A Conversation Between Authors Jacqueline Woodson and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

A Conversation Between Authors Jacqueline Woodson and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

A Note from Jacqueline Woodson, Author of Red at the Bone:


Even though Malaya lives in Harlem, I was reminded of myself as a girl in Brooklyn. As I read Big Girl, many was the time I thought Malaya and I would have been friends. There is a deep sense of navigating a world that is at once foreign and deeply familiar to her and seeing herself through her mother’s eyes. Who doesn’t know this heartbreak and joy?


The following questions were written from Jacqueline to Mecca.


"Big Girl" is semi-autobiographical, and You share a lot of traits with Malaya. What made you ready to share her story, and respectively your own? Did you have difficulties writing more vulnerable scenes?


This story has been with me since I was Malaya’s age. I began thinking about this novel around the fifth grade, when I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf. This was when I realized that a Black girl’s life could be something to write about, and I knew that was what I wanted and needed to do. I had to gain some distance from that time in my own life so I could see Malaya’s life more clearly. Growing up, seeing the world, and even spending time away from Harlem helped me come closer to Harlem and Malaya’s story as a writer.


I tend to feel very close to my characters, even the ones I don’t seem to have much in common with. My way into a character is usually through their emotional landscape. I get to know them by feeling what they feel and trying to bring language to those feelings. In Malaya’s case, I pulled some of her inner landscape from my own experiences at that age. Bringing language to the vulnerability of a big Black queer girl is a powerful act. Even when it was difficult for me, I knew it was important. Malaya brought up a lot of feelings and emotional responses that surprised me. There were plenty of times when I had a plan for how she might respond to a given situation, but as a character she did her own thing! I found a lot of joy in those surprises.


“Big Girl” features multiple generations of Clondon women, including each of their unique perspectives on womanhood and femininity. How do their differing ideals impact their relationship?


The choreography of womanhood — or “Ladyness,” as Malaya calls it — impacts their relationship in so many different and conflicting ways. Ma-Mère, Malaya’s grandmother, has very particular ideas about what a woman should be and do, and how she should look. Nyela, Malaya’s mother, has internalized a lot of these standards and ideals, even though she’s never quite been able to meet them. In some ways, the failure to meet the standards of womanhood is a point of connection between Ma-Mère and Nyela. They bond over talking about the latest diets, and they find comfort in talking about other women’s bodies and their weight. Ma-Mère and Nyela try to bring Malaya into that bond, pressuring her to lose weight and also inviting her into their hate of fatness in an effort to protect her from the ridicule of the outside world. Each of these women are confronted with the failure to do gender the “right” way, and the shame of that failure is passed down over generations. Understanding that helps Malaya begin to understand Nyela better, and to make sense of her own experience. Malaya has to recognize this legacy and decide whether it will work for her — and how to create a fuller vision of womanhood for herself, on her own terms.


Location plays an important role in “Big Girl.” What significance do the setting and time period of this book have for you?


For me, setting is inseparable from character. As a writer, I’m always interested in capturing the mood, spirit, and feeling of a particular time and place. In Big Girl, the music, food, scents, and soundscape of Harlem are as alive as any character in the novel. In many ways, the setting of Harlem in the ‘90s makes Malaya and her family who they are. For Malaya’s parents, the setting represents the possibility of economic security, homeownership, and the hope of raising a respectable Black family. When we meet them in the late ‘80s, they’ve just purchased a brownstone on the Northern edge of Harlem, and we see their hopes for an idyllic Black middle class family community life begin to crumble as the crack epidemic hits. So for them, Harlem in the ‘90s represents the struggle to hold onto a dream. For Malaya, Harlem is kind of a mirror for herself. She comes of age when Harlem is on the cusp of gentrification. Both she and the neighborhood are big and complex, and in the midst of transformation — a transformation that involves growth and expansion, but also loss. Malaya finds comfort in this, and she relishes the inner life of Harlem, even as she sometimes feels distant from it. I grew up in Harlem, and I am definitely a ‘90s hip-hop head! So the mood of Harlem at that time is one I feel very connected to, and one that I take a lot of joy in writing about.


A common theme throughout is an insatiable desire or wanting. Can you talk more about how this manifests itself as it pertains to Malaya?


We often think of “insatiability” as a bad thing — as though it reflects an emptiness that can’t be filled. I think that’s how Malaya is taught to think about her body’s desires from a young age. When we meet her at 8, her mother is taking her to Weight Watchers meetings and she can’t understand why she’s being told not to do what her body wants to do — why you wouldn’t eat when you feel hungry, or why you would forgo life’s most delicious foods. As she gets older, that fear of giving into desire carries over to other kinds of longing, especially her queer romantic and erotic desires. In both cases, this inherited fear of overindulgence leads to shame that threatens to immobilize her and keeps her from being free. Over the course of the novel, Malaya has to learn that other side of “insatiability” — the idea that one can decide to pursue a life of more; one can treat herself to all that life has to offer — all the pleasure and movement and freedom, regardless of what the world thinks.


You note that for both Malaya and yourself “finding joy is the catalyst for weight loss, not the result.” Do you have any advice or tips for other young girls who are searching for joy?


I really appreciate this question! My major advice would be to trust your own wisdom, and the wisdom of your body. Very early on as women, as queer people, and as people of color, we are often trained to privilege other voices over our own. Sometimes these lessons are meant to protect us, but ultimately it pushes us further away from ourselves. I think joy resides, at least in part, in having faith in your own inner voice, and looking at the world around you with a kind of compassionate curiosity. When people tell you who and how you should be, ask where this message is coming from, how this way of thinking is working for them, and whether it serves who you know yourself to be. I think this is especially true when it comes to the body. When people say your body must change, ask yourself how they feel about their own bodies, and whether their perspective serves your vision for your own life. If you decide to make a change in your life, let it be a change in favor of your freedom.


Anything else you want your readers to know?


I hope readers come away from Big Girl with a renewed sense of what power is. One of the things Malaya comes to learn is that there are many kinds of beauty, joy, pleasure, and fullness, and that she has the power to define these things for herself. She gets to decide what she wants her life to be, and she has the power to pursue her own vision for her life. I want readers to know that this is a power we have as women, Black girls, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color. We have the power to envision our own lives, and devote ourselves to making our visions real.


A Final Note from Jacqueline:


Mecca Jamilah Sullivan has given us a gift as big, beautiful and complicated as living itself. Be sure to pick up Big Girl at your local independent bookstore — you’ll be very glad you did.