Announcer: This is Why We Write. A podcast of Lesley University. Each week, we bring you conversations with authors from the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. Today we have an awesome interview that goes beyond books in the best way possible. Our creative writing faculty member and best -selling author of the Jumbie series, Tracey Baptiste, interviews fellow children and young adult novelist Renée Watson. Renée was the visiting author during our recent MFA in Creative Writing program's winter residency, and she just had some amazing things to say. Without further ado, here's the interview.
Tracey Baptiste: Hi, I'm Tracey Baptiste and I am sitting with Renée Watson who is a friend of mine. More than that, she is an amazing poet and writer for young people. She is a New York Times best-selling author, she is the current reigning Coretta Scott King medalist, and has won a Newbery Honor for her book Piecing Me Together. I'm very happy to be talking to Renée today.
Renée Watson: Thanks for having me.
Tracey: Thanks for being here, Renée. One of the things that you and I talked about before a lot is how family influences our work. One of the things that I'll be talking about in workshops here at Lesley is creative DNA and talking about what is it that we have inside us that we are compelled to get out. I know, coming from Portland, that plays very much into the work that you do. I'd like you to talk about what you think is your creative DNA.
Renée: That's such a great question. I've never thought about my writing in that way. I think at the core of what I'm trying to do is to make black girls visible and especially black girls in the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in Oregon, from Portland, Oregon, and our stories aren't told from that region. I always talk about how when I grew up, there was a lot of conversation about the Great Migration from the South to the North, but they don't really talk about how black people back to the West Coast, and Oregon and the history of Oregon, and race and race relations with black people and white people are important.
When I'm writing, whether it's poetry or work for young people, I'm often placing my characters in Portland because I want- first, it's just that we exist, we're there. I just want the young girls who are growing up now to feel seen and that their stories have a place in our world. That's something that's important to me.
It's funny, food shows up a lot in my work too. There's always characters around a table eating a meal. I think that that comes from the way I grew up. The best conversations were had over a meal. Even if it wasn't a formal fancy dinner or all of us at the table, there's something about communing together that gets people talking and breaks down walls. I noticed that in every book that you read of mine, there's a moment where characters are eating something and something deeper is revealed about their relationship. That's something that comes up a lot.
That wasn't really intentional. When I look back over my work, I'm like, "Oh, I do that a lot." It's funny, I don't know that I have intention when I start writing, but when I'm asked about, "What's the DNA or what are you trying to do?" I go back and I think, "Oh, yes, I see this pattern in this."
Family, friendship, sisterhood, the complications of sisterhood, I don't mean just blood, but just women loving each other, those are complicated relationship and those are the things that I'm constantly going back to in my work also.
Tracey: One of the things that you've talked about is loving the Ramona series which, of course, is set in Portland. I'm going to let you take it away there because I don't know how much you can say about what's happening but I'd like you to--
Renée: Yes, I can talk about it. The Ramona series, it's written by Beverly Cleary and it talks about a little girl who's growing up in Portland, Oregon. It takes place predominantly in a neighborhood that my aunt lived in and that wasn't very far from my house. I'm very familiar with those streets. All the streets that she's naming are real places. One of the first times that I read a book and like, "What? I know this place." It was so cool to me, that Ramona grew up in my neighborhood.
I didn't know how to articulate this as a child. As I got older, I realized that there was a disconnect. I connected with her for some reasons, but then I realized there are no black people in that book or in the series. That was something that really bothered me. I was just like, "How are we here in real life but not represented in this book?" The same could be said for Portland, there are shows that talk about Oregon, Pacific Northwest, but black people are a race.
I really want to write something where a black girl can exist in this space that has trees and it's really close to the mountain and you're really close to waterfalls. I really want to write a series where a little black girl can have friends and play outside and get dirty in the mud and be out in the rain and the more kid-friendly issues and not necessarily these big social issues that a lot of times my work covers.
I write a lot about the intersections of race, class, and gender. I think that's important. I want to continue to do that, of course. I also want books that allow characters to be black and not have a book be about their blackness, if that makes sense. I'm excited about working on that. I'm currently writing it right now. The little girl, her name is Ryan. I named her after my goddaughter in real life.
Tracey: Sweet. Also, she has the same- she's Ryan, which begins with an R like Ramona.
Renée: Yes, it's definitely inspired by the Ramona series, but she's a little older. She's in the fourth grade. I have been inspired but I have been trying to do my own thing with it.
