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A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Renée Watson

Author, Educator, and Activist

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Sep. 22 2020, Published 3:00 a.m. ET

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A Peek Inside Her Agenda: Renée Watson
"For Black people loving ourselves is radical because there's so much hate towards us right now."Quotation marks
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Nikki Giovanni once told Renée Watson that “she is to Black girls what Toni Morrison is to Black women.” 

Watson is a New York Times bestselling author, educator, and activist empowering Black girls and women through young adult literature. Through her work, she gives young people a safe space to use the power of language, art, and performance to express their emotions and traumas. With her writing and teaching method, she gives students the ability to translate their stories into joy, liberation, and empowerment.

Watson spent the early part of her career as a teaching artist focusing her work on themes of identity and the intersections of race, class, and gender. Currently, Watson’s novel Piecing Me Together, accredited as “Best Books on Black Resistance,” is being optioned for an HBO adaptation.

Another novel of hers titled Some Places More Than Others was recently released in paperback. Watson notes it as a special book for her to write. In our conversation, Watson shares how she became a published author, where she gains inspiration from, and advice for preserving mental health. 

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"2020 has been quite a year, and if it wasn’t for my friends, poetry, Black love, and counseling - I don't know if I would be in a healthy place." -Renee Watson via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: What I find most special about your writing is the way you let the reader enter the character’s mind (ex. Jade, Piecing Me Together). Can you describe this creative process when you are writing your novels? 

Renée Watson: When I’m writing for young people, I tend to write in the first person because it makes it more immediate when you’re speaking from this very intimate place. It makes you connect with the reader, and it also helps me as a writer get into the head of my characters. 

When writing for young people, I’m trying to make characters that are curious about their world. There’s something about being young and being vulnerable and not having lived long enough to be already settled in who you are.

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When writing for young people, I’m trying to make characters that are curious about their world. There’s something about being young and being vulnerable and not having lived long enough to be already settled in who you are.

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Her Agenda: What writers, artists, and creatives were your inspiration growing up and your career? How do their styles carry into your work? 

Renée Watson: I grew up in Portland, Oregon. And while Portland is a very white city, I grew up in the Black community within that space. Black culture was readily at my fingertips at home, at my church, and within local spaces. But when I went to school, I didn’t have a lot of literature that reflected characters who looked like me, or characters who spoke like the people in my neighborhood. And so really, my first love became poetry. And there are several novels that I read as a child that I love, definitely the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary. 

Langston Hughes, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou: I always say they raised me. I would memorize their poems and recite them and do competitions of poetry recitals and things like that. So I grew up with this love of language and love of figurative language, which shows up in my writing.

In my writing, I try to make space and give room for everyday people to be their own heroes and not necessarily look for saviors to come to the neighborhood to rescue them from what is already there. 

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In my writing, I try to make space and give room for everyday people to be their own heroes and not necessarily look for saviors to come to the neighborhood to rescue them from what is already there. 

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Her Agenda: The paperback copy of Some Places More Than Others was just released. What was your favorite part about writing this book? Does it relate to your own life or people close to you? 

Renée Watson: There’s a little bit of me in everything that I write. Then also, it’s not about me at all. It’s weird because I identify with the emotions that my characters feel. So for Amara (the main character), in Some Places More Than Others, I know that feeling of coming from Oregon and visiting New York for the first time and being blown away at just everything. The first time I walked up from the subway steps and set foot on 125th and Lenox off of the 2 train in Harlem, I was [in awe]. In Portland, you just do not see that many people of color together, you don’t see Black history on the street.

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"There’s a little bit of me in everything that I write." -Renee Watson via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: Can you talk about your early years as a teaching artist? Specifically, your poetry workshops that teach children on how to cope with trauma such as sexual violence? How do you think we can teach kids about violence, consent, and healthy relationships?

Renée Watson: We need to have open, honest, age-appropriate, conversations. I have found in my experience, young people want to have these conversations, and it’s the adults that shy away from them. If we (adults) could get it together and put aside our fear and allow young people to ask the questions, I think that would change and shift what’s happening. It’s creating an atmosphere that allows young people to ask questions and to want to share what’s going on in their lives.

Art is a powerful tool to use with young people when talking about traumatic experiences.

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"Art is a powerful tool to use with young people when talking about traumatic experiences." -Renee Watson via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: You originally wrote A Place Where Hurricanes Happen for an assignment at The New School. How did you prepare it for publication while you were a student? Did you ever expect this assignment to be published? 

Renée Watson: No, I didn’t expect publication. So the story is, I went to The New School and mainly was studying Creative Arts Therapy. I took other writing courses along the way, but that was my main focus. 

In class, one of our assignments was to write a children’s book that a kid might be in counseling for. I worked with kids in New Orleans, right after Hurricane Katrina. A lot of them lost everything. There was a performing arts camp that happened annually. I worked with young people, and all of their poems and their voices were in my head, and I was thinking about that kind of loss and that kind of change that a child goes through with natural disasters. So I wrote the first draft of that picture book as an assignment and turned it in. 

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Her Agenda: That’s incredible, and then what happened?

Renée Watson: My professor asked me to stay after class, and I was like, “really? In college? What is happening? Why do I have to stay after class? I have never heard of this before. I’m grown.”

