- Collage, Confession, and Crisis in Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming
In discussing the writing process for her 2014 verse novel Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson has said, "Memories don't come back as straight narrative. They come in little bursts with white space all around them. It felt more realistic to write mine as poems" (qtd. in Galanes). Brown Girl Dreaming traces the experiences of Jackie, a first-person speaker who is representative of the author's childhood self, and explores issues that affected the speaker's family, including racism and the civil rights movement, divorce and the broken family, and illness and death. Further underscoring her role as archivist,1 Woodson explains in her author's note to Brown Girl Dreaming: "that's what this book is—my past, my people, my memories, my story" (323).2 While Woodson's work is primarily lyrical, it contains, dispersed among the free-verse poems, a series of eleven haiku and is bookended by a series of scrapbook-like documents—including a family tree, several family photo album pages, and an author's note—that reveal the autobiographical elements to the reader. In this respect, Brown Girl Dreaming is not just about a personal and national history, but also about formal experimentation and the politics of form; this emphasis on form leads to what I term "the collage effect."3
Traditionally, collage has its roots in the plastic arts and is broadly defined as the layering and linking together of miscellany within a single work. However, scholars such as Rona Cran and Rachel Farebrother have demonstrated that collage in literary texts moves beyond the assemblage of fragments, "bringing ideas into conversation with one another" (Cran 4), encouraging a "sense of defamiliarization" in the reader/viewer in order to fix attention on "uneasy realities" in contemporary culture (Farebrother 9), and ultimately emerging as a powerful site for political resistance. I argue that in contemporary children's and young adult literature, the collage effect is used in order to unsettle the traditional Künstlerroman, the artist's coming-of-age narrative, and make visible [End Page 326] the political and social forces that help to shape the writer's developmental process. Woodson's verse novel employs collage in both form and content by blending lyric, document, image, and found family object in order to give voice to the difficulties experienced by her protagonist and to explore both confession and crisis. Specifically, the collage effect highlights the way in which Brown Girl Dreaming engages with movements in contemporary American poetry and children's literature: namely, confessional poetry and the problem novel.
Confessional poetry, as first described in 1959 by M. L. Rosenthal in his review of Robert Lowell's Life Studies, is the blending of the poet and the persona in poem and often includes the exploration of sometimes controversially personal subject matter. Within Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, confession takes the form of acknowledged autobiography by the author through attention to painful experiences in her childhood that helped to shape her as a writer. This is most evident in her haiku series, as well as in the three introductory poems. The juxtaposition of haiku and free verse, family tree and personal photographs, the lyric expressive style and the documentary mode, and the author's note and paratextual material contributes to the overall collage aesthetic and confessional experience. The central problem explored in Woodson's text is racism and its impact on young people. In order to foreground the political and social themes in Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson layers and draws connections between the fragments of Jackie's experiences and those of historically significant figures in the African American community, among them, most notably, the poet and activist Langston Hughes. Hughes's influence on Woodson is exemplified throughout her collection, but most clearly in her poem "learning from langston." Understanding the connections brought about by the collage effect enables readers to trace Woodson's movement from private self-exploration to public political advocacy.
Defining and Historicizing the Verse Novel for Young Readers
To begin, it is important to situate a discussion of collage, confession, and crisis in Brown Girl Dreaming...