Tracey: It's not going to be like a copycat kind of series.
Renée: No, or are we telling anything like that--
Tracey: It's really its own entity, you talking about families in Portland.
Tracey: In your short story that you did for Black Enough, you set it in Portland again, but this time you're out in the woods. Portland takes space as character in your book all the time.
Renée: All the time.
Tracey: Well, in a lot of them, not just inner-city, in This Side of Home, for example, when you were talking about inside towns, you're all over. You're in the mountains, you're in the woods, you're in the streets, you're everywhere. You have this real great love of Portland.
The question I have is why keep coming? I know you want girls in Portland to be seen because they haven't been seen, but you do keep coming back to it. Do you plan to always come back to it or do you want to expand?
Renée: I think so. First, I want to write what I know and what I have questions about. Those two things keep me going back to Portland. I know Portland and I know Oregon. I have a lot of questions about why things are the way they are. A lot of what I'm writing, I'm discovering Oregon's history because it wasn't taught to me. As an adult, I became aware of what took place in Oregon with Vanport which was a flood that happened and displaced a lot of people and a lot of people of color. The KKK is a really big force in Oregon. No one really talks about that. Redlining and gentrification, all those things were happening while I was growing up and I could feel it, but no one was giving language to it.
I'm kind of exploring those topics as an adult in my work and hoping that young people and teachers and educators have some language to talk about what's happening because when you don't name it, and you don't actually talk about it but you just feel it, I think, as a child, you start to wonder, "Am I making it up? Is this really happening or not?" You're second-guessing your truth.
Hopefully, my books are doing that. That's one reason why or some reasons, that was way more than one, why I go back to Portland. There are other-- Watch Us Rise, which comes out next month is in New York. That's the first time I've written fiction that takes place and my character lives in Harlem. I don't think I will only write about characters in Portland, but I definitely will continue to come back.
Tracey: You'll definitely come back to it. A place where hurricanes happen also, obviously it does not take place in Portland.
Renée: Yes, like New Orleans. Betty Before X, that's where she's from, is Detroit.
Tracey: Betty Before X, that's right.
Renée: I branch out a little bit, but I do think the anchor is Oregon for me, also because it's such a beautiful and complex place. Again, like I was saying, you don't often hear about black people in Oregon. When people meet me and I say where I'm from, they are like, "Really? You're from there? How many of you are there?" It's always a conversation that's happening. I want people to see characters of color, in the woods, at the mountain, in inner cities, at the beach, all those spaces that we can occupy in the space over there.
Tracey: You say that Portland is a beautiful and complex place and you write beautiful and complex characters.
Renée: Thank you.
Tracey: You're welcome. Here's the thing, it's very masterful how you are able to accomplish this in very spare language. You don't describe a lot. You let the characters move through space, you let the characters talk but you're not really giving the reader a lot of description and as a result, your books are very spare, but they're very impactful. I want to know how you do that.
Renée: I think that's the poet in me. I grew up reading poetry. I always say it's my first love. I think, oftentimes in many things, but especially in writing, less is more. That really is true. When I'm writing, I really study the poet, and I'm thinking about, "How can I say these big things in the least amount of words, even though it's a novel?" Just because I'm writing a novel doesn't mean, I want to just go on and on and on.
I'm still thinking about getting right to the emotion and getting to the heart and that's what poetry does. I think that that's what you're picking up on. I'm intentional about making sure I'm choosing every word just as carefully as if I was writing poetry. Sometimes when we're writing prose, hence longer sentences, we just go on and on and on, and I'm like, "No, I still want to be very, very mindful of word choice, and the cadence of how people talk."
With Piecing Me Together, part of why that is so different than a more traditional novel is because the character Jade makes collages to process her day. I wanted the book to feel like a collage. I wanted it to feel like pieces of memory coming together to tell this bigger story. I was very focused on, just take out some of this description, take out some of this dialogue, or just have dialogue only. Really wanted to play around with the format of the chapters, some chapters are one sentence or a list.
Tracey: Yes. Some chapters are just a paragraph.
Renée: I think that's how we actually think and how we talk to each other. I'm trying to capture how people actually speak and it's a little more choppy than what ends up showing up in a novel.
