Page Count Live with Hanif Abdurraqib & Jacqueline Woodson

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Show Notes

In a special episode recorded before a live audience at the 2024 Ohioana Book Festival, Jacqueline Woodson and Hanif Abdurraqib discuss their latest books, their artistic influences, how they define “making it” as a writer, what it was like to win the MacArthur Fellowship, how they navigate their public roles as authors, how libraries impacted their lives, and more.

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of the poetry collections The Crown Ain’t Worth Much and A Fortune for Your Disaster. His nonfiction titles include Go Ahead in The Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. His latest book is There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension.

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than thirty books for young people and adults, including Another Brooklyn, Red at The Bone, and The Day You Begin. She received a 2023 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a 2023 E. B. White Award, among many other accolades, and was the 2018–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, and the NAACP Image Award. In 2018, she founded Baldwin For The Arts, a residency serving writers, composers, interdisciplinary, and visual artists of the Global Majority. Her most recent book, Remember Us, is a middle grade novel set in Bushwick.

The panel was sponsored by Ohio Humanities and hosted at the Ohioana Book Festival at the Columbus Metropolitan Library on April 20, 2024. Festival photos: Mary Rathke

In this episode:



Jacqueline Woodson (00:00):
Hanif writing about Columbus and a basketball court I've never been on and a group of people I've never met can bring me to tears, because it touches such a deep core in my own understanding of what I love and what I've known.

David Weaver (00:19):
Good afternoon. I'm David Weaver. I'm the executive director of the Ohioana Library Association, which is the presenter of the Ohioana Book Festival. This is the 18th annual Ohioana Book Festival, and it's our third to be at Columbus Metropolitan Library's Main Library. So we're very grateful to CML for hosting us here at this wonderful, beautiful facility. And I'm delighted because I get to be the opening act for this panel, which is a conversation with Hanif Abdurraqib and Jacqueline Woodson, two of not only Ohio's, but America's and the world's most celebrated writers at this time. Yes.

David Weaver (01:02):
And we're very delighted because this is going to be a very special conversation that is recorded for Page Count, which is a program of the Ohio Center for the book at Cleveland Public Library. And it's hosted by Laura Maylene Walter. Yes. And I'm delighted because Laura is not only the host of Page Count, but she was 12 years ago the winner of the Ohioana Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant for a young writer age 30 year younger who has not yet published a book. Yes. And she has since gone on to publish two books, one of which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award in Fiction just last year. So we're very delighted. And before I turn things over, I just want to say a very special thank you to our good friends, Ohio Humanities, which is sponsoring this panel, Rebecca Asmo, the director of Ohio Humanities this year. So thank you, Ohio Humanities, and thank all of our sponsors and partners. And without further ado, let me turn it over to Laura for a conversation recorded live for Page Count.

Laura Maylene Walter (02:09):
Thank you, David. Hi, everyone. Welcome to the 2024 Ohioana Book Festival. I'm Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow at Cleveland Public Library and host of the Page Count podcast. And now I'm pleased to introduce our authors. Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. He is the author of the poetry collections THE CROWN AIN’T WORTH MUCH and A FORTUNE FOR YOUR DISASTER. His nonfiction titles include GO AHEAD IN THE RAIN: NOTES TO A TRIBE CALLED QUEST, THEY CAN’T KILL US UNTIL THEY KILL US, and A LITTLE DEVIL IN AMERICA: IN PRAISE OF BLACK PERFORMANCE, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. His latest book is THERE’S ALWAYS THIS YEAR: ON BASKETBALL AND ASCENSION, which is about Ohio and basketball and LeBron James and hometown pride and who gets to make it out of a place and who doesn’t, among many other things.

Laura Maylene Walter (03:02):
And Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than 30 books for young people and adults, including ANOTHER BROOKLYN, RED AT THE BONE, and THE DAY YOU BEGIN. She received a 2023 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and a 2023 E. B. White Award, among many other accolades, and was the 2018–2019 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Her memoir BROWN GIRL DREAMING won the National Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor, and the NAACP Image Award. In 2018, she founded BALDWIN FOR THE ARTS, a residency serving writers, composers, interdisciplinary, and visual artists of the Global Majority. Her most recent book, REMEMBER US, is a middle grade novel set in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Can we please give it up for Jacqueline Woodson and Hanif Abdurraqib? <applause> And for the record, I should say I had to leave out a lot of awards and accolades just out of interest of time. But I can tell you that both of our esteemed authors today have won multiple Ohioana Book Awards and also are recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship. So with that, welcome to the podcast, Jacqueline and Hanif. I'm so excited to chat with you today.

