ZE: Do you identify as a feminist writer?
ZE: Or as a feminist at all?
JW: It depends on who the audience is. You know, if I was speaking to a group of feminists I think I would identify as a feminist writer. If I was speaking to a group of writers, I would identify as a writer who is feminist. It really depends. I feel like I get really nervous sometimes around the qualifiers because of who has to qualify and who doesn’t have to qualify. Am I an African American writer? It depends. If I’m speaking to an all-black audience, then yeah, I’m an African American writer. If I’m speaking to a group that’s not all African American, then I’m a writer who is African American. If I’m speaking to a queer audience, I’m a queer writer. And on it goes. But all of those things completely inform who I am and are a part of it. And so I definitely am a feminist but I really think that in order to create change in this world, we have to figure out who does the qualifying and who gets qualified and begin to change that.
ZE: Well, since you are going to have a teenager before too long—she’s a tween already, right?
JW: Oh, man…
ZE: How do you think today’s teenagers learn about feminism? I claimed that identity at age 12, but don’t recall reading books with feminist characters until college. Sometimes I worry that young people today think the most empowered black woman of their generation is Beyoncé.
JW: She’s pretty powerful! It’s an interesting time to be a mom, to be a woman, you know, post-hip hop…
ZE: Are we post-hip hop?
JW: Well, the kids growing have never not known hip hop. And I think they haven’t [not] known the beautiful brown girl who’s super famous. We had Aretha Franklin. I had Michael Jackson and he was a young performer but he was male and complex, and he had brothers and some of them were cute and some weren’t. But we didn’t have all these icons who were similar to us to choose from. So I wasn’t trying to say, “I could be the next Aretha Franklin or Al Green.” I didn’t want to. It was a different world. But here the worlds have come so close in this information age, everything is right up on us and we have all this information about everybody. And all this access and “friendship” too. So all of a sudden kids have–this is their world. I think one thing I’ve noticed is that my daughter has Tashawn, Toshi Reagon’s daughter who is her cousin, and she idolizes her. And she has Kali, Linda Villarosa’s daughter. Linda used to be one of the heads at Essence and she wrote the first lesbian story in Essence about coming out. Having those two teenagers in her life makes a big difference. Tashawn—you know who her grandmother is [Bernice Johnson Reagon], and her mother is, and now who she’s become. It took her a long time to get there but she’s like, “Toshi, You need to shower. You smell.” And Toshi will be like, “Ok, I hear.” Or, “Toshi, you need to stop looking at whoever the celebrity is and think about what you want to be.” And it’s so interesting that she can’t hear it from us. But she can when it comes from teenage girls. I was looking at New Moon Girl, which is a feminist young girl’s magazine I got for her—it’s great. When she first got it she was like, “This doesn’t have any advertisements in it.” And I’m like, “Yes, that’s the point.” And she hated it at first and then I saw her sneaking and reading some of the articles. But they say young girls need older girls that they look up to so they have all these celebrities close but then they have real girls even closer. And that person needs to be someone on the up and up. Kali and Tashawn are two teenagers I trust forever and that’s going to make a difference in her life. Also she’s being raised by a village, and coming back to those Republicans and whatever they say about single parent families…they don’t understand that culturally, that a lot of times these kids may have a single dad or a single mom but they also have these villages going on and people who are not letting them get away. And they don’t have what I call “the nuclear insanity.” Even when I was growing up with my mom and grandma, it was like, “This is the family. It doesn’t go outside of the family. Don’t tell anybody about that.” And now we have the village and they’re like, “Your mom is crazy if she thinks she should do that!” And so the kid has other adults to bounce things off of.
ZE: Multiple perspectives.
JW: Exactly. And so I think that’s what’s hopefully going to help her through all the dreck. And a lot of kids through figuring out who they are. But I think they so need those feminists who don’t even know they’re feminists yet. I don’t know if you asked Kali and Tashawn if they’re feminists–I think they completely are, but I don’t know if that’s the language they would use to describe who they are.
ZE: Well, many black women historically have rejected the “f’ word and chosen some other terms.