Tracey: I know what you're saying, but it doesn't read as choppy, it reads really like we're getting the inside scoop. That's what it feels like when you read this book, and really all of them. You really feel like you're getting the inside scoop. In Harlem's Little Blackbird, for example, which is a picture book, there's no information, there's no-- The kind of archive work that you would have had to do would have been around the character rather than about her because there's no specific information about her that you could've gone to, but you were able to successfully write this book in a very beautiful way and tell her story and her dancing and her performance without-- I feel like you were a little bit at a disadvantage because you're working with that-- [laughs]
Renée: That's the hardest book I've written because there's not a lot written about her, which is why I wanted to tell her story because there should be more books about her.
Tracey: We should tell who it is. I'm sorry.
Renée: Yes. Florence Mills, jazz singer, Harlem Renaissance, activist really and started at a very young age, which is what really drew me to her. It's one thing to stand in your talent as a grown person, but to be seven years old and already traveling and singing and standing up to- like the manager, when she says to him, "If my friends can't come in to hear me sing, then I'm not singing." Those types of thing, I was like, "Kids needs to know that you can use your voice at any age."
Those stories, finding that wasn't really hard. I have to shout out to Schomburg Center in Harlem. That's the only reason why I was able to write that book, because they have archived her life there. I got to look at journals and playbills, and really get- her passport was there, there was all this amazing material that I got to look through and connect the dots with some of the newspaper clippings that were written about her.
That's how I got the story but there's not much about her. Writing that story, I listened to jazz, and just had a soundtrack playing at all times whenever I was working on the book, to get in the mood of that time and put myself in her world because her voice also is not recorded. It was challenging, but I wanted to write. I was like, "Okay, I don't know if I can do this, but I'm going to try to do this."
I did intend-- I don't always do this but with that story, I was like, "I'm going to use alliteration and sensory details as the two literary devices to tell the story." That helped me with rhythm. Alliteration is such a good tool to use, especially when you're talking about a musician. I would come back to the that, and repetition, there's repeating phrases throughout the book. Those three things anchored me as far as language and gave me some parameters to focus on because it felt a little overwhelming to just go into narrative on her story.
I knew that if I wanted to write about her, I wanted readers to feel and hear the music and get it in their body. I was trying to find words that would make you, the reader, want to dance or want to be as angry as she was, or as happy.
Tracey: It was very successful. If that was your attention, you hit it out of the ballpark. We've talked about the fact that we both think that picture book writing is just the hardest kind of writing.
Renée: It's the hardest thing. It really is.
Tracey: Doing it with little information, limited Information is just amazing.
Renée: Thank you.
Tracey: Speaking of, you've written Piecing Me Together, obviously, it's a young adult novel, as is This Side of Home, Harlem's Little Blackbird is a picture book. You've also talked about poetry and writing poetry. That's where you started, right? With writing poetry?
Renée: Yes. As a child, I gravitated to poetry because the books that were given to me I didn't really relate to. I loved to read as a kid. I devoured books but when it came to relating to characters or feeling scene in literature, that was poetry for me as a kid. I'm talking elementary school, middle school. It really wasn't until high school that I started to read novels and be exposed to fiction in the way that I felt I can relate to these characters or to the situations that they're going through.
As a young child, I read a lot of Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, all the greats, Gwendolyn Brooks, and recited their poems, memorized them, all of that. I was really into poetry. I had notebooks, and I would do my own writing. Then I went to plays. My first two things as a kid was writing poetry and then writing plays.
Tracey: Yes. You had a one-woman show, apparently, that I did not know about.
Renée: You didn't know about--
Tracey: No. Please tell us more of this one-woman show.
Renée: Oh my goodness. It feels so long ago. The one that you're referring to, it's called Roses are Red, Women are Blue. It follows all the characters, but it follows four different women. Each of them has this story that's tied or connected to a rose, them receiving a rose, but it's for all these different reasons, and it goes into their backstory.
You have a woman who's grieving the loss of her husband, a woman is physically abused and he keeps apologizing, so he brings roses and comes back with his apology. There's the “bridesmaid but never the bride” stories, she's carrying a rose down the aisle and goes into her monologue.
What is the fourth one? A child that is-- In Portland, there's this thing called the Rose Festival. It's a big celebration, citywide and each high school selects a girl to be a Rose Festival princess and that girl has a story, which is the only one that's actually more connected to me. I was the Rose Festival princess at Jefferson High School. It's so funny. I really wanted to do it because, well, first of all, you got a scholarship to college. That really was my motivation, but also, I was told that I couldn't be because I was too big.