Hanif Abdurraqib (04:09):
Thank you.

Jacqueline Woodson (04:09):
Thank you. Nice to be here.

Hanif Abdurraqib (04:11):
Good to be here. Also, David said all that stuff and didn't say this is his last year. Yeah. So show some love to David for putting this on for so long.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:21):
David Weaver is retiring this year and we are going to miss you so much and glad to share this last festival with you. All right, so your two latest books that we're here to discuss today, they are honestly quite different books. Jacqueline's book is middle grade fiction and Hanif's nonfiction for adults. But I think there's a lot we can talk about in terms of writing and art making and structure and the creative process. Both of the books do have as a connecting tissue basketball at the heart of them. So for those in the audience and our listeners who haven't yet had the chance to read your books, can you please each give a brief overview of your book? And I'm curious how for you, basketball was embedded in the original conception of the book.

Jacqueline Woodson (05:05):
It's hard to start without talking about Hanif's book <laugh> that I'm just so blown away by. For me, REMEMBER US started with the passion of ball set against the backdrop of what was happening in Bushwick in the seventies, which were the fires that were destroying many, many of the houses and displacing lots of people. And that actually started with looking at Brooklyn today and seeing the way that building is displacing people. So in one way we had the destruction and now we have the construction. And I wanted to use the past to talk about the present, but also to talk about a time when girls had very few options about sports. There was no WNBA, there was no Title IX, you had the dream of the game, but nowhere to take that dream. And so I wanted to create a character who showed us that side. Is that answering the question?

Laura Maylene Walter (06:05):
It does. And your character is a young girl named Sage who loves playing basketball and she plays with the boys and I was thinking about...

Jacqueline Woodson (06:11):
And she's really good.

Laura Maylene Walter (06:12):
She's really good! And I was actually thinking about her recently with the Women's Final Four. And Caitlin Clark has gotten all this attention. So what do you think Sage would think about that if she were in this timeline?

Jacqueline Woodson (06:24):
That's a good question. And for those of you who don't know, Caitlin Clark killed a game and then got this really whack contract when looked at compared to the contract that men get. And I think that, you know, it's funny, I think my character would be more inclined to look at the Black players <laugh> in the NCAA and look at the love of the game. But the injustice of that, there's of course a throughline to it. And of course her being eleven wouldn't understand that. But me in my sixties definitely understands it. I think the thing about it is that the passion of the game isn't deterred because of the payment. People play because they love the game. And it's unfortunate that not everyone can get paid for that passion.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:14):
Well, on the entire other end of the spectrum for earning power, we've got LeBron James <laugh> <laugh>. So Hanif, can you tell us, as someone who grew up in Ohio, roughly the same age as LeBron James and witnessed his rise, can you talk a bit about how you translated making it into a book? How did this idea evolve into forming it into a book?

Hanif Abdurraqib (07:37):
I mean, LeBron James is a vessel for the exploration of, in my mind, two central concepts: mortality and what making it means. I don't know how tenured are the Columbus folks in the room are, but the first basketball team I ever loved was the Columbus Quest. If folks remember them, that team eventually became the Minnesota Lynx. Like when the WNBA came, pretty much that entire team migrated. If you talk to my dear friend the writer Scott Woods, he's still not forgiven the WNBA for stealing the Columbus Quest away. But at that same time, I grew up on the east side. I grew up across the street from a park called Scottwood. Well, it's not a park, it's an elementary school. But the thing I'm considering in the book is that basketball court is a basketball court and whatever it's attached to is serving a separate function.

Hanif Abdurraqib (08:18):
So yes, Scottwood Elementary School is a elementary school, but for the purposes of my neighborhood, it was like one of the most prominent basketball courts in Columbus, which meant that everyone would come and play there, which meant that all Americans would come and play there. Kenny Gregory, for those who know Columbus Ball history, Esteban Weaver, but also dudes who were like the fifth string or you know, like the sixth person on the bench on their high school team. But if that sixth person on the bench on the high school team got hot that day, then they were the All American. So there's a democratization of the pickup game that I'm very fascinated by. And I wanted to redefine this question of what "making it" is. Yes, LeBron James is a billionaire in the NBA, but also for me, a guy like Esteban Weaver who like dropped out of high school after Independence lost in 1997 in the state tournament is a legend in the city.

Hanif Abdurraqib (09:03):
You know, like if you go to any basketball court right now in Columbus and find some young kids playing who were not even alive when Esteban played, you bring up the name of Esteban Weaver, he's revered by these young folks, he's revered by people my age who saw him when we were young. And so the idea is perhaps making it is having a name that echoes in the place where you first learned the dream. And I think LeBron James is a good vessel for that. But using him as a jump off point was really allowed for some flexibility.

