Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"Brown Girl Dreaming": Changing the World, One Story at a Time

how to listen #7

Even the silence 
has a story to tell you. 
Just listen. Listen. 

I truly believe that sharing life stories with others can connect people together in a way that nothing else can.  It's the reason that we started Stageoflife - to change the world, one story at a time.  Over these last 5 years, I have read so many amazing stories from our writing community that have made me smile, cry, think, and above all connect with people who I would not have known if they had not taken the time and conjured up the courage to submit a true, personal story to a larger audience.  When I started this book blog, I wanted to share my love of reading with our writing community.  Most of us become writers because we read a book that we connected with in some way, or because we love words.  I wanted to help people discover great books or to steer them clear from the not so great ones.  Because this is my 100th book blog post, I hoped to read a good book that had a meaningful story to share and serendipitously I chose Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming." It's Woodson's memoir - the story of her childhood, her search for home, and her own unique gifts, but it's more than that; it's a validation to me that stories really can transform the world.

Written in free verse poetry, Woodson's memoir follows her childhood journey growing up in Ohio, then South Carolina and then finally Brooklyn in the 1960s and 1970s.  Her poems are simplistic and complex, poignant at times and other times funny, but always honest and real.  As she grows up, she searches for a place that feels like home - is it with her grandparents in South Carolina where her grandfather gardens and her grandmother bakes biscuits and preaches the strict Jehovah's Witness religion? Is it with her mother in Brooklyn where "there is only gray rock, cold / and treeless as a bad dream"?  She always feels in between homes (as many of us do or did as children), but she learns to find the comfort in each place and overcome the struggles as well (as many of us do).

In her search for home, she also searches for herself and what "small gift from the universe" is "waiting to be discovered" inside of her.  She knows she is a storyteller, and that even if the words don't always come or if she can't read as fast as her sister or the other kids, she loves the feel of writing.  In the chapter called "composition notebook" she recalls:

Nothing in the world is like this-
a bright white page with
pale blue lines. The smell of a newly sharpened pencil
the soft hush of it
moving finally
one day
into letters.

In her specifics she speaks of the universal truths that those of us who love reading and writing know.  I love the smell of new books and often flip the pages to my nose to breathe it in, just like I love the smell of a used book shop with all of it's stories waiting for me to take them home.  Woodson's words helped me to know that I am not alone.  I may not be a brown girl, but I was a once a girl who held books like I was holding a best friend's hand and dreamed about the places I read.  I know what it means to be home and not home and to feel in my soul that there is more to me that I need to share with others. For me connections have always come from sharing the stories of my life.  In the act of telling, they become real - regardless if I am writing them down or sharing them with a group of friends while drinking a glass of Pinot Noir and decompressing after a hard week.

Most reviews of Woodson's book compares it to other books such as the fictional "Out of the Dust" by Karen Hesse which follows the life of a little girl living through the Dust Bowl.  That book broke my heart a little bit more than "Brown Girl Dreaming," but both were written in verse and both showed the strength of a little girl who struggles to be who she is despite the odds.  While I was reading "Brown Girl Dreaming" I thought of "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros whose main character Esperanza grows up in a poor Latino community.  Esperanza also struggles with the definition of home, and she also shows promise early on that she will be a writer who transcends the lives that are almost predetermined for the girls from her community. Cisneros writes with a lyrical touch and soulful wisdom just like Woodson.

Regardless of comparisons, Woodson's book deserves all the awards that have been bestowed on it - National Book Award, Newbery Honor and The Coretta Scott King Award.  It's beautiful and simplistic, and complicated and soul-searching.  Mostly, it's a story that will connect others together when they read it.  Author and reader, culture to culture, mother and daughter.

I couldn't think of a better book for my 100th post.

how to listen #10

Write down what I think
I know. The knowing will come. 

Just keep listening . . . 

1 comment:

  1. I loved this book! And for many of the same reasons you mentioned. Woodson's use of language is amazing and powerful - filling her story with vibrant imagery and strong emotion. It's a book I know I'll re-read many times.