JW: Who was it who said, “If there was a war between white feminists and black something I’d be shot in the back by someone who calls me ‘sister’”? Maybe it was Barbara Jordan? But basically that fight, whose side am I really on? The person was a black lesbian. That kind of dilemma…it is true—the minute I think of feminist, I think: white woman. I think of “strong black woman” as the equivalent of feminist but I use different language for it.
ZE: Different associations, that’s interesting. I never think of white women when I think of feminism!
ZE: I get nervous when people ask if I can teach Gender Studies because I don’t know any of those white women! All I know are the black women. So I could teach Black Women’s Studies or Black Feminist Studies. But I’m at a loss when it comes to the rest of it.
JW: Didn’t so many black feminists—did they ally with the white feminists?
ZE: Some people argue that the feminist movement comes out of the abolitionist movement. So you had these really devoted white women, black women, men who were committed to abolition and that form of social justice. But a lot of abolitionists weren’t interested in racial equality. So then when you see the first wave feminist movement evolving out of the abolitionist movement and pushing for suffrage…certain black women got invited to speak in the north, but not in the South…so I just feel like there’s always been these divergent histories and there are moments where they’re bound together but it just doesn’t seem genuine to me…Ok, we’re almost at the end.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps annual statistics on the race of authors of children’s books, and these stats consistently show that authors of color make up less than 5% of all the books published for children. I sent you a long quote by Barbara Smith, one of the founders of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
JW: I can’t believe you explained who Barbara Smith was!
ZE: I’ll just read a short part:
“As feminist and lesbian of color writers, we knew that we had no options for getting published except at the mercy or whim of others—in either commercial or alternative publishing, since both are white dominated.”
Now you are a prolific, celebrated, award-winning author. Would you say that the problems Smith identified in the 1980s have been resolved? For example, could you name five other black LGBT authors of children’s literature?
JW: Um…I couldn’t. I probably could name two, but that doesn’t—I don’t know if they don’t exist. I don’t know if people just aren’t out. I think that’s one of the interesting things that’s still happening. Even with white children’s book writers, I think there are people who are still very closeted. And since people of color getting published in the mainstream is still pretty new, I don’t know how many people are coming out and having their first book be a queer book and saying, “I’m queer.” I think it’s still very loaded. I think you’re dealing with children, and you’re dealing with a society that automatically associates pedophilia with anybody who’s interested in children in any way. And a lot of people who still think that queerness is some pathology. I definitely know there are not a lot of—I haven’t come across a lot of young black writers that are new, but I feel like, if the book is finished and it’s halfway decent, I feel like there’s a home for it. And I don’t know if that’s me just being out there and not knowing enough about publishing. I mean, you’re one of the new writers coming up. I think of Coe Booth, Brenda Woods, the woman who did Fly Girl [Sherri L. Smith]. I’m just thinking of African American and Caribbean American writers that I can think of off the top of my head. I think the writing is very different. I think you’re one of the people who’s potentially going to change the world of—I don’t want to say “science fiction” and sound like an old school person…
ZE: Speculative fiction.
JW: Right, speculative fiction. I think Coe is doing more of the kind of urban stuff and then other people are trying to do some of the old school traditional writing. But I think in terms of publishers trying to figure out where it belongs, that’s kind of a slower movement—especially with the business of books changing so quickly. And I also don’t know what’s happening on the web and what people are doing for themselves, the way Barbara Smith was able to create a press that was still publishing paper [books]. I don’t know what’s happening out in the world where people are saying, “Ok, to heck with publishing because they’re not publishing me.” But is starting your own press…
ZE: Well, that’s me—I had to self-publish.
JW: Yeah, so you self-published but you also have your blog, which is a new part of publishing. And you’re an academic so you’re writing about it and changing the world that way. So I think—
ZE: You feel optimistic then about the future of publishing.
JW: You’re like, “Shut up.”
ZE: No! It sounds like—
JW: I think I feel optimistic but I think people can’t expect it to be the old way of doing stuff. I mean, I start doing this in the ’90s—my first book was published in 1989. And that was before the web, it was before so much changed about publishing. I think if I was starting to write today, I would be self-publishing.
ZE: Do you really?
JW: I totally think so.
