Friday 23 January 2015

Brown Girl Dreaming

Isn't that cover gorgeous?
It's gorgeous.
I hope the cover wins a prize.

Is it wrong to be somewhat thankful for a racist gaffe? I know it is. But it was lucky for me in a way that Daniel Handler made a racist remark to Jacqueline Woodson at the National Book Awards, otherwise without the ensuing controversy I may never have heard of this remarkable book, or ever read it. For Brown Girl Dreaming is an extraordinary read. You can read Jacqueline Woodson's powerful response to Daniel Handler in the New York Times here.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a remarkable memoir told in verse (yes, again with the verse novel for me) that blends slavery, race, history politics, geography and the familial/personal from the very first page.

I am born not long from the time
or far from the place
my great-great-grandparents
worked the deep rich land
dawn till dusk
drank cool water from scooped-out gourds
looked up and followed
they sky's mirrored constellation
to freedom.

I am born as the South explodes,
too many people too many years
enslaved, then emancipated
but not free

I was surprised to read on page 3 that Jacqueline's parents race was recorded on her birth certificate. That is not something I've come across in Australia or New Zealand, either with relatively modern certificates or older ones that I have found in family history research. In some ways I can see that as just another piece of information like eye colour or height, but it's interesting that it's there in the first place. Race is still far from a perfect issue in Australia, but it is quite a different experience to that of America.

Brown Girl Dreaming weaves a family memoir set against the turbulent political times of the 60s and 70s, with Jacqueline's clear attraction to words, writing and story from a very young age. She is a slow reader even so.

I am not my sister.
Words from the books curl around each other
make little sense
I read them again
and again, the story
settling into memory

But even then she recognises the lack of children who look like her in books.

If someone had been fussing with me
to read like my sister, I might have missed
the picture book filled with brown people, more
brown people than I'd ever seen
in a book before.

Another thing that was surprising to my Australian self was her repeated use of the term brown people. It's in the title, it's repeated throughout the book. I'm not sure at all of why brown is used in preference to black, if that is significant, or if either term would have different racial overtones in the US.

Jacqueline Woodson is an accomplished author who has written many books for children and young people. I hadn't heard of her before she won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature 2014, but after Brown Girl Dreaming I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of her work. I'll be donating my copy of Brown Girl Dreaming to my local library in the hope that it will be more widely read here. It deserves to be.

Diversity on the Shelf 2015


Carol said...

Okay, I may love this books just from the excerpts you included. I'll need to pick it up.

Brona said...

I'm certainly enjoying verse novels a lot atm, so I will look out for this one too. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I also watched the ceremony, through free streaming online and the author intrigued me. I read it and loved it!