At the opening of “Red at the Bone,” we meet a young woman — Melody — preparing for her coming-of-age party in 2001 Brooklyn. She sits, lightly tracing a beautiful gown that in another life, would have been worn by her mother — Iris — had she not gotten pregnant at 15.
From here, we weave through time and the perspectives of seven different people in a family saga that touches on class, love and parenthood.
In “Red at the Bone,” which is November’s Lily Lit Club pick, author Jacqueline Woodson brings readers a refreshing narrative of womanhood and black family life. We chatted with Woodson about her portrayal of teen pregnancy, Brooklyn and family.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity
Neema Roshania Patel: What prompted the story line for “Red at the Bone”?
Jacqueline Woodson: I think the earliest thing that made me want to write this story was the Tulsa race riots and just that fact that for so much of my life I had no idea that it had happened. And just thinking about black wealth versus black income and the way there is so little of it and the many times in our society that people have tried to accrue wealth and things like the Tulsa race riots and the Chicago race massacres happened and their fortunes were basically destroyed. I wanted to chronicle a history and then tell a story of family.
And of course the story of motherhood and all that came kind of later — thinking about the ways that we are supposed to mother and the rules around it and when those rules get broken, what does it look like?
NRP: In “Red at the Bone” we see an atypical portrayal of teen pregnancy. Why was that important to you?
JW: I like to write against stereotypes, and this idea of the tragic pregnant teen is one we see again and again. And that sense of stolen childhood and poverty and the fact that the only teenagers that get pregnant are poor ones. All of those are messages that I feel like society regurgitates into the world, and I just felt like I wasn’t here for it. I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to think in a different way myself and by extension, have a different way for my readers to think about things. And even in terms of Iris — she is a teenage mom — and so to me it made sense that someone who got pregnant at 15, had a baby at 16, would change their mind about motherhood at 17.
So many of us are not very well-formed at that age and realize that the mistakes we made then — or the things that are perceived as mistakes — can stay with us in ways that we are not prepared for.
I think coming out of the world of writing for young people, I have always felt this deep responsibility to tell a bigger truth and enlighten on a different level, and of course it’s first enlightening myself.
NRP: Iris’s character spends much of the novel fighting against what being a mother means to her, and struggling with what is expected of her. Why was this portrayal of motherhood an important theme? And what about the portrayal of fatherhood we see in Aubrey, the man she has Melody with?
It comes back to not wanting to tell the same old story of heteronormative parenting — the idea that dad goes off and works, the mom stays home. And also in terms of in the black community, the idea of the absentee father. I wanted to talk about the dads who stay. I think there is a really deep bond between fathers and daughters that doesn’t get written about as often as I would like to see but also one that speaks to the narrative of black fatherhood.
What does it mean for someone like Aubrey who is coming from a working-class, poor family and doesn’t have a lot of tools to navigate the world, and then there he is with everything he needs to be this amazing father. And the more I wrote, and the more I rewrote, the more I fell in love with Aubrey and wanted to really portray that love.
He just felt so secure — he’s just happy enough to be a dad, working in this mail room and that is enough. So many of the messages we receive in society are that that’s not enough, that we should aspire for more. And that’s just not who he is.
NRP: You mentioned Aubrey’s working-class background. That’s in stark contrast to Iris, who was expected to have a formal coming-of-age ceremony. Why did you make that choice?
JW: You have the broke cousin, or the boyfriend who comes from a different economic class than you did. And I felt like so many of the books I read gave me either one or the other. I wanted to write a book that really explored what it meant to have the two meet in the middle somewhere and what that looks like.
NRP: Why set the novel in Brooklyn?
JW: You mean besides that I love it?
It’s so ever-changing. I think the thing about Brooklyn is you can set a novel down here, where I am right now, in Park Slope in 1980 and it will be very different from the novel set in Park Slope in 1990 or in the 2010s or in the 1970s. Even though it seems like a set place, it is so ever-changing. For me, it’s such a culture and a place that I know. I can mine it. It’s so varied. Brooklyn as a whole seems like one thing but it’s very rich for mining.
NRP: Can you talk about Iris’s experiences with love? We see her with Aubrey — the father of her daughter — and then with a woman, Jam, at Oberlin. Two very different experiences.
JW: She loves Aubrey, but she’s not in love with him. She doesn’t have a long-term plan with him, which makes no sense because she wants to keep the baby, and parenting is a long-term plan, hopefully. When she meets Jam, she realizes that she is completely rocked in this way that she hadn’t imagined. One thing about being young is that sense of everything feeling so “red at the bone,” so absolutely new that it is kind of almost painful and just deeply fabulous.
It just felt fun for me as a writer to show all those sides of the human experience. There is this rawness and newness — this idea that this is something no one else has ever experienced in their life, which is a very young adult way of feeling about things.
NRP: We hear from various perspectives throughout the book, in alternating first-person. Why did you choose that approach, and did you have a character you most enjoyed writing?
JW: They are all so different for me.
The most challenging to write was Po’Boy and also Iris.
I felt like Iris was constantly revealing other layers of herself to me and so in doing that I thought I knew her as a character, and with each rewrite I realized I didn’t. You really have to put yourself in the head and hearts of your characters — warts and all. So Iris was really challenging in that sometimes while writing her, I didn’t like her and sometimes I did, but I always understood her.
Po’Boy was challenging because I’ve never been an old black man, but for him I mined my grandfather, and my own sense of growing older and that longing for a certain kind of past.
It’s a family saga so it’s a story that needs all their voices. No one is a completely reliable narrator and so the characters bounce off of each other or finish stories, or tell the correct version, or tell another side of the story — that was really important. It just made sense that we were going to see them all as if we were living with a family.
NRP: You have published children’s books, young adult novels and fiction for adults. What, if anything, differs in that process for you?
JW: I feel like I have to change the channel of my brain. There is some overlap in terms of being truthful, honest and thoughtful.
When I am writing children’s books, though — that it is writing poetry.