Adam Morgan | Longreads | September 2019 | 9 minutes (2,283 words)
In 2016’s National Book Award–nominated Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson infused her writing with a sense of place I could feel in my bones. From the “heat rising from cement” in Bushwick to the brownstones of Park Slope, Woodson has an uncanny eye for detail, right down to the “fine lanugo hair still clinging to the nape” of a teenager’s neck. In her new novel, Red at the Bone, Woodson returns to Brooklyn for another story that folds time as effortlessly as fabric. In the summer of 2001, a 16-year-old girl named Melody is introduced to society at a house party, to the tune of Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” She wears a resewn dress that was originally made for her mother’s own coming-of-age reception, a dress that was never worn thanks to her mother’s unexpected pregnancy. “Already, when it was time for her ceremony,” Melody thinks, “I was on my way. Already, at nearly sixteen, her belly told a story a celebration never could.”
From this single moment in time, Woodson offers glimpses at the lives of Melody, her mother, her father, her grandparents, and even her ancestors dating back to the Tulsa massacre of 1921, when an entire Black community was wiped from the face of the earth. Red at the Bone is a stunning, beautiful novel with the texture of poetry. I spoke with Woodson over the phone about place, memory, detail, and her Red at the Bone music playlist.
Adam Morgan: The novel starts with a dedication “to the ancestors, a long line of you bending and twisting, bending and twisting.”
Jacqueline Woodson: So much of the book is speaking to the past, and in the case of the Tulsa massacre, to the destruction of people. But I have this sense that those who leave us don’t completely leave us. That people who die aren’t completely gone. That they are still in the air, moving around us, whether it’s through genetic memory, or DNA, or the stories that get told over and over again. So it made sense to dedicate it to the ancestors.
On the heels of Another Brooklyn, what drew you back to Brooklyn as a setting?
The interesting thing about Brooklyn is it’s so diverse and it’s constantly changing. You could set a book in the Brooklyn of the ’80s, which is very different than a Brooklyn of the ’90s, which is very different than the Brooklyn of the ’50s. And I think there are some places that kind of stay the same. Brooklyn is not that place.
Brooklyn is home to me and it’s so nice to be able to walk around and imagine it differently. When I was writing Red at the Bone, I went back to Bushwick and tried to remember it through the gaze of the ’90s as I created the character of Aubrey. Truthfully, I love Brooklyn, warts and all. I think it’s a great place to be a writer because there’s so much to see and pay attention to and be inspired by.
I didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre until I was an adult in my early 20s. And then as I started looking into it, I was blown away by the enormity of the hatred and the destruction.
Did you set out to write a book about 9/11 or did you make that connection during the writing process?
I didn’t know how 9/11 was going to factor in. And then as I was rewriting and trying to factor in the connection between the Tulsa massacre and 9/11, it made sense. Having lived through 9/11 here in New York, and then having traveled the country and seen what people thought they understood about it, I was surprised by how many people didn’t register how many people of color died in 9/11. A lot of talk was about the white businessmen and the white women. But there were so many people working in both those buildings who were bankers, who were lawyers, who worked in the mailrooms, who worked in the cafeterias, who mopped the floors…a huge group of people that we lost with the loss of those buildings.
Looking back on the Tulsa massacre, a whole community was annihilated. People died and businesses were destroyed, houses and schools and doctors and lawyers and maids. So that connection just made so much sense to me as I wrote it — the devastation, the loss, and the impact it has on communities and families and cultural groups and racial groups. It’s all so deeply intertwined.
What drew you to the Tulsa massacre in particular, as opposed to better-known incidents like the Chicago race riots of 1919?
I grew up with the LA riots. I heard about the Chicago race riots. I lived through the looting that happened with the ’70s blackout. But I didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre until I was an adult in my early 20s. And then as I started looking into it, I was blown away by the enormity of the hatred and the destruction posited on this black middle class community, but also by the enormity of the erasure. To not have been taught that in school or to not have even heard the stories from my family was really surprising to me.
And I thought, this is how history gets erased, right? We stopped telling the story. And I really wanted to bring that back to the page, in the same way that with Another Brooklyn, I didn’t want the Bushwick I knew as a young person to get erased with everyone coming along and saying, “We’ve just discovered this new neighborhood.” Like, no. This neighborhood was here and these people were here.
And with Tulsa…it wasn’t a riot. It wasn’t like black people said, “I’m mad at white folks.” White folks were done with the fact that black folks owned land in this very segregated community, had created this very solid black middle class and upper middle class that existed without the need for white folks, and that was angering for people. And so a young boy walks into an elevator and supposedly makes eyes with a white girl, and for that we need to bomb a neighborhood to ashes.
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Why did you choose “Darling Nikki” by Prince for the opening scene?
Of all his songs, it’s the one that can stab a mother the most. This girl is being introduced into society, and this is the song she wants. And her mother — who got pregnant young, who left the family — is trying to be the gatekeeper of what’s right and wrong. So here it’s Melody’s only way of stepping out of that narrative. When you listen to those first lines, any parent over a certain age is going to be like, “Oh hell no.” So it made so much sense to me in terms of the arc of the narrative and what people were fighting against and fighting for.
