young artist I was constantly worrying about money. I was so broke. I had so many jobs, just to pay the rent, which I couldn’t always pay. It would be nice to just lift that from artists.
So the eye is not so much toward my own writing, but toward my own existence. I like company. I mean, writing is a lonely job, right? And it’s going to be amazing to create something that’s here long after I’m gone. Hopefully the books will, but in thinking about my work, toward becoming a good ancestor, I also want other artists to be able to continue to exist and continue to create work. I know my books have helped other people write their books, and tell their stories. I am creating a place where people have more than the text connections. A brick and mortar place to create that text.
BB: Well, that’s just amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re working on right now?
JW: Funny you should ask. Right now I just finished a picture book. I’m working on a middle grade book. You know I just finished Before the Ever After. I just finished the screenplay of Red at the Bone. I wrote a treatment for a TV series based on my book Behind You. And I’m working on a film about Ida B. Wells, one of the founding swords of my sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., but also one of the first investigative journalists, who was badass and fearless and really did the kind of work that helps me be less afraid in this time we’re living in. So those are some of the things.
I’m right now also just about to write some poetry because I’m here with this new puppy who’s sound asleep at my feet and no one else is home. I’m just going to take this space and put some words into the world. Mainly for myself. I don’t know what they’ll become.
A thousand thanks to Jackie and to Moné and Amaya for helping put this together.
Want to hear Jackie for yourself? Then check out this video, created in conjunction with her MacArthur Fellow win.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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