There are so many things which have been happening in the last several years (days!?) which have deserved our emotions. As a person of color, the uptick in police slayings of African Americans indeed engaged my emotions - but sometimes those emotions are so massive they can't be expressed - and the "public" page seems not the place for something so large, unwieldy, and indiscreet. But Renée Watson has shown herself to be a woman with a dab hand at conveying complex emotional nuances in a delicate manner - not clouting the reader over the head with them, but allowing them to feel and experience them, and to puzzle them out, in their own time.
While there are a few novels out this year speaking directly to the experience of being a minority in a dominant culture world, I haven't read one which deals as well with the poignancy of the human condition of wanting acceptance and love just because -- and not wanting to be bundled with being "fixed" or "helped" in some way. Occasionally, I observe themes or topics in the zeitgeist, and try to work through these ideas in a talking-out-loud kind of way. This is an occasional series which proposes to study these elements in children and young adult fiction from a writer's perspective.
Let's survey a story!
Listening to these mentors, I feel like I can prove the negative stereotypes about girls like me wrong. That I can and will do more, be more.
But when I leave? It happens again. The shattering.
And this makes me wonder if a black girl's life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone.
I wonder if there's ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole.
Wonder if any of these women can answer that.
- from PIECING ME TOGETHER, by Renée Watson, p. 86, uncorrected proof
What is emotional resonance, anyway? It's not just playing up an emotional angle within a narrative... it's allowing readers into the character's mind to understand as the character reacts, and to feel in concert with them. The emotion ...lingers, like a chord played on a piano seems to hang in the air. That this author is able to take such messy emotions dealing with race and empathy and class and create in them an entrance for the reader to access them and echo them is nothing short of amazing. This is truly some world-class writing, and while I'm not one for blethering on about awards before their season, I'd be surprised if this book didn't take home at least a few.
I was gifted to come to this book with little or no expectation, other than that it was a story about a black girl in Portland, Oregon. As Portland is historically racist and still struggling with that legacy, I expected something touching on that. Growing up on the West Coast, I've been a "model minority" in a culture which has surface expectations of us all "getting along," -- because we're not the South, after all -- but which underneath often has its own stinking brand of putrescence in the form of "genteel" racism and people able to explain away or turn a blind eye to things which don't directly impact them. (Yes, it's the same everywhere, but it is particularly interesting at times on the West Coast.) Having been that person who - of my own self - was doing pretty well, yet the color of my skin and general poverty and lack of opportunity made people want to jump in and save me, and having to negotiate my emotions surrounding my gratitude for the help and my resentment for its need, boy, do I relate to this book pretty strongly. Watson starts out with that idea of a black girl needing and getting help, and then just ....dives down deeper and deeper into it -- unpacking the ways in which black people judge each other and seem to ask each other to conform to a fracture idea of normal, as well as the ways in which "good" white people are so eager to "help" us that they are often blind to what we can give. If this sounds like it's too deep for a YA novel, though, it's not. Number one, there's really nothing too deep for a YA novel, if the writing and exposition is done well, and two, Watson has such range in terms of bringing something up and letting the character - and the reader - react to it that you find yourself with an unputdownable book.
That doesn't often happen to me. I found myself taking notes. How. Does. She. Do. That!? And I knew it had to do with how she skillfully lays out emotion.
Jade has already accepted that upward momentum in her life is going to mean getting up out of her neighborhood, but as she's already scholarshipped into a mostly-white school, she's wondering how much further "out" she's going to have to get. Her mother - her counselor at school - her teachers - all urge her to get involved in this and sign up for that, and she's constantly having Opportunity pressed on her, in the name of bettering herself -- as if she's not good enough -- and supporting her "at-risk" status, despite the fact that she makes A's and isn't at risk for much of anything - except living in her black neighborhood... and being black. Jade articulates the demeaning nature of so many of the offers and suggestions she receives -- here, honey, we don't want you to miss out on THIS thing which will take you further from your side of the city into where the other half lives obviously better lives. or Hey, Jade, why don't you sign up for THAT thing to help make you a better person, because you're obviously not enough now?