Renée: Even a teacher actually said to me, "You're very smart, you have the grades and I know you'll make a good speech, but you're just too big. I don't think anybody would vote for you and I don't know if you'd be the best representation of our school."
Renée: I was like, "Really? You don't know? Okay, I know."
Renée: Then I won and I was like, "Oh, I have to really do--" They take you out of school for the last month of your senior year and you do all this community service and you get to meet the mayor and talk about things you want to change in your community, you're representing your community and your school. I was so frustrated that an adult would tell a young person that because of their size, they didn't deserve to even try.
It was just like, "Don't even put your name in the pot, girl," because even though you actually are qualified, you don't look the part. That stayed with me even till- it just stayed with me always, like, "People have expectations of me," not only because I'm a black person, not because I'm a girl, but also I am a big black girl and that means something. So, those things show up in my work also.
Tracey: This high school was also predominantly white?
Renée: No, this was a black high school.
Tracey: This is a black high school.
Renée: Yes, I went to a predominantly white middle school.
Tracey: The middle school.
Renée: This was high school, this was a African-American male teacher who told me this.
Tracey: That is extremely unfortunate. I'm sorry that that happened to you, but I'm thrilled that you won. You were able to lord it over him. I hope you lorded it over him.
Renée: No, I didn't.
Tracey: I know you didn't because you are too nice.
Renée: It was interesting because-- I've talked to him since about this as an adult. We've had a conversation about it, because we had a good relationship, he's a person who I trusted. He felt he was giving me good advice, trying to warn me because he didn't want me to get hurt. He knew that, the way society is, princesses are not big girls. He was trying to-- The thing he was trying to warn me against, actually it happened.
When I was selected and won, when I got on the court with all the other girls, I saw how I'm treated so differently because of how I looked, where my school was located in the city, there was a lot of-- I understood why he said what he said. I still don't think he should have said that, or he could've said it and told me, "But you should do it anyway because that's messed up."
It was interesting. All the girls wear the same outfit, they get all this funding from different designers and stores. None of the clothes ever fit me because they did not intend for a princess to be my size. I was always having to get special tailoring and all these things because it actually was not made for a girl like me in mind. I think that's what he was trying to say, but just didn't articulate it that way.
Tracey: Didn't just think about you--
Renée: In a way, agreed to me-- I think about this a lot as a person who has mentored young people and working with girls, it's one thing to say, "This is how society is. What are you going to do about it?" versus, "This is how society is. Sorry for your luck."
Tracey: "Just give up." Yes.
Renée: I'm always trying to say, "Yes, we need to acknowledge that this is the way things are," so that young people aren't just going out into the world feeling like, "They told me I can be anything. I'm just going to go out there and do--" I don't want to give false hope but I don't want to give despair either and make someone feel like you have absolutely no power to change the way things are. I try to create characters who are wrestling with that dynamic of, "This is my reality, but this is what my hope is and what am I going to do to get to that other place regardless of what the situation really is."
Tracey: Right. This is not only something that you do in your writing work, but also something that you do in your activism work because you have a degree in art therapy and one of your first books, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, came out of you working with kids who were traumatized after Katrina. This is a theme that you have. I mean, it's not a theme really, it's you. It's the thing that you do, you want to empower kids and make sure that they have a voice, even from a young age. You were just talking about that with Harlem's Little Blackbird.
Renée: Yes, it's just second nature for me. It's not something that I set out to do. I've always wanted to be a writer. I've never said, "I want to write books that change the world," or, "I want to write books that help young people become activists." I've never even thought about my work in that way, but I'm writing what I have experienced, what I've seen, what I've witnessed and that is very strong capable brilliant young people who care about what's happening in their world and they're responding. I want those characters to show up in books and I sometimes feel like adults don't think young people are engaged or that they really care, I'm like, "No, they do."
Tracey: Or that they notice.
Renée: Or that they notice. Exactly. I'm just really writing- they're not my stories always, but they're things that I know are happening in schools and communities. I want to reflect that back in the story. It's very much second nature for me to talk about those topics because it's what I care about and it's also what my work- when I wasn't a full-time writer, that's what I was doing. I was teaching in schools as a guest poet in the classroom, mentoring young people, doing art and social justice projects. All of that is influencing the work that I create in a very natural way.