JW: Because I think—especially if I started with a book like Last Summer with Maizon. Maybe if I started with Maizon at Blue Hill, because that’s something other—a black girl going into a white environment. So I think that book might have made it into the mainstream. Or the book I just wrote. But I don’t know about Miracle’s Boys, I definitely don’t think Last Summer with Maizon. From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun? I don’t know. Because a publisher’s first question is, “How is this going to sell? And how much money can I make off this?” And if they think it’s going to sell to 1000 people, that’s not good—or if they think it’s not going to have a long life or win an award. All those things inform what gets out in the world. It’s sad, but we do what we’ve always done, which is, make a way out of no way. And I think people must be doing that because there are so many writers in the world.
ZE: So do you think it’s less likely for a writer starting out today—for, say, a writer like me to have thirty books published in my lifetime with traditional presses? Or will it be a mix of digital publishing and self-publishing…
JW: It depends on how you write. When I started out I was writing three books a year, now I write about two. And if you look at it over—how many years have I been doing this?
JW: I think it’s possible. I don’t think they’ll be books. They might be e-books, or self-published. They might be books that go straight to film. I think there are all these doors that have opened that are great. So negotiating contracts is different now—what happens when iPad wants to buy your book? Which I still haven’t figured out, not that they’ve offered. They might be books that start on the iPad, that you’re commissioned for, and none of that makes them lesser than. I don’t think self-publishing makes a book lesser than a mainstream publisher because you have all the same outlets for getting the book published. And also you have the same places you can send them to for awards.
ZE: A lot of places won’t accept self-published books. A lot of review outlets won’t accept them. At Kirkus, for example, you have to pay to have a self-published book reviewed.
JW: But you also have to pay to have a book on the table at Barnes & Noble in mainstream publishing. So I think if part of self-publishing is paying Kirkus for a review, if that means it gets a good review and gets the book out there, I think it’s worth doing. I just don’t see it as lesser than. I think it’s a new world and this is a new way to get the book out there. It’s going to be interesting to see what survives. Mainstream publishers are taking books out of print by the minute. Whereas you have all this control over how the book stays in print, how long it lasts, how many ways to get it out into the world. I feel like, one of the places I’m at is, having for years depended on the publisher to do all the publicity and make the book last. And then you have something like the bind-up of If You Come Softly. Barnes & Noble didn’t pick it up and it’s about to go out of print after a year because the mainstream publisher depends solely on Barnes & Noble, and if they say “Stop, we don’t want this,” then the publisher goes, “Wow! Now what do we do?”
ZE: They passed on it? Because of the cover?
JW: I don’t know why. I have no idea why they passed on it.
ZE: I think that’s one of your most popular books, from people I talk to.
JW: I think they’ll carry If You Come Softly or Behind You [separately]. I haven’t seen it in a long time in the neighborhood B&N, but when this [bound edition] came along they said, “We’re not carrying this in our stores.”
ZE: That’s happened to a lot of authors I know of—authors of color specifically.
ZE: And then publishers try to change the cover to make it look like it’s not about people of color—“Don’t panic!”
JW: “You can read this!” So I think one of the cool things about being a writer now is that you’re already on the forefront of how to get the stuff, you know, how to do the work that needs to be done to get the book in the world in a way that I’m not.
ZE: Are you interested in the blogosphere?
JW: To blog myself?
ZE: Or to follow other people’s blogs?
JW: Yeah, I like reading blogs but I can’t even imagine…whenever I think of [starting] a blog I think, “I should be working on a book, I should be answering fan mail.”
ZE: It can be a huge time suck. But people would love to know your every daily detail.
JW: I tweet though.
ZE: That’s true. Does that make you feel more connected to your readers?
JW: It does. It also makes me have to think about each day in a different way. Today I was tweeting about a nine-year-ld kid I saw walking down the street reading a Kindle. He tripped and I thought, “That’s the book. That’s the book talking to him!” And a part of me went, “Yes!” But Toshi’s sister is getting a Kindle for her birthday because she lives between two houses and she gets mad when she leaves her books at one house. And that makes sense. But it gives me pause because so much change is happening so quickly. But no—I love your blog but I won’t be joining you there.
ZE: Ok. For all those bloggers out there, I tried. To conclude, you mentioned you have a book about meth addiction. When can people expect to see that on the shelf?
JW: That’s coming out in January of 2012.
