Jacqueline Woodsen and Watermelon Jokes

Jacqueline Woodsen has written a number of books that address sensitive themes, such as race, gender, sexual identity, and societal history. She recently received the 2014 National Book Award in the “Young People’s Literature” category for her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming.” Below is an article she wrote for the New York Times Opinion Pages, in which she addresses the racially-charged correlation between African Americans and watermelons, and exposes the false assumption that racial divide is a thing of the past. Woodsen speaks out at a time where change is happening, but is not fully realized. Click for original posting

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Source: NPR

As a child in South Carolina, I spent summers like so many children — sitting on my grandparents’ back porch with my siblings, spitting watermelon seeds into the garden or, even worse, swallowing them and trembling as my older brother and sister spoke of the vine that was probably already growing in my belly.

It was the late ’60s and early ’70s, and even though Jim Crow was supposed to be far behind us, we spent our days in the all-black community called Nicholtown in a still segregated South.

One year, we bought a watermelon off the back of a man’s pickup truck and placed it in our garden. As my grandfather snapped pictures from his box camera, we laughed about how we’d fool my mother, who was in New York, by telling her we’d grown it ourselves. I still have the photo of me in a pale pink dress, beribboned and smiling, sitting on that melon.

But by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit.

I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them, watched black migrants from the South try to eke out a living in the big city by driving through neighborhoods like my own — Bushwick, in Brooklyn — with trucks loaded down with the fruit.

In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than.

Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.

In the midst of observing the world and coming to consciousness, I was becoming a writer, and what I wanted to put on the page were the stories of people who looked like me. I was a child on a mission — to change the face of literature and erase stereotypes. Forever. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was dreaming of the Pulitzer Prize. By the time I was 45, I had won just about every award one could win for young people’s literature. Just this month, I received the National Book Award in the young-adult category for my memoir, “Brown Girl Dreaming.”

As I walked away from the stage to a standing ovation after my acceptance speech, it was the last place in the world I thought I’d hear the watermelon joke — directed by the M.C., Daniel Handler, at me. “Jackie’s allergic to watermelon,” he said. “Just let that sink in your mind.” Daniel and I have been friends for years. Last summer, at his home on Cape Cod, he served watermelon soup and I let him know I was allergic to the fruit. I was astonished when he brought this up before the National Book Award audience — in the form of a wink-nudge joke about being black.

In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.

“Brown Girl Dreaming” is the story of my family, moving from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and ends with me as a child of the ’70s. It is steeped in the history of not only my family but of America. As African-Americans, we were given this history daily as weapons against our stories’ being erased in the world or, even worse, delivered to us offhandedly in the form of humor.

As I interviewed relatives in both Ohio and Greenville, S.C., I began to piece together the story of my mother’s life, my grandparents’ lives and the lives of cousins, aunts and uncles. These stories, and the stories I had heard throughout my childhood, were told with the hope that I would carry on this family history and American history, so that those coming after me could walk through the world as armed as I am.

Mr. Handler’s watermelon comment was made at a time of change. We Need Diverse Books, a grass-roots organization committed to diversifying all children’s literature, had only months before stormed the BookCon conference because of its all-white panels. The world of publishing has been getting shaken like a pecan tree and called to the floor because of its lack of diversity in the workplace. At this year’s National Book Awards, many of the books featured nonwhite protagonists, and three of the 20 finalists were people of color. One of those brown finalists (me!), in the very first category, Young People’s Literature, had just won.

Just let that sink in your mind.

I would have written “Brown Girl Dreaming” if no one had ever wanted to buy it, if it went nowhere but inside a desk drawer that my own children pulled out one day to find a tool for survival, a symbol of how strong we are and how much we’ve come through. Their great-great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War. Their great-grandfather, Hope, and great-grandmother, Grace, raised one of the few black families in Nelsonville, Ohio, and saw five children through college. Their grandmother’s school in Greenville, Sterling High, was set on fire and burned to the ground.

To know that we African-Americans came here enslaved to work until we died but didn’t die, and instead grew up to become doctors and teachers, architects and presidents — how can these children not carry this history with them for those many moments when someone will attempt to make light of it, or want them to forget the depth and amazingness of their journey?