Tracey: I want to you to talk about a little bit I, Too, Arts Collective. Of course, my favorite story about I, Too, Arts Collective is that you moved to Harlem, and you walked past Langston Hughes' house and you're like, "This thing is going to pop. Somebody's got to fix this. It may as well be me." But you have the business acumen and a background in running nonprofits to be able to actually do that. Please tell everybody about I, Too, Arts Collective.
Renée: I, Too, Arts Collective is housed in the home of Langston Hughes at Brownstone in Harlem, where he lived for the last 20 years of his life. As we were talking a moment ago, I grew up on poetry, I love his work. As a girl from Portland moving to Harlem, that was one of the first places I wanted to go was his home. I knew that it was there and I thought it would be a museum, much like Dr. King's home is a museum in Atlanta.
I was so excited, went there and I was like, "Wait, what? You can't go in? It's not open." It's not an actual place to visit. You can just come see it and take a photo. This was many years ago, about 13 years ago. From that moment till three years ago, I was always walking past saying, "Someone ought to do something." That goes that you have to do something.
I wrote This Side of Home that deals with gentrification and as Harlem was being gentrified, I just felt we're going to lose these sacred spaces in Harlem if we don't really stop talking about it and actually do something. That was the motivation behind opening a nonprofit. That wasn't just a place for people to come and look, but to come and add on to his legacy, tell their own stories.
We provide workshops for teenagers, creative writing and poetry. You've been there, then a creative conversation series where authors come and just are in conversation and are talking about their work and their craft, all kind of book launch events- some of the writers that I have respected and loved and adored for so long are coming to the brownstone to have their events. It means a lot to me personally, but it also means a lot to me because I want our young people to see living artists and writers. So often, our kids are taught dead white poets. I'm like, "No, there are brown people who make art, there are brown people who write stories and they're still living."
Tracey: Who are alive. [laughs]
Renée: Yes. It's such a special place. The community has so rallied with me to make this happen. I'm so grateful for everyone who's just helping me get this off the ground. We are leasing it now, we want to own it. That's the next phase. My love of literature, my background as a writer and teacher gave me the experience to know how to do programming and how to work with the young people. Before I was a full-time writer, I worked in nonprofits my whole life. Every job I've ever had has been a nonprofit organization that in some way was tied to education also. I've been a grant writer, program director. I've been the teaching artist. Just all kind of roles. I very much have experience with how nonprofits are run. Those two things have come together. My two loves of the admin side of me that likes to organize and playing and write grants and that kind of thing, and all of my love of young people with literature and the arts have come together in this one place. It's been a beautiful couple of years.
Tracey: It is. It has been. The programs are great. Everybody loves them. Semple nights are particularly fun.
Renée: Yes. Semple is a character that Langston wrote about where Jesse B. Semple would sit in the bar and just talk politics and chat it up with local people in the neighborhood. We wanted the space to also be about that. Just the coming together and looking someone in the face and just saying, "How are you? How's your week going? What are you thinking about? Let's get together and do--" Just a space, where people can come and commune and fellowship. People gather once a month, every third Tuesday at the Langston Hughes house, like the happy hour. We have wine and little snacks out, music playing.
People just connect. I think that that's important too. It doesn't always have to be a formal program, come sit down and have someone read to you but just come and exist together and heal each other. I think that that's healing and refreshing where we could just laugh and talk and love on each other a little bit in this rough world that we're living in. We wanted to have a haven and a safe space in honor of a man who very much loved to gather people and have people over at his home.
Tracey: I have to say, one of the things that I love in particular about I, Too, Arts Collective in that space in Langston Hughes' House has been the parties. [laughs]
Renée: Yes, we do know how to party. [laughs]
Tracey: We do know how to party. It has been a lot of fun. I know that right now, you guys are working to raise money to be able to buy the brownstone. You have a gala coming up. Do you want to talk about that?
Renée: Sure. We have our Langston's Legacy Gala that's coming up on the last day of Black History Month, February 28th. It's the bookend to February. His birthday is February 1st. We have a little small thing happening there. On the last day of February, we're gathering and raising funds. We have a silent art auction where so many renowned artists have donated art for that auction. A lot of people who are in children's lit like Bryan Collier, Frank Morrison, these legends are donating art. Some experiences of dinners at some of the nice restaurants in Harlem.
The night is going to be hosted by Jason Reynolds and Jacqueline Woodson. There's a DJ. I'll speak a little bit and the silent auction will happen and then we dance and we party. We celebrate his legacy, and celebrate what all of us are doing, how we're adding on to that. Tickets can be purchased online. I'm so moved by people who were like, "I don't live in New York, I can't go but I'm going to buy a ticket and you can give it as a comp ticket or I'm just going to make a donation." I really appreciate that. All the funds are going to purchasing The brownstone and putting a down-payment down.