Laura Maylene Walter (09:28):
Well, and speaking of place, both of these books place is so important. The setting is just the heartbeat of each book, really. REMEMBER US, which is set in Bushwick during the seventies when fires were happening throughout the neighborhood, which would turn out to be arson. And Jacqueline, I was really touched by this line in the Acknowledgements at the end: "The Bushwick of my past is long gone, but in writing this book, I was able to go home again." And speaking of home, in Hanif's book, when writing about how Ohio the state is shaped a bit like a heart: "...a jagged heart, a heart with sharp edges, a heart as a weapon. That's why so many people make their way elsewhere." So I would love to hear both of you talk a bit about home and the writing process for each of your books and how this conception of home really is infused in your work and and how you were approaching it during the process.

Hanif Abdurraqib (10:23):
Well, I want to say too, that one, I read your book [Woodson's REMEMBER US] on a plane like last week. It was very, it was like a pleasureful read. And I think that since we're talking about place, one thing that fascinates me about your work is that you have this kind of like an extended universe. There's like a real circumference to, I think, the way you write about place. But it feels like the way you write about place is so expansive that it is 20 different places at once. And part of that I think is 'cause how efficiently you move through time, which I don't know, I wish I could move through time that seamlessly not just in one book, but like through multiple books. And so I got sidetracked. The question was about place and... <Laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (10:57):
Which is, it's a hard question, especially for your book because your whole book is about a way home and place and grappling with that.

Hanif Abdurraqib (11:05):
Yeah. I mean, I think Columbus is challenging for me because like if a lot of cities, I don't think this is unique to Columbus, but there are many ways that gentrification, the nefarious nature of it is ignited. But one way that it is ignited is when a city does not know what its identity is, therefore it tries to be multiple cities at once. It happens because the powers that be, whomever those powers are, forget that the architecture of a place is its people and not the actual physical architecture. And this is why Columbus has a million high-rise condos that like no one's living in. You know what I mean? Because we're seeing past not we, whomever...developers are seeing past the actual architecture as a living human element. And instead saying, well, architecture is architecture, but there's no one inside the architecture. It's a problem that builds upon itself.

Hanif Abdurraqib (11:53):
It's a question that just keeps echoing in an empty room. And so there's a way that I think my relationship with place is trying to build a mythology around the people. That's why in my book, everyone, and I think a lot of my books, people who I love in Columbus, I tend to make them somewhat larger than life. You know, the Kenny Gregorys or the Estaban Weavers in this book, or even Bruce Howard, I don't know if folks remember Bruce Howard, Brookhaven's storied coach, Andrew Lavender, like these folks, you know, my mother, my father, they have to be so large that nothing can be built around them that they can't tower over. And so part of my relationship with place is building mythology around the people so that the people cannot be removed.

Jacqueline Woodson (12:33):
I was on the BQE, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, driving home one day in Brooklyn and there was this huge sign that said, "If you lived in Columbus, you wouldn't be in traffic right now" <laugh>. And I was blown away that, you know, here was this huge sign telling me that I should go home. But I think one thing I do love and envy about and also feel like Hanif and I are so connected is that sense of home. Like I was born here in Columbus. I left when I was two months old. My auntie's here, my cousin's here, my cousin's on the Board here, my dad is here. And there's always this pullback toward birthplace. And it's not home. Brooklyn is home for me. Brooklyn is where I was raised, where I learned everything I needed to know about what it means to be human in this world and where I got to watch the world.

Jacqueline Woodson (13:30):
And then from here I moved to South Carolina where I lived until I was seven. So for me that's kind of like my emotional baseline and my moral baseline. You say hi to people <laugh>, you know, you're kind, all of that stuff comes out of there. So that by the time I got to New York, I knew I had this foundation of kindness, but I could be a New Yorker <laugh>, and those two things could coexist. And when I read your work, Hanif, it's so interesting to me, and this will come back to the idea of home, that in your poetry, in your essays, there's always the person that is leaving or might be leaving. There's always the car that has left or that is going and might not come back. I was thinking about intermission. There's this beautiful essay, and again, it's about so many things.

Jacqueline Woodson (14:17):
It's about basketball, it's about that court, it's about fathers. It's about the danger of basketball and playing on a court where you could cut your hands and your knees because of the amount of glass there. It's about the things we hold dear. And every neighborhood has the father with the car <laugh>. Like whether you're in Brooklyn, a Columbus, like my friend Michael's father's car, do not sit on that car or that man will hurt you. And I think that that's the thing about writing about home, that in our deep specificity there is such a universality. You know, Hanif writing about Columbus and a basketball court I've never been on and a group of people I've never met can bring me to tears, because it touches such a deep core in my own understanding of what I love and what I've known. When I was writing REMEMBER US, it was looking back on a time where people were surviving and fine.

