This Side of Home
In her captivating debut novel This Side of Home (Bloomsbury Publishing), Renée Watson explores the complications that arise when a neighborhood is transformed from lower middle class to hipster. Portland twin sisters Maya and Nikki share everything from friends to dreams of attending a historical African-American college, yet in their high school senior year their black Oregon town sees rents rising and chic coffee shops and boutiques emerging. As the demographic changes, their best friend Essence is forced to move away while a white family moves into her house. Nikki is excited to see the improvements in her neighborhood, but Maya feels that the character she loves about her home is slipping away. Watson’s multi-voiced novel illustrates the unpredictability of life, as friendships fall apart and unexpected love is found across race lines.
Watson, 37, saw her community in northeast Portland gentrified when she was a teenager. She currently lives in New York and has witnessed gentrification in Brooklyn and Harlem. I first met Watson when she visited The New School to talk about her book. I met up with her for dinner at a Mexican Restaurant in Minneapolis during the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference.
Linda Kleinbub (Rail): Do you feel as a black writer that you may have trouble getting white readers?
Renée Watson: Not at all. I have a diverse readership. However, I do know that some white readers see a book with a black protagonist on the cover and they think the book is not for their child. Once, when I was in Decatur, Georgia for a book event featuring What Momma Left Me I overheard a young white girl (about twelve) and her mother, arguing. The mother gave lots of reasons why they couldn’t get it (they had already purchased books, the line was too long, she could check it out at the library). She insisted, “Mom, please? I really want to know what happens!” The mother sighed, and said, “Look, sweetheart, I just don’t think you can relate to this story. There’s just too much happening in it that you haven’t experienced.” The girl said, “Well mom, I’ve never experienced the things that happened in Harry Potter either! But I’ve read the whole series!”
Rail: Did they buy it?
Watson: Yes. They purchased the book. I was thrilled to sign it. That little girl taught her mother a lesson—just because a black girl’s face was on the cover and the story dealt with domestic violence and loss, didn’t mean she couldn’t relate. Reading is about learning from characters, experiencing their world.
Rail: Do you consider yourself an activist?
Watson: I haven’t always but, yes, now I do. Through my teaching and writing, I am committed to working for a more just world. As an artist, I feel responsible for using my art to do more than entertain, but to explore social issues and encourage dialogue and action.
Rail: In the fight scene in the book when the N word is used and ends in “er’’ rather than “ar” you write “it hangs in the hallway like black men’s bodies hung from trees. It lingers and struggles and chokes out all air.” You implied when the “N” word ends in “er” word is worse than when it ends in “a.” To me all racial slurs are wrong. Can you elaborate?
Watson: I personally don’t use the N word and am offended when I hear it—in any form. In the book, the character Maya has heard it used as a greeting by the boys in her neighborhood, but when she hears it used in a way that evokes hatred she gets very upset and understands why the elders of the community discourage use of the word and she eventually agrees with them. I try to challenge the young people I work with to make a conscious choice about the word. I’d love for young people to agree with me but that’s not the point. The point is to get them thinking and talking.
Rail: Tony, who is white, disagrees with Maya about attending Spelman College. She argues that it is a family tradition since her mother and grandmother went there and she wants to meet all types of black people. What do you mean by this?
Watson: Maya longs to learn about her history—a well-balanced history—not just slavery and suffering. She believes attending a black university will allow her to learn more about her legacy. I based her desire to move to Atlanta off of my real experience of going there for the first time in the fifth grade. I was in awe that all around me were black professionals, black people with natural hair. Being black was normal, no one was staring or asking to touch my hair. There was something powerful and validating about being in that type of space as a black girl, something I had never experienced living in a white city. Of course, it is very immature of Maya to think that in Atlanta she won’t have to deal with prejudice or difference, but in her teenaged mind, Spelman is a sacred, almost magical place.
Rail: Tell me about the work you did after Hurricane Katrina that led to the Random House kids’ book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen.
Watson: I did poetry workshops with children in New Orleans who were coping with the aftermath of Katrina. They wrote about life before, during, and after Katrina and shared their poems with the community. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about writing a book. I never thought I would write a picture book. I couldn’t get their poetry out of my head. So much of the conversation became political, but I was thinking, “What about the children?” My professor at the New School, Julia Noonan, gave us an assignment to write a picture book that deals with a “difficult subject matter.” I had no idea what to write. I sat down to work, the characters came out. Once the book was published, I went back to New Orleans with Shadra Strickland, the illustrator. We visited schools and gave books to the children who inspired the story.
Rail: Maya learns the history of how blacks arrived in Portland talking to Mr. Washington. What research did you do for this?
Watson: Mr. Washington is one of my favorite characters. My research to develop him included talking with elders in the community, watching documentaries, and reading articles. The Oregon Historical Society has great archives.
Rail: Is Mr. Washington based on someone from real life?
Watson: There actually is a “real” Mr. Washington but, at the time, I hadn’t met him. He is mostly based on Pastor Felton Howard, pastor of the church I grew up in, Antioch Baptist Church. He was wise and loving and he could tell stories all day. He often told us stories about growing up in Louisiana and stressed how far black people had come, how much work there was left to do. I had him in mind when I wrote the character Mr. Washington.
Rail: What did you see as a teenager in Portland when it was gentrified?
Watson: I noticed changes in my junior year in high school. It took about twenty years to see the fullness of change in northeast Portland. Gentrification was not a word I knew at fifteen but I knew the feeling of not belonging. There was something about the changes that made it seem like they weren’t for the people who already lived there but for the people who were coming. Yet, even with that feeling, I still wanted to go out and enjoy these new places. I have both of the twin’s perspectives—I want the change, appreciate it even, but I don’t appreciate the push out that often comes with it.
Rail: New York City can be a tough place for a writer. Do you feel like you made it?
Watson: My writing and teaching sustains me and allows me to afford my apartment in New York City. I don’t think I’ve made it. There’s so much more I want to do, so much I am learning. I definitely feel blessed to be living my dream.
Renée Watson will be speaking on a panel called “High School Confidential,” at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 20, 2015 at 5:00 PM, moderated by Paul Rudnick.More information: http://www.brooklynbookfestival.org/authors/renee-watson
LINDA KLEINBUB is a mentor at Girls Write Now, an organization that works with at-risk high school girls who have a passion for writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, Our Town `Downtown, Front Porch Commons, and The Best American Poetry Blog.