Tracey: A lot of people are really excited about it. You've had some celebrities that dropped by and be like, "Hey, can I hang out?" You're going to tell us about some celebrities who dropped by?
Renée: Let's see. My personal favorite moments was having Ava DuVernay visit the brownstone. She was one of our early supporters. We didn't even reach out to her. She found out about us on Twitter. She donated publicly and shouted us out on Twitter. I was like, "What?" I love her work. I'm appreciating who she is in the world just as a person. It was an honor to have her even acknowledge us and to believe in our vision.
It was maybe a whole year later, CBS was interviewing her for something. They wanted to do it in a space that wasn't their studio, a more special space. They reached out to us and asked if we could host this interview. I don't think that she even knew what was on the itinerary. She's coming to a space but she didn't know that it was the Langston Hughes house.
When she got there, I'm standing there. I'm like, "Thank you so much for--" She's like, "Thank me? For what? Who are you?" "This is the Langston Hughes house. You donated." She was like, "Oh my goodness, you did it." It was this great moment where she was just like, "This is so awesome." I was so proud that I got to show her like, "This is where your money went to." We really are trying to make good on the goals and the vision and the promise that we set out for.
That was a special moment. We just had legends come by. Alfre Woodard came by. We cited a Langston poem, had me in tears, crying. There have been really special moments like that. Some of our, I call them our living legends in children's lit, Nikki Grimes and Andre [unclear]. People like that who have done so much and have so many books in the world, and that they would come and do an event in our space, was very special. All of that means a lot.
I'm not trying to be deep or downplay but that's a big deal to happen. Really, if I think about the two years that we've been open and doing programs, the day that just literally got to my heart and I wrote about it. I'm keeping this journal of just all the things that are happening as we're trying to move to purchase the brownstone. We had students from Japan, Korea, and the Bronx gather at the brownstone, teen poets who are part of an international poetry program, sponsored by DreamYard, which is a nonprofit organization in the Bronx. Our kids in the Bronx have gone to Japan and done poetry workshops there. They've gone to Korea.
It was Korea and Japan's turn to come to the States. They chose to do an event at The Langston Hughes house. Because the Bronx is so diverse, you have several countries representing just from the Bronx. It literally was this huge international poetry symposium with about 40 students, teenagers, all these languages being spoken and it was one of the girls' birthdays. They sang Happy Birthday to her. We counted, I think there were five different languages that she got the Happy Birthday song.
It was just a beautiful day and this moment of me stepping back and looking on the future writers. These kids who were coming together, learning how to write, sharing stories. It was just a powerful moment of literally seeing borders being crossed and stories being shared. We say it a lot. It becomes such a cliché that, "We're all human. We all have a story. Stories unite us." In that moment, I was like, "Yes, this is why I opened this space. This right here, is why we need the space." I'll never forget that day. It was a really beautiful moment.
Tracey: It sounds amazing. That's a birthday that kid will never forget. That's a good one. This was a big year for you. Piecing Me Together, it is a Newbery award honor and also the CSK medalist, Coretta Scott King medalist, which is huge. I got to see you that same night. We hung out a little bit which was a lot of fun. This is a big year, but also, you've had a couple of big years because of I, Too, Arts Collective and opening up the Langston Hughes house.
Have you had a chance to sit back and think about your work and what it is you're actually doing? The kind of impact that you're having on fellow writers, on young kids, on readers. I know it's a lot. You're just going through it. I know what your schedule looks like. You're always traveling, you're always at another school. You travel internationally, to schools internationally. You've spoken everywhere, the UN. Do you get a chance to think, to reflect?
Renée: I get a chance. I definitely am getting better at downtime and scheduling time than just do nothing. In those moments, I reflect- I write in my journal all the time, I've had that practice since I was a young kid. In that way, yes, I'm reflecting and kind of stepping back and just being like, "Oh my goodness, I'm living my dream. This is wild. I can't believe this has happened."
There are things you pray for, and things that you want. It's always amazing when you get them. But the other blessing is when doors open for you that you didn't even knock on. That, like getting opportunities that I didn't even know, would exist for me has been just a profound- it's been a profound year. But I don't think about what is my-- The other things you were asking about how am I impacting other people or what-- No, I can't think about that. I want to just keep creating and keep--
Tracey: Do you think it would be a thing that would stymie you from being able to be creative if you thought about those things?