Jacqueline Woodson (15:14):
My mother came there, she was a single mom, struggle, struggle, struggle. Finally was able to buy her house and live in Bushwick. And I remember when I was writing ANOTHER BROOKLYN, I wrote that because I remember people saying, white people saying, oh, we discovered this great neighborhood called Bushwick. And I was like, no, we were there before and before we were there the Lenape were there, right? The indigenous people were there. So I always say not discovered, but Columbus, right? We just Columbus this neighborhood because we just came in and are talking about discovering something that everyone else but you knew about. And wanting to put on the page the same thing. Something that would be remembered because as we know, history now is so much about erasure, right? Let's ban and erase the stories of people of the global majority. Let's ban and erase the stories of queer people, of trans people.

Jacqueline Woodson (16:02):
Like this is the work that's being done now to try to get our stories erased so that that history is not known. So that people don't have a sense of their own survival, right? The way that we got through all of this, and we can get through this plundering, too. So in writing REMEMBER US, it was of course first and foremost for me to remember home and to remember where I came from and to remember what I loved as a child. And to understand that plunder didn't just begin to happen. That back in the day, you know, landlords were burning down homes that Black and brown people were living in so that they could get the insurance money because that was worth more than the lives of those people.

Laura Maylene Walter (16:43):
I'd love to transition to talking a bit about writing and your careers as writers. We talked earlier about the concept of making it, right? So it made me think of your conception of "making it." And actually there's a line that Sage says in REMEMBER US that I took note of, which is, you know, she loves playing basketball and one of her friends is kind of teasing her and saying, oh you want to be rich and famous, like the pros, right? And Sage says: "I don't care about being rich, I just want to play the game." So I'm wondering if you can share how you both view that in terms of being a writer, being rich versus playing the game and what it means to you personally in terms of making it as an author.

Jacqueline Woodson (17:24):
I'm 100% Sage. I feel like everything that came after the fact that I was able to write is the gravy. You know, I never thought I would get this many awards, write this many books or be considered a quote unquote genius by some people. Even though I lord that over my kids all the time. I'm like, you know, your mama's a genius <laugh>, but I truly would be writing if none of this was happening. For me, it's survival. It's a way of making sense of the world and having some power in that world because once you get the story on the page, like I'm a little bit different than when I started writing it. And that growth is so important to me.

Hanif Abdurraqib (18:05):
I've been thinking a lot about, and well, I've been forced to think a lot about this lately because I'm in a position where I think I've realized that my life is maybe different than it was a couple years ago. In THERE'S ALWAYS THIS YEAR I write about being unhoused. There was a point where I lived in a storage unit, I had a mattress and a little lamp and that was all I had. And I wrote because no one was publishing me, no one cared, no one knew. But I wrote because like you couldn't really make noise 'cause you're not like supposed to live in storage units. So I was writing 'cause it was something I could do quietly. And so for me that was very literally survival to say I am writing as a bridge to get from one day to the next. That's still the ethos that I operate with.

Hanif Abdurraqib (18:44):
But also, I mean, folks who know me well know that I really don't care much about awards and decoration, which I get is easier to say when you've won things. But I didn't care about when I didn't win things. Some of that is because I'm really grounded here. I'm accountable to this place I love and the people in it who first and foremost value me as a neighbor and not as someone who produces things. The day that MacArthur was announced, cause you know they tell you like they tell you too long before they announce it, it's like three f*cking months. Oh, you probably can't curse. I'm sorry. Sorry for cursing on the podcast <laugh>.

Hanif Abdurraqib (19:13):
So the day it was announced, I was supposed to pick up a friend to go see Julien Baker at the Newport. I was late because you know, that day is wild. And I remember pulling up late and I was like, I'm late. You know, I won this award today. You know, my friends love me very deeply, but she was just like, well that's really cool, but man we gotta get to this show. You know? It was very much like, yeah, I think what I'm saying is if I were to turn myself towards this idea of fame or notoriety or an obsession with decoration to do that, not just as a writer but as a person, a very significant part of you will die. And you'll not be able to get it back. And you will turn back to your people in the places you love and they will not recognize you because the part of you that dies, the part of you that will die first is a part of you that is acting in service of that which you love. And to have that part of me die scares me more than I would want to be famous or have notoriety. And so to keep that part of myself alive is the priority. And that means that I am writing for a higher, better purpose.

