AUGUST 18, 2017
“THIS IS MEMORY.” The phrase echoes through Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award–longlisted prose poem of a novel (reprinted last May in paperback). “This is memory,” August, the book’s narrator, says in the opening paragraphs, as she reflects on her childhood and how it might have been different. “This is memory,” she says later, when discussing the bond between her and her trio of childhood friends. “This is memory,” she repeats toward the book’s end, as she describes returning to her birthplace of Tennessee for the first time. On its surface, Another Brooklyn is a coming-of-age story set in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a bittersweet ode to the narrator’s childhood. It is the story of August and her friends Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela, the story of August and her father and brother. It is a tale of friendship, kinship, sexuality, place. But at its core it is a book about time, about memory.
August is eight years old when her father moves her and her brother to Brooklyn, the place of his own childhood. And there, a block from where her father’s “parents had grown old and died,” August and her brother spend those first days “half whole,” staring out the window at the world around them, looking toward “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” when their mother will join them in New York. That tomorrow, the reader is already aware, will never come, and both August and her brother turn elsewhere to fill the void. For the brother, this means following his father into Islam, which teaches that he will be reunited with his mother at the resurrection. For her part, August falls in with Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela, to whom she is drawn because she believes that “no ghost mothers existed in their pasts”; instead, they live in the “[r]ight here. Right now.”
For a brief time the three girls make August feel whole, strong enough to stand up to the neighborhood boys in ways she otherwise could not have done. But it turns out they all have yesterdays and tomorrows of their own. Like August, they seek refuge from pained pasts in moments of when: when Gigi is an actress … when Angela is a dancer … when Sylvia is a lawyer … The novel’s central characters are not the only ones who suffer the tension between past and future: there is also August’s mother, who is driven mad by the memory of her dead brother; there is the neighbor Miss Dora, who expects her son home “in the by and by,” though he died in battle; there are the white neighbors who flee the diversifying neighborhood, seemingly the only ones able to escape clean into the future. The book’s characters, with few exceptions, hunger for “another Brooklyn.”
At the root of August’s story is the inescapable fact of so much black literature in the United States: that the past forever hangs over the promise of tomorrow. When Another Brooklyn was released in hardcover, several reviews suggested that it was, more or less, a statement on black girlhood in America: one reviewer called it “an engrossing novel about […] race”; another stated that “Woodson writes lyrically about […] what it means to be black in America.” These statements are not exactly untrue. The novel is certainly concerned with the lives of black people. The central characters are black, not only from the South but also from the Caribbean, and even if August never referred to their skin color, the reader would recognize them by what Langston Hughes might have called the ways of black folks. Their lives are filled with resonant issues that have shaped the black experience: white flight from urban centers, the influence of Islam, the effects of regional migration. Like most black people in the United States, they walk around every day aware that they are outsiders in their own country. Yet the book is much less centered on race than on friendship, kinship, sexuality. Readers should not crack open Another Brooklyn expecting to encounter a turgid “exploration of the complexities of […] race” (as yet another reviewer put it), but rather a delicately rendered fictional memoir of a black childhood in Brooklyn.
Reviewers also praised the beauty of Woodson’s prose, and her language is indeed stunning. In her hands, the everyday is transformed into a kind of poetry. Take, for instance, August’s description of white flight:
They left driving their cars. They left in the backseats of the cars of sons and daughters. They put FOR SALE signs on their homes but left before the buildings sold. They rented to single mothers and junkies, Puerto Ricans and Blacks, anyone with the deposit, the first month’s rent, and the promise of a job somewhere. They put mattresses and broken-legged tables and boxes of old books out on the street.
This is the language of memory, of years condensed into moments and images, all rushing past at high speed.
If Woodson has a fault, it is that she is more painter than storyteller. The novel opens with an adult August who, in that future so many of the book’s characters look toward, is an Ivy League–educated anthropologist. She has just buried her father, and as she returns to Bushwick to spend the night in his apartment, she encounters a face from long ago. The encounter lasts only a moment. Nonetheless, it is enough to spark the memories that make up the rest of the novel. As August untangles the vignettes that, like snapshots in a photo album, tell the story of her childhood, she occasionally interjects observations about death rituals or flash forwards to therapy sessions that await her older self. But mostly she focuses on her friendship with the three girls.
This friendship serves as the main plot thread. It begins from afar, with August, newly arrived from Tennessee, spying Sylvia, Gigi, and Angela from her apartment window. Soon enough, August is inseparable from the girls, two of whom are also from somewhere other than Brooklyn. Their relationship is complicated by the ills of the neighborhood — drug addiction and sexual assaults (a bodega owner offering money for sexual favors, a rapist hiding in a building lobby). Finally, things fall apart when August is betrayed by one of the girls.
The book is not plotless, but its plot is diffuse and at times difficult to detect. The novel’s big moment — when August is betrayed — does not deliver the expected blow, in part because it does not seem to strike at August’s heart, and in part because the meaning of the moment is already too clear to the reader.
Ultimately, Another Brooklyn is carried forward by its lyrical language and our strong connection with August. Readers will not devour it hoping to find out what happens next; rather, they will bask in its poetry and its poignant reminders that we are always living elsewhere, defined by all that has happened and the promise of what may very well never occur.