How could I come from such a past and not know that I am on a mission, too?

This mission is what’s been passed down to me — to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people — and all people — a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.

Report from the Trenches: Publisher Jason Epstein

Jason Epstein has led one of the most creative careers in book publishing of the past half century. In 1952, while a young editor at Doubleday, he created Anchor Books, which launched the so-called ‘paperback revolution’ and established the trade paperback format. In the following decade he became cofounder of The New York Review of Books. In the 1980s he created the Library of America, the prestigious publisher of American classics, and The Reader’s Catalog, the precursor of online bookselling. For many years, Jason Epstein was editorial director of Random House. He was the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters and was given the Curtis ‘inventing new kinds of publishing and editing.’ He has edited many well-known novelists, including Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, E. L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal, as well as many important writers of nonfiction.

 

In the piece below, Tqwana Brown, a student in Prof. Soares’ Entrepeneurship Class this spring, blogs about the guest lecture that Mr. Epstein, who is also on the Advisory Board for the MS in Publishing program, gave last week.  

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With such a long and storied career in publishing, Jason Epstein has probably seen it all – or helped usher it in. So, what does the father of the Paperback Revolution think of massive changes taking place today in the industry? He calls in the “Post-Gutenberg Era”, helped along by the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey. While the books themselves may polarize readers, Mr. Epstein says they revolutionized publishing, in that E.L. James didn’t need a Big 6 publisher. Random House came along after she and her books were already established hits.

And while some conventions and mainstays of publishing may become extinct, books according to Mr. Epstein will always have an audience – even the ink and paper versions. Speaking to a class of would-be entrepreneurs, he presented a cautiously optimistic view of what’s to come in publishing.

What does he think of all the low-quality self-published stuff out there? “It’ll work itself out”, vanishing on its own, based on reader preferences.

The Amazon/DOJ agency vs. wholesale pricing model issues? That too will work itself out. He theorizes it as Amazon’s way of forcing traditional publishers into this new Era.

And what of editors, copyeditors, publicists, etc.? Those positions, he believes, will always be needed. Just in different capacities. More freelance opportunities, perhaps. Or ventures reaching out to these indie authors.  Agents too would change, becoming business managers and brand builders.

But, what does he see not surviving this digital revolution? Warehouses. With the infinite and malleable options offered by electronic space, physical warehouses – and large quantities of print books – can’t compete.

Territorial and translations rights also could no longer exist in their current states. This is something he suggests we, as newbies to publishing, should be looking into and developing. With the immediate and instant availability of digital material, Mr. Epstein sees a need for universal rights and simultaneous translations. Cooperation that he sees as a major difficulty in an industry that doesn’t want to, but has to change.

So, while some opportunities will go the way of Borders, Jason Epstein believes that there are so many still out there waiting for up and coming professionals to seize and capitalize on. After all, he didn’t invent paperbacks, just recognized a need for them and took advantage of the occasion at the right time.  And he hasn’t stopped, just find the nearest Espresso Book Machine.

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Tqwana Brown is in her second semester in the MS in Publishing program.   A former high school English teacher, Tqwana is shifting gears to the publishing career track.   She is interested in working on in the editorial side of book publishing or as a Literary Agent.

Author Event: Deirdre Bair

Attention all MS in Publishing students and faculty:

Come see National Book Award winner Deirdre Bair at the Princeton Club for a discussion of her new book, a biography of the artist Saul Steinberg. Join us for an extraordinary discussion of Saul Steinberg’s life and work.

Deirdre Bair is the critically acclaimed author of four previous biographies and an additional work of nonfiction. She received the National Book Award for Samuel Beckett: A Biography. Her biographies of Simone de Beauvoir and C.G. Jung were finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her biographies of Anais Nin and Simone de Beauvoir were choosen by the New York Times as “Best Books of the Year,”and her biography of Jung won the Gradiva Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis. Her biography of Saul Steinberg, one of The New Yorker’s most iconic artists, will be published by Nan A. Talese, Doubleday in November.

 

November 15, 2012 at 6:00 PM – 7:30 PM

The Princeton Club, 15 West 43rd Street, New York, New York

RSVP to melissarosati@me.com