Laura Maylene Walter (20:14):
I have a follow up question relating to that, but first I just want to see, Jacqueline, if you wanted to add anything about winning the MacArthur Fellowship, which as we all know is known as the "genius" grant.

Jacqueline Woodson (20:24):
You know, first of all, I'm sure I can speak for myself and Hanif in that we're introverts. I love being alone. I love just being with my writing. I love not being recognized, you know, just being able to walk to the grocery store and get, you know, something to eat without someone stopping me. Like this is my dream. You know, have the books out there and have me back here. And I remember getting the phone call and I was at Costco 'cause I, you know, I have a family.

Hanif Abdurraqib (20:49):

Jacqueline Woodson (20:50):
And this number kept coming and I was like, I don't know anybody here. Right. Like, I'm not answering it.

Hanif Abdurraqib (20:55):
That would be me, too. Yeah. I'm not answering that. Yeah.

Jacqueline Woodson (20:57):
<laugh> Yeah. Like I don't like talking on the phone anyway, but I definitely am not going to pick up the phone if it's some number I don't recognize. And that award comes out of nowhere. Like I didn't think I was on anybody's radar. Like, you have no idea who's watching you in this way. It was during Covid, so we were quarantined up in the country and when I finally got back home, I ended up answering it for some reason. And then they told me that it was this award and that I could tell one person, which is bananas, right?

Hanif Abdurraqib (21:26):
Bananas. I didn't answer for the full day. They got so distressed that they hit up a previous winner. They hit up Terrence Hayes and Terrence texted me, essentially like, yo, pick up the phone, you know? <Laugh> And I was in a coffee shop and I lied, you know? 'Cause the first thing they ask you is, "Are you alone?" But that's the first thing they say. Yeah. <laugh>. And so I was like...yeah.

Jacqueline Woodson (21:46):

Hanif Abdurraqib (21:46):
I mean, like, in an existential sense, you know what I mean? Like <laugh> I didn't know if it was like an emotional question or a literal question. <laugh>

Hanif Abdurraqib (21:54):
I had just gone through a breakup, so I was like, I mean, kind of. Yeah. You know, it's a strange experience.

Jacqueline Woodson (22:01):
<laugh> It is so true. But I remember running to my beloved, to Juliet, I ran, you know, and this is coming back to what Hanif was saying about awards. I ran to tell her and on the way, my son was playing ball in the yard or something and I was like, I just won the MacArthur award. He was like, what is that? I'm like, they consider it the "genius" [award]. He's like, you're not a genius.

Hanif Abdurraqib (22:24):

Jacqueline Woodson (22:25):
So one thing about having kids is they will remind you why you're here. He said, you can't even do remedial math, which is true <laugh>. So yeah, it's absolutely, you know, I struggle with math. He doesn't lie.

Hanif Abdurraqib (22:39):
Yeah. Same. I have to still count on my hands. Like really and truly. Yeah.

Jacqueline Woodson (22:42):
That's why they're here. <laugh>.

Laura Maylene Walter (22:44):
I love that that insult was backed up with specific, concrete examples. Like, we're going to make it clear. <laugh> Well, you mentioned, Jacqueline, that you are an introvert, as are a lot of writers, you know, generally. Not all, but a lot. And so for both of you, that was one of my questions. I'm really curious if we can get meta. I mean, I am now interviewing you for a podcast in a room full of people. But I'm thinking about how you balance as writers performing in terms of your interviews and your press and that side of the writing life and how you balance that with what you really want to be doing, probably, which is just writing alone in a room. So how do you approach that?

Hanif Abdurraqib (23:20):
I mean, I'm in the middle of it right now. Yeah. In a very big way. I really, I was confused by the amount of press stuff that has happened for, and remain confused with the amount of press stuff that's happened for THERE'S ALWAYS THIS YEAR where it's like, okay, well I feel like I've said everything and there's still more people... You know, I will say this: I am, yes, very much an introvert, but I'm also so curious about other people. A writer I love who taught me a lot is the writer Greg Tate, who we lost and I miss very much. The thing I loved about Greg Tate was that he was always more interested in you than you could ever be in him. That's a blueprint that I follow. I'm on book tour right now. Like literally, I'm home for like 48 hours and I leave again. In terms of the sheer number of people, it is a vastly different experience for me than it's ever been.