"[It’s important to be a] person that is handling your business when nobody's looking so that when people start looking, you're ready." -Renee Watson via Her Agenda
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Everyone leaves, and one of my classmates, she’s kind of slowly putting her books away and getting her stuff together, and I’m thinking she is being nosy. It’s clear that she’s lingering on purpose. So my professor says, I think you should send that out. Do you have an agent, and if you don’t, I want to help you. So, my classmate comes over and says, “I was going to say that too. I am an editor at Random House.” She couldn’t work on my book because she worked on things like Bob the Builder and Dora The Explorer kind of stuff. But she knew editors that worked on realistic type fiction. So we talked, and I gave her my manuscript and looked at the editors and submitted it, and so on. 

But I say this story all the time because the truth is I’ve been writing my whole life. I wrote my first story (it was a 21-page story) when I was seven years old. This particular assignment, I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote before I turned it in for the class to critique. And so I think about opportunity and being ready when moments come. [It’s important to be a] person that is handling your business when nobody’s looking so that when people start looking, you’re ready.

The resistance is about coming together and celebrating the small things or the invisible people in our community. 

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Her Agenda: How are you teaching young people to deal with the current climate we live in while also prioritizing your mental health? Do you have any advice for others that are advocates and activists in social justice work? 

Renée Watson: When I am working with young people and doing my poetry workshops or having conversations, I focus on joy and not only the struggle. That’s important. That helps me not carry the weight of it all because I’m not continually having conversations that are heavy in that way. Sometimes the resistance is about coming together and celebrating the small things or the invisible people in our community.

"When I am working with young people and doing my poetry workshops or having conversations, I focus on joy and not only the struggle." -Renee Watson via Her Agenda
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For myself personally, I lean into the joy, and I read poets like Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. I’m also a big advocate for counseling and therapy. I think it’s important to talk to a neutral person who doesn’t want anything from you, need anything from you, and have no expectations. And lastly, my friends, my crew. I don’t have many intimate friends, but the ones that I do have are close to me. We should support each other and cry together and laugh together and celebrate. 2020 has been quite a year, and if it wasn’t for my friends, poetry, Black love, and counseling – I don’t know if I would be in a healthy place.

I think it’s important to talk to a neutral person who doesn’t want anything from you, need anything from you, and have no expectations.

Her Agenda: Congrats on Piecing Me Together, being optioned for film adaptation! What has being a consultant on the project been like? What do you like/or not like about seeing a book turned into a film?

Renée Watson: So we’re at the very very very early stages right now. We’re in preliminary meetings and envisioning what we want and how we want to work together for the project. So that’s exciting for me to be at the table and think about my work in another form. 

As a writer, I write stage plays and poetry. So I love to see one work done in different ways. It’s exciting to see what a novel then looks like on the screen. My role will be reading the screenplay when it’s done and giving my feedback. I’ll have some say with the casting, and that’s exciting because authors are not always included in those kinds of things. So I’m grateful that they have brought me on to be a consultant, and I’m excited to have Black Portland on the screen. 

There are many TV shows and movies that have filmed in Portland, and a lot of time, it focuses on white Portland that erases Black folks and people of color. So I’m excited about that part of Piecing Me Together being on the screen, and then we get to see the Black neighborhood and family life and shine a light on Black people in the Pacific Northwest. I’m honored. And it was one of my dreams. 

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"For Black people loving ourselves is radical because there's so much hate towards us right now." -Renee Watson via Her Agenda

Her Agenda: The cover reveal of Love Is A Revolution is beautiful! How much input do you have as an author on the design in the publishing industry? Why do you think this book is more important than ever for women?  

Renée Watson: I have to say I appreciate my publisher Bloomsbury and my editors who invite me into the conversation once it gets to the point of talking about the cover, which is not common in our industry. It’s important to me that we talk a lot about diversity in children’s literature. And usually, it’s about racial diversity, but body diversity is important. Making a story that shows a big girl can exist on a cover and be beautiful and attractive and fashionable and all of those things matter. Stories about big girls don’t necessarily have to be about their weight or about them wanting to lose weight. 

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Making a story that shows a big girl can exist on a cover and be beautiful and attractive and fashionable and all of those things matters.

I want young people to have a book where they can be Black and beautiful and Black and happy and Black joyful. I can’t write a book where Blackness is a burden. For this moment, a book that focuses on Black joy is important. This character is learning how to put herself first so that she can be better for her family, her friends, and even the guy that she likes. 

I can’t write a book where Blackness is a burden.

We tend to talk about love in this very soft, flowery way. Love is hard and beautiful, and it takes work. If you love somebody, if you love a place like your neighborhood, if you love this country, you will be angry, you’re going to be let down and disappointed. But what do you do with those emotions? Do you give up and walk away? If you love something, don’t you fight for it? 

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We tend to talk about love in this very soft, flowery way. Love is hard and beautiful, and it takes work. If you love somebody, if you love a place like your neighborhood, if you love this country, you will be angry, you’re going to be let down and disappointed. But what do you do with those emotions? Do you give up and walk away? If you love something, don’t you fight for it? 

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We talk about love being a revolution when we talk about love being vital and young girls holding on to their self-love and self-care that that’s a radical thing, especially right now. For Black people loving ourselves is radical because there’s so much hate towards us right now. 

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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By: Devi Jags

Devi Jags is an Entrepreneur, Writer, and Activist. Her work can be seen through her endeavors such as Sambar Kitchen, The Sparkle Bracelet, and much more. She will be pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall of 2020. To join her journey, follow her work @devijags or visit her website.

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