One of your children is pretty close in age to Melody, so I wondered if this phase of your life as a parent impacted this book?
Yeah, I have a 17-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. My kid is a really good kid in a lot of ways and is also very much a teenager. So I definitely have the fodder I need through my daily existence to understand the psyche and the language and the dances and the music and the way the frontal lobe is not completely connected yet for a teenager.
But I also have my own backstory. When I think of Iris, I see so much of myself in her. When I think of the Melody, I see so much of myself in her. That scene at the breakfast table when Melody is talking about being at this private school and sitting at the all-black table? I didn’t go to private school, but I definitely had my table and my people. We got onto subway cars and people moved off the subway cars. As an adult I’ve seen it with loud teenagers getting onto subway cars and people choosing another car. And me thinking, they’re teenagers, this is what teenagers do.
I know you sew clothes, so I wondered if the central image of Red at the Bone, the resewn dress, came to you while you were making clothes.
No, that felt ancient. It felt like a gift from the ancestors. That’s a dress I would never sew. I remember making my daughter a silk dress for her fourth birthday and it killed me. I said I’m never working with these fabrics again. I like my stuff to be almost deconstructed in some way. But Melody’s dress, I imagined it as silk and satin, really finely crafted and intentional. Everything in the book is about intentionality, right? The intention to have a child and raise her, send her to college and give her this glorious life. Melody doesn’t really have a sense of her intention yet, but she wants to be a daughter to this mother who is elusive.
When I look at that dress and how much intention went into the making of it, the plans for a future, it’s like we want to have something that can’t be destroyed, because so much of the past has been destroyed. It’s been destroyed in terms of Iris’ pregnancy, in terms of Aubrey’s dad’s overdose, in terms of Iris leaving the family. I always come back to that dress and it’s just this ghost of intention for me.
I know sometimes a novel’s title can be a conversation between you and the publisher, but I—
Oh no, I do titles on my own.
No one can ever have a conversation with me about a title. No one can be in my ear with that. My editor’s glorious. She’s so fabulous and so able to see what I’m trying to say. But when it comes to titles, it’s all on me.
I was surprised that “red at the bone” wound up coming from Iris’s past instead of Melody’s.
I think it represents all of us. There’s this way in which we’re all still cooking in a sense, still trying to figure out who we are, still really raw at the core and fragile. I could point to each one of those characters and show you where they’re red at the bone. And I think even the existence of a black middle class, upward mobility, all of that stuff is in the making and not fully done yet.
I always come back to that dress and it’s just this ghost of intention for me.
I’ve read that you sometimes write in Prospect Park. Does writing en plain air help ground you in a sense of place?
Whenever I write I have my headphones on. Prospect Park is literally up the block from me, so it’s easy to walk there and find a bench and sit and write. I don’t go there so much anymore. I tend to write more in my house, in my backyard, on my roof or someplace where people aren’t coming and going. Especially once I know where I’m going with the story. Early on in the story I walked around a lot, going back and forth to Bushwick, walking around Park Slope, going to out to Coney Island and just trying to get a sense of where my characters are and how it feels to be there.
But the music is what grounds me, putting on my headphones. When I put on my headphones, the world disappears and I’m in the world of my story. I never understand how people can write in cafes. I did it when I was writing Brown Girl Dreaming, but my headphones were on and my head was down. As I got more known as a writer and more recognizable in Brooklyn, it’s been easier to stay inside and write because I don’t want to be interrupted.
Do you curate music that’ll help ground in a state of mind or place?
I do. I have a set playlist to help tell the story. “Darling Nikki” is on it, of course.
Can you share the rest of the songs on the Red at the Bone playlist?
Yeah, let me find my phone. Don’t laugh. “Stoned Soul Picnic” is on it. “Poetry Man.” Eva Cassidy’s “Songbird.” “Don’t Leave Nobody But the Baby.” Then some J. Cole, “Young, Dumb and Broke,” Toshi Reagon, who’s a friend of mine, her music helps me write. And Rickie Lee Jones.
You’re so good at pulling out very specific sensory details and using them to develop character and place. Do you just collect those in your mind or do you carry a notebook around and write things down?
A lot of stuff is just in my memory. I have poems and stories and bad jingles and everything in my brain. Once I start writing, I begin to see the details. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I’m thinking of when Melody and Aubrey are going back to the old neighborhood and they meet with [a man] and Melody watches his dentures move in his mouth. It’s just an image that’s in my head that a little girl would see. When little kids look at old people, they see all this stuff that we don’t see.
I remember reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Francie Nolan notices an old man at a table. He’s sitting there and she sees how beat-up his ankles are, and she says “I hope that never happens to me.” Those kinds of details are very photographic for me. I just imagine, here’s what the child is seeing, here’s what the adults are seeing, here’s what the old man is feeling, and take it from there.
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Adam Morgan is the founding editor of the Chicago Review of Books. He writes about place, books, and the arts for The Paris Review, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere. He now lives in Charlotte, NC.
Editor: Dana Snitzky