Renée: Probably. I don't want to get caught up in that so much. I want to do good work. I want to make my mama proud. The things that matter most to me aren't some of the bigger things that are more public, like the things that people don't know or don't see, and I'm not posting online, are the things that I'm like, I want to make sure that I give back to my community.
Yes, I live in New York, these huge amazing things are happening, but I want to make sure the school I graduated from gets an author visit. Those are the things that matter to me, is making sure that kids who don't have access to-- I travel a lot, sometimes I'm in spaces that I'm like, "Wow, this is amazing that a school could bring all these authors and get all these books and do these amazing programs for their young people." But I know that there are more schools who don't have that.
When I'm thinking about what I do in the world, I want that work to matter, more than any award or any other kind of thing that is happening, because the impact I'm having on young people is most important to me, and especially the young people in the city that I grew up in.
Tracey: All right. You have a new book that's coming out that you co-wrote with a friend of yours. Tell us about Watch Us Rise.
Renée: Watch Us Rise, I wrote that with Ellen Hagan, who is a poet and a very good friend of mine. We taught together at DreamYard. In teaching poetry with her and having these conversations with young girls, we've always talked about collaborating, and we thought maybe we'll do a play. We just weren't sure what it would be. Then we decided, "Let's co-write a YA novel."
The book is told from two perspectives. My character is Jasmine, hers is Chelsea. Chelsea is a white girl, Jasmine is black. They're at this progressive school, there are so many of these progressive schools, especially in New York, that are all about social justice on paper. But the reality of what's happening in the classroom can sometimes miss the mark. That's what's happening at their school.
Chelsea's a poet, and in her poetry class, or her poetry club, she feels like, her voice is being silenced actually. She's kind of fighting against like, "Hey, there are living poets, there are women poets. Why aren't we learning about the contemporary people?" Jasmine is feeling the silence in her theater class, she keeps getting stereotyped and put into these roles that are the stereotypical roles for big black girls.
When the girls raise their voices, they're shut down. They decide to start a blog and do their own resistance movement and put into practice the things the school is teaching them, but not allowing them to be. That's the book, they do a blog post that goes viral, and it starts a lot of controversy. The principal tries to shut them down, and they're like, "Oh, no, you will not." They arise from that.
Writing that with Ellen was such an amazing experience. We wrote together. Every time we worked on the book, we sat in the same room at her apartment. We'd talk a little bit and then do some writing and share at the end. That's how we wrote the whole thing. I'm really proud of it. It's a book, hopefully, that young people will see, you can be flawed and still be a part of a movement. You don't have to wait until you're perfect or older or you know all the answers.
Chelsea, she puts her foot in their mouth sometimes, like she's really woke on some things and then other issues, she's not as aware. We wanted that nuance of how you can be so tunnel-visioned on the issues you care about, but that there are other marginalized groups that are having their own struggles, and maybe you don't know about those. That's her growing edge. Jasmine's growth is to speak up for herself and to be who she knows she really is on the inside.
It has a lot of poetry, and both characters write poetry, there's blog posts, there's art. It's a lot going on in the book. It's not a traditional chapter-by-chapter book, there are some special little surprises in them.
Tracey: Nice, special surprises. When does the book come out?
Renée: February 12th.
Tracey: All right, that's soon. Thank you, Renée.
Renée: No, thank you. I always enjoy talking to you.
Tracey: We got so much time together today. Great. Thank you again.
Announcer: Thank you for listening to Why We Write. This podcast is just a sample of the many amazing people who are part of the Lesley writing community. If you want to know more about our creative writing program, see photos of Tracey and Renée during our interview, or check out links about topics discussed today, please head over to our podcast page www.lesley.edu/podcast. That's Lesley spelled L-E-S-L-E-Y. If you've enjoyed the podcast so far, please rate and review us on the podcast platform of your choice and tell a friend. Here's what we've got coming up next week.
Enzo Silon Surin: Some people are drawn to an art simply because they're trying to survive. It becomes a way to express themselves. But me, I don't put the responsibility on everyone as an artist to play a much bigger role in terms of art in the real world, as they call it. There's room for both, there's space for both. But I do think, for me, personally as an artist, I was not given this gift simply for me to write poems for myself. I was given this as an agent of change.