ZE: Oh, good—not that long. And I think you said you have books scheduled to come out for the next five years?
JW: I have books coming out until 2014. I have a picture book that EB Lewis is illustrating, Each Kindness, about the year that a girl is not kind, and the aftermath of that, how one can’t go back to a moment, the moment might stay with them always. And I’m excited about it. And I have another picture book called The Rope that James Ransome’s illustrating. And I have a book called Baby’s Brothers Red and Blue that actually spans many decades. It’s a novel that starts in 1910 and goes to the 1970s, about two brothers from the Negro Migration through the Viet Nam War. A lot of stuff happens. And right now I’m trying to finish up a book about a girl who time travels back to pre-Civil War. But it’s not going so well—yesterday I stopped writing early.
ZE: When you stop writing do you pick up another project?
JW: Yeah. I’m doing that play [on African American folk artist Clementine Hunter]. I’m actually going to the library now because I refuse to buy any more books. I need to get a bunch of librettos to read because I just don’t know how to write one.
ZE: You’ve done an adaptation before.
JW: Yeah, that’s Locomotion. But I’m doing an opera with Robert Wilson, and Bernice Johnson Reagon, and Toshi Reagon. And so since it’s an opera and I’m writing the book, I don’t know how to do that. But I did the adaptation of Locomotion, and that was fun.
ZE: Do you like the idea of reaching different audiences with different formats?
JW: I do! I’m really starting to like the play format and it’s kind of my go-to when I’m really stuck as a writer. It makes me feel like, “Ok, I got this.”
ZE: I feel like writing plays helped me to hone dialogue. You really have to embed action in the dialogue because they’re on a stage, they can’t be running around doing all kinds of different things.
JW: It is really true. It creates a much cleaner line. And that tightness comes back to my fiction.
ZE: And congratulations—you just won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor award for Pecan Pie Baby. I was talking to illustrator Shadra Strickland—she just won the Ashley Bryan award and I asked her if she had a space in her studio for her awards. And she said, “I can’t! I have a space right above my desk but it’s just too much.” What do you do with all your awards?
JW: They’re behind me.
ZE: So at your desk. You don’t face them, but they’re there.
JW: Yeah, I can turn and look at them. If they were right on the wall in front of me I would be stressed out. And it took me a long time to put them up in my office. I still have a bunch in the storeroom. But I definitely don’t have them facing me, and I actually don’t work in my office so much. I go in there once the book is finished.
ZE: What’s the greatest reward of being a writer if it’s not the award?
JW: You know, I feel like when I finish a book, that’s when I’m happiest as a writer. When I know I’ve written that last line, before I start having the cover fight with my publisher. It’s such an accomplishment to say, “Ok, this is done. I’ve done this.” Before I start stressing about the next book. So usually I’m working on more than one book at a time, but when one is coming really well, I’ll stop and just work on that. And when I write that last line, there’s no other feeling. So that’s cool. And I love when a new story comes. I don’t know if this happens to you, but when you’ve written that last line you think, “This is it. This is the last book I’ll ever write.”
ZE: I can’t believe you think that, having written 30 books.
JW: Thirty’s pretty much a whole number. So this is the gift that the universe gave me, it’s enough now. I do think there’s a time to move on.
ZE: What would you do if you weren’t writing?
JW: Dream dream dream? Like, if I could do anything I wanted to do? I’d play pro ball.
ZE: Basketball? Get out of here—like for the Liberty?
ZE: Ok, explain that to me.
JW: Well, you said, “dream.”
ZE: You would want to play in the men’s league?
JW: Yes, yes. I’d want to be tall enough, powerful enough. I love basketball.
ZE: Interesting. Why not the WNBA?
JW: I like the NBA. It’s faster, it’s bigger…
ZE: It’s more physical.
JW: Yeah, it’s much more of an adrenaline rush. I respect and love a lot of the women who play for the WNBA, and I’m glad it’s there. And I think also, from childhood it was my dream to be the first woman player in the NBA. And then the WNBA came along when I was an adult.
ZE: Well, you know, the Nets are coming to Brooklyn. They’ll be in your ‘hood soon enough.
JW: I know, I know. But I want to play for the New Jersey Nets!
ZE: Ok, I think I have exhausted my questions. Thank you so much for doing this!