Hanif Abdurraqib (24:00):
Where it's like, okay, what's different now when there's 400 people a night? As opposed to even a few years ago it was like 150, 200, all that's great. But my signing lines are often just intensely long, like hours and hours long. And part of that is because I think that's a real point of connection with people. A part of why I started writing, at least internally, was because I loved things and I was excited about things and I refused to believe that I was the only person in the world excited about them. And to be able to be in front of people every night who are not just like, here's a book, sign it, give it back to me. You know? Sure. That happens and I'm fine with that of course. But to be in front of people who are sometimes like, yo, I think we were at the same concert in 2003.

Hanif Abdurraqib (24:37):
Or like, I heard this song differently because I read this thing. Or to be around someone who's like, yo, I made this mix tape and I want you to have these kind of things. That does refuel me in terms of like press. I'm not that interested in myself. And so, yeah, of course I try to be the best I can be in interviews. And I think the run of interviews with THERE'S ALWAYS THIS YEAR has been especially kind of unique because I'm talking more in depth about a lot of difficult things. So I've had to rise to the occasion of that in ways that I'm not used to. But it's not like I read my own [press], you know, mostly I'm in it for whatever bits of human connection can exist. Because otherwise I think I would succumb to loneliness. I've lived alone for the past three and a half years, well, with my dog. Yeah, I live with Wendy, but I don't live with anyone who I can have a reciprocal conversation with <laugh>. And so in a way this like few months of this book being brought to life is filling my curiosity towards others in a way that is really useful.

Jacqueline Woodson (25:31):
That's so, so interesting and so true. I do feel like when I go out into the world, I have the book between me, you know, I have the podium, I have the book, I have the table, and I have all kinds of self-care. Well, let me walk six miles, let me, you know, like get on the treadmill for an hour. Like ways to clear my mind 'cause I think it's also, it's heavy emotionally because of the stories people bring to you or the tears they bring to you and the sense of responsibility to others that sometimes you feel like you have when they tell you certain stories. I mean, I'm here today because it's David's last festival and I hadn't seen my Ohio family and I really wanted to be here to celebrate all that he's done here in Ohio. And then when I heard Hanif was going to be here, I was like, okay, that's gravy.

Jacqueline Woodson (26:23):
But I do think there is this way in which a part of me does want that conversation, that conversation that I'm having on the page. It's nice to hear it co-signed upon and know that I'm not talking to myself in this way. So that's great. But I definitely, when I go back home, I'm going to be home for a long time. And it is, it has been interesting for me, it was post National Book Award, the way the lines changed, the way the light came on above me in this way that people suddenly were showing up Curiously, the way that people come out in a different way. And with the MacArthur, because there's so much energy around that award in this country that there is that curiosity that brings people out. I'm not alone, so when I'm home, I'm on as mom and that is its own set of energies. And then out in the world it's different. So when I'm home alone with my writing, I really want to have that be a hundred percent there. And as often as it can be.

Hanif Abdurraqib (27:36):
I will say I'm also just lucky to live here. Truly what I love about living in Columbus is that yes, people in Columbus obviously read my work and feel things about my work, I think. But so many people here, one have just seen me around for so long in many different capacities. And some people, they've known me since I was a kid. And so I'm really just kind of like a community member. Sure. I do think there's some pride here, perhaps, certainly. But oftentimes when I get, say, stopped in Columbus, if I'm like grocery shopping or whatever, it's not like, oh, I love you. You know, it's often just like people want to talk to me about the many other interests I have because they know them a lot more intently and intimately. So if someone stops me in Whole Foods, they may want to talk about basketball, they may want to talk about music or, you know, and that is fulfilling for me in a way because it reminds me that at least in this place, I'm more three-dimensional. You know, I'm not like a cardboard cutout who's like produced some things. And so I feel really lucky to also have made a home here.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:32):
Well, I want to make sure we have some time for audience questions. So we will go ahead. If I call on you, just try to speak loudly. I might repeat part of your question for the podcast. Yes, go ahead.

Jacqueline Woodson (28:44):
Thank you. For those who didn't hear, you said that being in a homogenous community, our writing has helped you learn and grow. And I just want to shout out Columbus's own Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who talked about the importance of readers having both mirrors and windows in their work. Mirrors so that they see reflections of themselves, so that a black girl like me who grew up with very few books with people like Cassie Logan and you know, SULA, can open a book and see some semblance of myself and also windows to see into other worlds, worlds that they might not otherwise ever experience. For example, the world of people of the global majority or queer people, trans people. So I thank you for saying that. And of course I always thank Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop absolutely for bringing that metaphor and the multicultural literature, especially in children's books that is here because of her work.

Laura Maylene Walter (29:41):
Who has another question? Okay, yes.

