Interviewed by Rosalyn Spencer
Rigorous is highlighting Renée Watson, a young adult and children's author who has in her writing career tackled not only the issues of identity, gender and race for young black women—as exemplified in her novels What Momma Left Me, This Side of Home and her newest release Piecing Me Together—but also highlighted the ravaging effects of Hurricane Katrina through a child's eyes in Where Hurricanes Happen and the little known history of black artists such as Florence Mills in Harlem's Little Blackbird.
Rosalyn Spencer: I find myself, after many years working in the bookseller profession, in the library system and as an educator, stumped by the still-glaring need for young women of color to be featured in young adult literature. How do you work to address this problem as an author, activist, and fellow writer?
Renée Watson: I agree with you. It is really frustrating that still, in 2017, we are having to advocate for stories about girls of color to be featured in young adult literature. Progress has been made, but there is still so much to do. As a writer, my hope is to contribute stories that feature a range of young black girls as the protagonist. I want to write about the girls I grew up with, the girls I’ve taught in classrooms across the nation. I want to show our varied experiences—not just heartache and pain, but the beauty, brilliance and joy that I’ve witnessed as well. As an activist, I am involved in groups like We Need Diverse Books and other initiatives that advocate for the publishing, access, and use of diverse books. Something I try to do as a writer in the community is to mentor aspiring women authors of color. That mentorship has taken many forms from critiquing manuscripts, to giving advice on how to navigate the publishing industry.
RS: One of the great things I find so wonderful about your work. whether it is a children’s or young adult book. is your ability to offer a myriad of representation of black women in literature. I was so excited, especially teaching in the New Orleans region, to offer my students a novel of a young black woman struggling with identity and the encroachment of gentrification in her neighborhood. What made you choose that subject matter for your young adult novel? How was it to write such a strong full-bodied character not only embracing her identity and history but struggling with how to be strong, yet vulnerable, without losing sense of self?
RW: Though This Side of Home is fiction, I grew up in Portland, Oregon in the neighborhood that the book is based off of. I remember being a junior in high school when the first changes started in North East Portland and I didn’t have the language for it, didn’t know how to express what I was seeing and feeling but I knew those changes weren’t for me or my neighbors. This was about twenty years ago—so now, as an adult, watching gentrification continue to be an issue across our nation, I have often wondered what our young people are thinking and feeling. I wanted to write something that can be used as a catalyst to talk about race and class because so often teens want to talk about what’s going on but don’t have the space to talk about it. I hope This Side of Home gives parents and educators a starting point to have discussions with the young people in their lives.
In terms of developing full-bodied characters, I really just tried to stay true to the girls I know. I know girls like Maya, Nikki, and Essence. Girls who are complicated and layered—who are budding activists, confident in some ways and insecure in others. Girls who are passionate and outspoken, who are intelligent and also naïve. I feel it is my responsibility to make nuanced characters—because, well, that’s just good writing—but also when writing black girl characters I am aware of perpetuating stereotypes and boxing black girls in so I work hard to develop characters and make them well rounded.
I enjoyed exploring the friendships of Maya, Nikki, and Essence. The power of their sisterhood and friendship reminded me of the many women who’ve challenged me, supported me, and loved me unconditionally.
RS: Your young adult novels What Mama Left Me, This Side of Home and Piecing Me Together do a wonderful job of illustrating the yoke that young black women must encounter when grappling with race, class, gender and identity. What made you decide to tackle such complex issues, allowing your characters to exist wholly, and experience the joys and pains of being young women?
RW: I honestly don’t know any other way to write. I don’t think I ever set out to tell stories about race, class, gender, etc. but how could I not write about those issues if I am telling a story about a black girl growing up in the United States—and specifically, the Pacific Northwest. To write about a black girl growing up in Portland I have to include micro-aggressions, interracial friendships and explore the intersections of class with race and gender. To me, I wouldn’t do my novels any justice if I leave that out. As a writer of realistic fiction, I have to keep all of that in mind when thinking about plot and character building. Even if the heart of the story is about universal themes like friendship and other coming-of-age topics, I can’t ignore the context that my characters exist in.
RS: You have done work in preserving the home of Langston Hughes and written children books on Florence Mills, the “Queen of Happiness” and black cabaret singer. What is the importance of preserving the history and importance of African American art?
RW: African American art often testifies of the black experience—the strength and resistance, grace and joy of black people. The arts (theater, literature, visual, etc.) fill in the blanks of the missing details that history books leave out. If we lose those stories, we lose our hope, our example, our truth. I believe it’s important to continue to pass down stories of the people who came before us, who paved the way. I also believe that places hold stories and when we lose sacred places like churches, theaters, and the homes of literary legends, we lose pieces of our collective story.
Opening I, Too Arts Collective at The Langston Hughes House in Harlem is about reclaiming space, a way to ensure that Harlem’s literary history—black literary history—will be preserved. I want young people to have a space where they can process what is happening in our world and I believe poetry—and art in general—can be a place to process, question, and heal. That is what Langston’s poetry did, and continues to do, for me. It has helped me make sense of what is sometimes a chaotic, unjust world. It has inspired me to celebrate the small things, to remember where it is I come from.
RS: Can you tell us about your background, how it affected your writing and some of the artists that influenced you as a writer?
RW: Growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. I couldn’t afford to get my friends gifts for the holidays or their birthdays so I wrote poems for them instead. I was embarrassed at first but so many times people would come back to me telling me how my words moved them, how they were always going to keep what I wrote. It was then, at a very young age, that I learned the power of words. I realized I had a gift that could move people. I fell in love with words and telling stories because of that. As a child, I had many teachers who fanned the flame and encouraged me to pursue writing. My high school English teacher put poets like Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes in my hands. I grew up reading Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. These writers had a great influence on me. I also love Sandra Cisneros and House on Mango Street is one of my favorite books.
RS: Who are past and contemporary authors of color that you believe are helping to represent and feature a true three-dimensional and varied landscape of life as a minority?
RW: When I look at a body of work, one contemporary author I respect is Jason Reynolds. Each of his books shows a different kind of black boy and within the stories, we see diversity within blackness. One of my favorites of his is As Brave as You. I also enjoy reading and learn a lot from the work of Nikki Grimes, Rita Williams-Garcia, Jacqueline Woodson, Meg Medina and Sherman Alexie.
Renée Watson writes for children and teens. Her books include young adult novels, Piecing Me Together and This Side of Home, which was nominated for the Best Fiction for Young Adults by the American Library Association. Her picture book, Harlem’s Little Blackbird: The Story of Florence Mills (Random House 2012), received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists.
One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. Her picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), is based on poetry workshops she facilitated with children in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was featured on NBC Nightly News.
Renée has worked as a writer in residence for several years teaching creative writing and theater in public schools and community centers through out the nation. Her articles on teaching and arts education have been published in Rethinking Schools and Oregon English Journal. She is on the Council of Writers for the National Writing Project and is a team member of We Need Diverse Books. She currently teaches courses on writing for children at University of New Haven and Pine Manor College.
Renée has given readings and lectures at many renowned places, including the United Nations Headquarters and the Library of Congress. In 2015 she was honored with the STEAM award for her work in arts education by Inner City Foundation of New York, Inc.
In the summer of 2016 Renée launched I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to nurturing underrepresented voices in the creative arts. She launched the #LangstonsLegacy Campaign to raise funds to lease the Harlem brownstone where Langston Hughes lived and created during the last twenty years of his life. Her hope is to preserve the legacy of Langston Hughes and build on it by providing programming for emerging writers.