Jade's mentor is a young black woman, and even from her direction comes relentless, well-intentioned pressure. All around Jade are people who think she is a girl who needs saving, a girl in need of a lifeguard to fish her out of where she is, instead of a swimmer in need of someone swimming ahead, whose arms breaking the surf are close enough to see where to safely go. Jade does need a hand, but she's not sure she can trust her mentor's reach... not when the woman's so obviously messing up he own life. I love how Jade keeps her own counsel in this regard - she trusts whom she trusts, not who she's told has her best interests at heart.
This is for the times when York told the Native Americans that he was a negro man, a black man. they didn't believe him. They took dirt, scrubbed his skin, trying to wipe the black off. I can just hear them asking,
What are you?
Where are you from?
Why are you so dark?
What happened to you?
And he would tell them he was a black man, not dirty, not a supernatural being. A black man. But for some reason, they thought this man who had this same dark skin and big frame all his life didn't know his truth.
"You're not black," they said.
"Let me see," they said.
"Does this hurt?" they said, as they tried to scrub his very existence away, erase his experience.
- Watson, p. 191-2, uncorrected proof
One thing I love, additionally, is that Jade finds her own exits -- she NEVER loses her friendships with her cousin and her cohort from school. Despite the fact that they don't see each other often, they text and get together and still are friends. I so appreciate that Watson didn't strip Jade of her friendships in an attempt to make her look tragic, and then give her the clichéd One White Friend so that readers could see and understand that We Can All Just Get Along. And I appreciate that Jade has a falling out with her white friend, until they learn to be friends, until the friend learns to not turn away from what she hears, and until they both understand the importance of communication and sharing and listening, if friendships across races are going to be real and deep. (I don't even have adult relationships with that much potential, and I couldn't help but write myself a little note about This Is How You Do It.)
Secondly, I love how Jade and her crew have their art - whether through words or collage or drawing, they can all do something for themselves, to express themselves, whether they are in a wealthy & well funded district with plenty of opportunities, ...or not. Jade's art centers on what she's thinking, and so we see her respond to finding out the deeper history of Lewis & Clark, and how their story intersects with the history of where Jade lives, and how it eclipses the story of the Native woman, Sacajawea, and the black slave, York, who traveled and explored with them, doing twice the work for none of the respect. When Jade turns her art from her internal landscape into the external world, I love how the author uses her small offerings, together with those of her friends and cohort, to create a gift that changes and brings together a community.
Finally, I love how Jade explores language, how she looks through a wider lens at a greater world longs to go. The Spanish vocabulary words and pronunciation at the beginning of each chapter are wonderful - language and words are a code to get her out of the world she's in and open the door to elsewhere. These are all such relatable things for anyone, and yet they're also a specific flag waving at black readers, saying, "Pssst! The world is bigger than you think. There are new experiences around the corner - and around the globe. Get up, get out, GO." It is a message of hope and of momentum which just cheers me still.
Sometimes I just want to be comfortable in this skin, this body. Want to cock my head back and laugh loud and free, all my teeth showing, and not be told I'm too rowdy, too ghetto. Sometimes I just want to go to school, wearing my hair big like cumulus clouds without getting any special attention, without having to explain why it looks different from the day before. Why it might look different tomorrow. Sometimes I just want to let my tongue speak the way it pleases, let it be untamed and not bound by rules. Want to talk without watchful ears listening to judge me. At school, I turn on a switch, make sure nothing about me is too black.
- Watson, p. 199, uncorrected proof
This just hits me, on multiple levels of grief and longing and agreement -- and I think will hit readers of various ethnicities, sizes, and experiences as deeply and as poignantly as well. As their emotions are engaged and resonate, I expect them to spend some time thinking, and then get up, filled with these perhaps largely unarticulated, inchoate emotions, determined in some small way to do something with them, to change their world.
And that is the power of emotional resonance in an excellent novel.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After February 14, you can find PIECING ME TOGETHER by Renée Watson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!