Hanif Abdurraqib (29:46):
The question was about due to the sometimes challenging nature of our work, what gives us hope and keeps us hopeful. I will say at this stage of my both artistic life and literal life, I'm not propelled by hope as much as I am by honesty because I actually think that the broad specter of hope can obscure reality. And when that happens, I get pretty worried. Which doesn't mean that I don't need hope or require it, but I think it's easier for me to be hopeful when there's honesty. When it's led with honesty. For example, well, to talk about children, right? Talk about the rank honesty of children. One of my best friends is now a mother and sometimes she'll hit me up and be like, Hey, you know, some day her son wants me to come by, he's about three and I'll come and hang out and we'll like watch an episode of something and then sometimes he'll turn to her and say, I want Hanif to leave now <laugh>.

Hanif Abdurraqib (30:36):
And to me, I love that <laugh> because that level of honesty both is a generosity to him, but also a generosity to me. It allows me to exit a space where I have served my purpose. <laugh>. That to me is occasion for hope and real gratitude to say that if we lead with honesty, then we are more grounded in what our actual purpose in the world can be and be clear about who we're serving and why we're serving these people. And to be clear about how we are certainly not serving ourselves. That is all I need to be propelled. And I think that is a hopeful metric. And gratitude to my best friend's small child for forever being honest about exactly the purpose that I need to serve in his life.

Laura Maylene Walter (31:18):
I wish we could have a contract for adults in social situations. Yeah. That we can just say that to each other. That would be great. Okay, maybe one more question.

Jacqueline Woodson (31:30):
This is a great question. So two writers sitting in front of us have asked what craft things we're playing with. And I want to hear Hanif's, too. You know, during the pandemic I started writing screenplays because it was very hard for me to write fiction and poetry. And that was fun to learn this whole, use this whole other part of my brain to write. And there's a fabulous photographer named Ming Smith, who is currently in New York, also from Ohio. And she has a show opening at Columbus Museum of Art that I'm writing the text for. So it's fun to look at her photographs, be inspired, write the text, and just create a narrative that way. But I really try to reach to other parts of my creative brain to try to do different stuff just 'cause I don't want to paint a Starry Night again, as Joni Mitchell says, you know, do the same thing over and over.

Hanif Abdurraqib (32:23):
I was very lucky to be raised on the east side of Columbus and part of that luck was that the greatest Columbus artist ever lived, and I think this is indisputable personally, is Aminah Robinson, like without question, it's Aminah Robinson. And when I was a kid, you could do this thing. She had a little like studio in the king arts complex and you could just go and watch her work and not only watch her work, but participate in her work. For those who don't know, Aminah was so great at repurposing what some would consider trash or you know, she would say, well, you bring me an egg carton tomorrow and we'll make something with it. And you would get to bring something out of your house to the greatest living artist, not just in this city, but one of the greatest living artists in the world and make something with that artist, which means that from an early point of my life, and I didn't consider myself a writer until at least 2011, but I'm saying that something was embedded in my brain that art making is about staying in one place and maybe repurposing something that you have moved on from or that most people would move on from.

Hanif Abdurraqib (33:25):
And so, so much of my artistic practice now in my writing, a lot of it shows up. THERE'S ALWAYS THIS YEAR is attempting to hold people in one place for as long as I can and perhaps rewire the same moment over and over again until it becomes sufficiently vibrant. I really love the image of a dog with its head out of the car. It's one of my favorite things. A dog just like looking out of a car window as the world is moving by them because they're so in awe of what they're witnessing, even though it's happening out of velocity that does not allow them to adequately take it in. That is how my brain operates. The world is moving by at a rate that I find untenable. I find it untenable because it is a reminder to me that I am certainly going to die before I love everything and everyone that I can possibly love.

Hanif Abdurraqib (34:09):
And in order to not be in an eternal state of grieving about that, I think I turned towards a craft trick of saying, I saw this one thing I liked a lot and I'd like to talk about it for 10 pages or more, but perhaps 10. And the way I'm going to do that is by asking you the reader to walk slowly through this with me. And we're going to look at it from as many angles as possible. Not over the course of several different poems or several different chapters, just these one chunk of pages. It's a very Mary Oliver, Ross gay kind of approach where I have something that I want to show you because I miss it already. I've seen something that I'm already longing for and I need to have it archived somewhere. And even if you have never seen it, I would like it to be in your archive as well. And the only way I know how to do that is through the craft trick of saying, here's another angle, here's another angle, here's another angle, here's a fourth angle. And maybe we can walk away from this for now and return to it forever. <applause>

Laura Maylene Walter (35:10):
And speaking of memory, I have one final question before we wrap up. And by the way, REMEMBER US, I keep saying it's a middle grade book. It is about memory and friendship written in such a deep way about these topics. It's of course for adults as well. But thinking about memory, Hanif in your book, you mentioned briefly working at Borders in the music section.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:31):
Which took me back to bookstores that are no longer with us. I remember as a kid, the mall in my town had a B. Dalton in it. I remember Professor Books when I was really young, when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time at Borders. Right? So would you like to share memories of bookstores from the past, or libraries, if you prefer?

