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Interview with Renée Watson

By Jenn Strattman

“To be seen – truly seen – is to feel that all parts of who I am are recognized not as compartmentalized pieces of myself, but blended truths of my identity. So when my white friends told me they didn’t see me as a black girl that meant they didn’t see me. When white teachers seemed shocked to hear me speak black vernacular in the hallways when I “spoke so well in class,” what they didn’t understand is that code-switching came natural to me – I talked both ways and I wasn’t trying to fit in with my friends or impress my teachers. I was being myself.”     — Renée Watson “Black Like Me”

You identify as a writer but also as a performer and an educator. How do performing and teaching impact your writing?

My teaching impacts my writing because I mostly teach young people. So often, their stories inspire the themes I write about and their voices show up in my work. Then, there are the transferable skills that apply to performing, teaching, and writing like understanding your audience, having a plan (script, lesson plan, outline) but leaving room for the “magic” to happen. All three require a great deal of empathy. As a performer, the more I put myself in the mindset of a character, the more I express emotion through body language, the stronger I become as a writer when developing characters who are so different than me. I’m very grateful to be in all three worlds—they all feed off of each other.

What were your favorite books growing up and how have they shaped your work?

My favorite books were anything by Beverly Cleary, partly because she wrote characters who lived in Portland, Oregon, where I grew up, and I knew those streets and people well. I also loved that Ramona was a flawed character—not acting how a girl “should” act but nuanced and layered. I try to shape my characters in that way, making the reader root for them, but also, at times disappointed or frustrated.

I also loved The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. That book changed me in so many ways—I knew what it was like to live “there” in a place that was misunderstood, in a place where the pain and beauty were tangible. I write about these kinds of places in my books. Cisneros is a master of juxtaposing the bitter and sweet. I definitely draw from her example.

What inspired you to write for children and young adults?

When I was a young girl, I didn’t have many books that reflected my reality. There weren’t a lot of books where black girls were the protagonists and oftentimes stories that featured black characters were about struggle—slavery or martyred activists. Poetry was the place where I saw my experience. Poets like Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Maya Angelou spoke to me in a deep way—they spoke about the struggle of African Americans, yes, but they also spoke of our everyday experiences of loving and living, and being brilliant, and being, well human—not victims or victors, just everyday people living life. I want to create books in that vein.

I very much feel inspired to write for children because, as Rudine Sims Bishop so poignantly said, children need both mirror and window books—books where they can see themselves in the pages, books that open up a new world to them.

I enjoy writing for young readers because their lives are forever changing. Everything is intense – they have strong feelings, beliefs, and reactions. It’s a limitless supply of story and conflict.

After growing up in Portland and residing in New York City, how have these ever-changing cities influenced your writing?

Leaving Portland and moving to New York helped me write setting. It wasn’t until I moved that my senses were heightened and I saw home in a new light—I missed the color green, I missed walking on wide sidewalks, I missed the smell of rain, the taste of huckleberries and marionberries. I longed to sit on a porch and talk with my mother. All of these things found their way into This Side of Home as a part of the setting. Living in New York, I hear and smell, and feel so much—the honking horns, different languages, the chills of winter, the breeze that carries roasting nuts from a street vendor’s stand. Having these two very different places in my life, I am constantly comparing and contrasting and this attention to my surroundings in my real life helps me build a full world for my characters.

Place emerges in many of your books such that it becomes a conduit for internal and external change. How might writers successfully integrate place in their stories?

I believe that our environment impacts and influences our personalities, actions, fears, and ambitions. I am always asking, “How is the neighborhood influencing this character?” and “How does the changing seasons or space move the story forward?” I think there’s so much depth a writer can add to a story by layering metaphors that show up in the weather, the seemingly mundane drive through town, the reading of a headline—all of this is the story. Whenever I have my characters interact with their environment, the richer and more nuanced the story becomes.

In your personal narrative “Black Like Me” from Rethinking Schools, you poignantly chronicle how it feels to be invisible in an environment leaden with stereotypes. In the classroom, how might we talk about identity and race?

I think books by and about people of color are great tools to use in the classroom to talk about identity and race. Discussing the characters and themes in the book can be a safe way to begin conversations about social issues that are first about the characters—so there’s some distance and then gradually move into students sharing their own stories. I think it’s important to note that “safe space” doesn’t necessarily mean the conversations will be comfortable. The hope is that as an educator, I provide a space where people are comfortable being uncomfortable, where true listening and sharing is happening with openness and trust.

I also believe it’s important to not make talking about identity and race a special conversation that only happens once a year. The posters on the walls in a classroom, the diversity of the curriculum, the covers of the books we give to young people are all apart of the conversation. Young people are listening to our actions as well as our words.

If you could choose one book for MFA students to read and discuss, what would it be? What would you like students to gain?

I actually don’t have a book that I think every MFA student should read and discuss. I do have a go-to list: Jacqueline Woodson, Meg Medina, Jason Reynolds, and Sherman Alexie. The truth is I think every MFA student in the Writing for Children program should watch Chimimanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of the Single Story.” It should be required, with a follow-up discussion about our responsibility, power, and influence as storytellers.