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Author of ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’ opens dialogue about race and writing

MFA student Jasmine Evans leads conversation with award winning author Jacqueline Woodson. ( GRETA LOPEZ)
MFA student Jasmine Evans leads conversation with award winning author Jacqueline Woodson. (JASMINE EVANS)

“When it comes to young adult literature, nothing is off-limits.” This is a statement four-time Newbery Award winner and three-time National Book Award finalist Jacqueline Woodson stressed to her audience on Friday, Apr. 10.

Woodson came to Mills College as part of a public conversation series hosted by POC+MFA and held in the Graduate School of Business. Woodson is the author of over 30 books for young adult, middle-grade readers and children. Her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming” has received not only the 2014 National Book Award, but also the NAACP Image Award, a Newberry Honor, and is shortlisted for the LA Times Book Prize.

POC+MFA is a group made up of students of color in the MFA creative writing program. Throughout the semester, they meet with Distinguished Visiting Writer Achy Obejas to discuss the challenges they face as people and writers of color.

At POC+MFA’s third and most recent installment of the public conversation series, Second-year MFA student Jasmine Evans led the conversation with Woodson. After the event, Evans said it was important to bring authors as influential and inspiring as Woodson to the College.

“I think bringing Jacqueline Woodson to campus allowed me, personally, to take conversations happening in corners and office hours to a public space,” Evans said in an email. “I was able to tap into Woodson’s expertise and hear from a full-time writer what it means to be a writer of color in the current publishing landscape, particularly when writing for children and young adults.”

Evans hopes that students who attended this event will learn from the topics Woodson touched on — ranging from creativity, to the writing process, to double consciousness.

“I think it’s always useful to remind people that writers … are human, and there is a process behind the book,” Evans said. “I wanted to dispel the idea that one simply has an idea and then sits down and the book pours out of the brain and fingers. That’s not how it works. And I think everyone can benefit from understanding creative processes because creativity is beneficial in every field.”

Professor Kathryn Reiss also expressed her joy of having the privilege to meet Woodson.

“I have often used Jacqueline’s novels as texts in my courses at Mills, and it is an honor to meet her here today,” Reiss said.

Quickly following the public conversation between Evans and Woodson, Evans opened it up to a Q&A session between Woodson and the audience. One audience member asked how a writer, not of color, should approach writing a character of color and whether it is ethical of the writer to do so.

“I think it is the question of asking yourself ‘why are my characters of color?'” Woodson said. “You have to do the research and not put a stereotype on the page because if you don’t know people of color, how could you know who they are or what they do or what they say? … Our history is so long and complicated and even if you don’t put that information about your characters on the page, you have to know.”

The final POC+MFA public conversation of this semester will take place on Apr. 27, featuring author Nayomi Munaweera.