Jacqueline Woodson (35:51):
Thankfully the libraries of my childhood are still here. <laugh> Washington Irving Branch in Bushwick, and of course Grand Army Plaza where I live in Park Slope now. And that's my library. I just want to say a thing about REMEMBER US and BROWN GIRL DREAMING. That idea of middle grade, you know, is for publishers, right? To sell books to certain audiences. And both BROWN GIRL DREAMING and REMEMBER US break that rule of middle grade. The quote unquote rule of middle grade is that the character exists within a period of time throughout the book. So if they're 11, they're 11, maybe they go to 12. If they're 12, maybe they go to 12 and a half or 13, maybe it takes place over a weekend and in REMEMBER US, it's an adult looking back on a period. So that's breaking that rule. In BROWN GIRL DREAMING I go from being zero to 11.

Jacqueline Woodson (36:39):
So that completely breaks that rule. But of course, again, it's also me looking back at that time. So I think people should read what they're comfortable reading, no matter what their age. I remember when I was in fifth grade, I read THE BLUEST EYE for the first time and I swore until, I don't know how old I was, that Pecola Breedlove in the end got blue eyes and lived happily ever after <laugh>. And then when I was much older, I thought, oh, Toni Morrison wrote two versions, a kid's version that I read when I was in fifth grade and an adult version that I read. And I like the kids' version better, but it's because we compartmentalize, right? And we take in what we can take in with the understanding that we have at that point. And, you know, that book was read at Washington Irving Library in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. So just to come back to your question and to talk about marketing <laugh>.

Hanif Abdurraqib (37:33):
Yeah, I really loved everything you said. I just did a talk about how I THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE when I was in fifth grade, which is just like a tough, you know, but it's 'cause I had like older people around me to kind of walk me through that. And I love Gloria Naylor. I mean, if there's like a...I don't have a Mount Rushmore of Black women writers, but I mean, Morrison is at the [top]...Mount Rushmore doesn't work in a hierarchy ranking. There's not, they're not like in a row, but <laugh> but Morrison would be at top, but Gloria Naylor would be there too. I did work at Borders, I worked in the CD section, it was fine. <laugh> It was a job that was next to my apartment, so I just liked rolling out of bed and being able to walk to work, shout out to Governor Square Apartments on Henderson Road <laugh>.

Hanif Abdurraqib (38:14):
But the Livingston branch of the library is deeply important to me because that branch of the library got built when I was in maybe like fourth grade. And that was the first time I had unlimited access to books. I felt like as a kid and no one would kick you out. That branch of the library is massively important to me. And now I live next to the MLK branch or near the MLK branch, which another massively important. I've done some stuff in there with young folks, and this probably didn't make in the book, I think we edited it out. But when I was unhoused, I would come here and read and write. And when you're unhoused in a city, you're either invisible or you're a problem. And the library was maybe the only place or one of the few places where I was neither of those things. And this library meant a lot to me. I did a lot of research for THERE'S ALWAYS THIS YEAR in this library, a lot of archival work with newspapers and stuff. And so yeah, the Columbus Metropolitan Library system has always served me well. And my time at Borders was strange because I remember it was during the seventh...I don't read Harry Potter, so forgive me, but are there seven of those books?

Jacqueline Woodson (39:12):
You don't have to be forgiven. <laugh>

Hanif Abdurraqib (39:16):
Whenever the last Harry Potter book came out was when I was working at Borders. And I remember having to work at midnight because I was ignorant to the series. I was like, what? Why are we all in here at midnight? And then I looked outside and it was like this descent, it was the wildest thing I'd ever seen. Like parents and children were coming from behind bushes and out out of the darkness of the streets <laugh>. And so that's my enduring memory of working at Borders where I was like, I'm going to die tonight.

Audience (39:39):

Hanif Abdurraqib (39:41):
But we survive. We survive <laugh>.

Laura Maylene Walter (39:44):
Well, on that note, we are <laugh> we are out of time, but we'll just say we ended on the note of supporting libraries. We all love libraries here, right? <laugh> <laugh> Thanks again to our panelists. And before we go, can we get one more giant round of applause for Hanif and Jacqueline? <theme music>

Laura Maylene Walter (40:19):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at, follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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