So I wanted to jot down my initial thoughts about one of Jacqueline Woodson’s earlier YA novels so that I wouldn’t build up the type of pressure that tends to keep me away from the page for long periods of time. As my dissertation doula reminds me, I know enough about enough to have a meaningful experience with this book, with these characters, with Woodson’s project of making black girl lives known, of articulating the ways that selves are made.
I come to this coming of age novel as a formerly and sometimes chronically lonely black girl, much like the main character Staggerlee, unaware of the ways that my loneliness radiates as an unwillingness to connect. Words that are never spoken in this novel but that seem ever-present are depression and self-isolation. “Stuck-up-ness” is the way that fear manifests itself in a person who is trying to come off as brave, who is trying to figure out what the pieces of herself actually are even as she is labeled by others. It has been my own journey and it also seems to be the path that Staggerlee, the fourteen-yr-old queer and chronically lonely protagonist, is on. She gets her loneliness honest. She is a self-described “mixed up” girl raised by a white mother in a small black town. She feels tied to and protective of her mother’s whiteness even as she is haunted by her own Black grandparents’ racially motivated murders. Although the protagonist mentions that her mother took time to herself in a sad room after the birth of each new child, and even though the narrator describes her mother as sad and alone, she never labels her mother as a depressive. And I don’t know what that means to me except that without the label, there isn’t a cure. It is as if the mother and the adults and children around her have accepted her isolation as just “her way.” And her way is a sad one, one that Staggerlee seems to follow before the advent of a visit from a queer cousin who makes her feel connected to community again.
I think it’s important that the mother isn’t named a depressive because this is a book about intentional naming. Staggerlee has named herself after the trickster figure because her queerness (that she just knows will be unaccepted) has forced her to ponder the gray areas between right and wrong. As a biracial and queer child, Staggerlee can’t afford to think in black and white, especially when her self-image is so precarious. Precarious is actually a word that Staggerlee ruminates on in the beginning of the book. And Trout, a cousin and love interest, has also named herself. She’s chosen a fighter fish as a namesake for its will to live, for the wildness of its fight, for the way that it thrashes about even when the hook has wounded it. In a dark twist, she talks about fishing just to watch the fight. She has learned to dismiss guilt and accept the darkness of her desire to see a fish fight, but she internalizes the guilt of caring deeply for other girls. She has been sent to the country to become a “proper lady” because her adoptive mother does not like the tomboy dyke she is becoming.
And what to say about the relationship of these cousins? Staggerlee and Trout seem drawn to each others in ways that also evade the black and white of heteronormative kinship. They are family in the way that queer folks name and adopt each other, and they are family by law of adoption. However, their lack of blood ties or familial kinship (their parents haven’t spoken to each other in over twenty years; this is the first time they’ve met) makes this romantic friendship less than incestuous. Their love exists in the gray space of the narrator’s chosen name, neither “good” enough to be socially accepted or morally reprehensible. It’s just love unnameable and unnamed. Woodson, writing this YA novel in 1995, shows us the pain of carrying unnamable loves in the heart. Following the naming trope, she introduces Hazel, a love interest-turned-antagonist of/ to Staggerlee. The name strikes a chord for me because of my preoccupation with Gorilla, My Love, Toni Cade Bambara’s collection of short stories that features at least three stories about a protagonist named Hazel. Bambara’s Hazel would never do Staggerlee like Woodson’s Hazel did. Or would she? Hazel was a tomboy, a queer girl with no love interests (except for a fantasy about an uncle in the title story). In one story, a grown Hazel is also queer in the sense of Cathy Cohen’s queer black mother, but she also seems to favor an older, blind man. But even her planned seduction of this man (My Man Bovanne) seems more political than desirous. There is no passion for the man, no mention or expectation of Hazel’s sexual pleasure. In fact, all of Bambara’s Hazel stories are about a preoccupation with, a desire for, some thing that is just out of reach and attainable. Not a person. Is Bambara’s Hazel what queerness looks like without a love interest? Is Woodson calling that Hazel out? Are you, Hazel, as big and bad in the realm of romance as you are in a racist movie theater? I wonder. And I’d rather ask than make speculation. Woodson is alive, prolific, still writing, and reachable by email or social media. But the academy separates me from the texts I read and the hands that write them in ways that feel foreign to me. I am supposed to own my speculation that Woodson is even thinking about Bambara’s Hazel when it is easy enough to find out for myself if that’s true or not. I’m supposed to make an argument about the text that makes claims about but has little to do with the intentions of living, breathing, capable-of-explaining-her-own-damn-decisions author. And of course there are subconscious acts that happen in writing that even the best interviewer can not extrapolate from the source. Sure. But I hate the feeling I have when I think of this text, the way that I want to connect to the person who created the character, and the way that I feel weaker for needing/ wanting that connection. Surely, a “real” scholar would do something with these words, would make bold claims and wide leaps, would shift and shape my interpretations into a solid argument about something a disembodied text is doing with another disembodied text. And maybe I’m not a real scholar.
So I come to this novel as (just) another lonely, brown, queer girl, no credentials to speak of. Feeling fuzzy, warm feelings about a character I may have met in real life without ever knowing. Maybe it was Leslie, the girl I flirted with in elementary school who was quiet, who was beautiful, who was boyish, who was brave, who was quiet, who was beautiful , who I have sense found on Facebook, who is often suicidal, who is chastised by fundamentalist Christian family for the world to see, who is not helped, who will not reach back when I reach out, who was quiet, who was beautiful, who was boyish, who was brave. I hope that Staggerlee is not Leslie, hope that in Woodson’s mythical world where black girls find each other and become each other’s medicine even if only for a short while, Staggerlee fares much better. I hope her family will let her keep her brave differences, hope they will not shush that girl like black families are wont to do.
I have so much hope. Even though the last few pages of this novel broke my heart. I hope still.
But this is a book about more than loneliness.