Renée Watson is a bestselling author, educator, and activist; her YA novel Piecing Me Together received a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award, and her picture book Harlem’s Little Blackbird, illustrated by Christian Robinson, received several honors including an NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Watson is the founder of I, Too, Arts Collective, a nonprofit committed to fostering underrepresented voices in the arts. Ellen Hagan is a writer, performer, and educator whose poetry collections include Hemisphere and Crowned. Hagan is also the director of the poetry and theater departments at the DreamYard Project in the Bronx, N.Y., overseeing the International Poetry Exchange program. We asked Watson and Hagan to interview each other about their new novel, Watch Us Rise, and the power of female friendship.
Ellen Hagan: Renée, I have been thinking about how lucky I am to know and work alongside you, and especially what joy our friendship brings, and I wanted to talk about community with you. Why is it important and how does it help to shape you as a writer?
Renée Watson: Ellen, I feel the same way about you! I remember feeling so isolated and lonely when I first moved to New York. Meeting you and getting to know the community of writers in New York City, specifically the arts-ed community, changed me. Taking in other people’s art, having conversations about what’s happening in the world, and engaging with young people in the classroom gives me fuel for my own work. We’re all a part of so many communities. I’ve been shaped by the neighborhood I grew up in Portland, Ore., the NYC writer community, the teaching-artist and nonprofit community, to name a few. Every book I’ve written is connected to these people and places.
Hagan: Yes! The same is true for me. Every place I’m from, and all the people who connect me to those places, show up in my work. I am always in dialogue with my community. I think that’s why it was so exciting to create with you. I still remember when you sent me that initial text that said something like: “We should co-write a book together,” and I wrote back something like: “AHHHHHH!!! YEESSSSS!!!” I think that’s about how the exchange went. I remember thinking how excited I was to brainstorm and build a story with you, and at the same time, so thrilled to be sharing space and talking about the world. For me, the best part of this partnership has been building our relationship and figuring out how to craft a piece of art together. That feels extraordinary to me. I know we had so many conversations about the themes in Watch Us Rise and built scenes around those. I was wondering if any in particular stood out to you, and why?
Watson: It’s truly been a special experience working on this with you. And yes, I absolutely remember that text exchange! Writing is such a solitary practice, so it felt good to have you to bounce ideas off of and iron out the kinks. I remember our first brainstorming session. While we were figuring out what would be the high and low moments in the book, I remember us being very clear about one thing: Jasmine and Chelsea would remain friends. From the beginning we wanted them to have a strong friendship, be able to lean on each other for support, and really see one another. I think it’s so important to write about girl characters having loving friendships. Often times there’s an assumption that teenaged girls are catty and mean. I know it was important for us both to make sure that even when conflict came, the girls would be able to address it and move on. So much of the book is about the power of women coming together to nurture, challenge, and inspire each other. When you were a teen, who were the women who nurtured, challenged, and inspired you?
Hagan: I love this question, because it really was three powerful women who helped shape me when I was a kid and through high school. My mom comes up first because she truly did all three of those things for me. She was radical in her love and showed it by encouraging me to follow my own path; she allowed me the space to explore writing and performing. She was also body positive and really challenged society’s ideas about what a woman is supposed to look like—and also made sure I knew that the most important thing was who I was as a person and not what I looked like (although that was hard at times). But I think about my mom all the time as I’m raising two daughters and how I am modeling after her in hopes of building confident and proud young people who care about their communities and the larger world.
In high school, Karen Harryman was my English teacher and she was the coolest—she let us read what moved us and really encouraged us to find out who we were through writing. I adored her class—and also wanted to be her friend!
And finally, a truly transformative teacher for me was Kelly Norman Ellis, who shaped the way I see the world, who cracked open ideas about race and class in the South, who encouraged us to write about our identities, our mamaws, the cornbread we grew up on, the landscape and our place in it. She also allowed us the space to be many things. I could be Kentucky and New Jersey, Arab and Italian and Irish and country and city and I could live in all the slash zones of who I was. That changed everything for me. I really came into my own and feel so grateful for those women. It also makes me think of how friendships have shaped us—just like Chelsea and Jasmine lean on each other. Can you talk about how your friendships have shaped your views about the world?
Watson: I am fortunate to have sisters who are more like friends and friends who are more like sisters. This is to say, my first friendships were with my three older sisters. They shaped my views about the world at an early age. I remember them explicitly talking with me about the stereotypes people have about Black people, about Black girls. They gave me “the talk” that so many Black families have about how to navigate white spaces. They taught me that joy can be a form of resistance, a source of strength. Our family has been through a lot. There are so many reasons why we could be bitter or in a constant state of despair. But we laugh hard. When we were younger, we put on concerts in the living room and recorded ourselves singing and telling jokes. Now that we’re older, we travel together, make time to meet up for brunch or dinner or game night. I list all of this because I think it’s important to talk about how necessary it is to spend time with people who refuel you.
Some of the scenes I love the most in Watch Us Rise are those tender moments when the girls are hanging out with Isaac and Nadine. After the most heartbreaking thing happens to Jasmine, the way the girls cope is to listen to music, dance, and eat. I love how you wrote that scene—how Chelsea knows exactly what Jasmine needs. How, in the midst of their protest and frustration about what’s happening at school, they still tend to each other. I think there’s a lesson here, one I’ve learned in my own life. It’s actually easier to make a speech, to do grand gestures in the name of fighting for social justice. But the everyday listening, advocating, and forgiving that it takes to make change is what matters most and that is the hard work a lot of people don’t want to do. Both Jasmine and Chelsea stand up for what they believe in big ways, but I hope all the small moments of them taking care of each other are not lost on the reader. My sisterhood—and friendships—have taught me that sometimes the greatest way to take action is to simply love and take care of the people in our lives. What good are we to the larger world if we are not good to our immediate worlds?
Let’s switch gears and talk about music and food. I don’t remember us planning this, but coming together around music and food happens a lot in the book. In our real lives, you and I have bonded over our love of 90s R&B and we’ve gone to see Beyoncé in concert twice. Remember when we had our dinner meetups where we’d choose a different BBQ spot in New York and compare which one we liked the best? (Also, let’s start that up again... there are new places to try.) I notice in your poetry collections, Crowned and Hemisphere, you write about music and food. Can you talk about that?
Hagan: Absolutely. I feel like I can always talk about food and music. You know, I grew up eating meals around the table with my family—my mom and dad and brother. We talked about our lives and what was happening. I truly equate community and joy with a table full of people that I love. The same was true in high school. I am from Bardstown, Ky., and the cafeteria was full of people who could really cook. It wasn’t packaged meals, it was home cooking, and my friends and I would race each other to lunch—we would barrel down the hall to be first in line for: cabbage casserole, mashed potatoes, yeast rolls, Salisbury steak, pimento cheese sandwiches. It was conversation, kinship, and laughter.
Every scene I wrote in Watch Us Rise that had food in it was really based on experiences from my life. I had people around me who showed love through cooking and eating and I wanted the same to be true for Chelsea and Jasmine. I love that they created such communion and companionship through meals. I love them all eating, singing, and dancing on New Year’s Eve. That’s where music comes in for me, too. My whole life feels like it could have a playlist. I am often thinking and moving in songs, and while I can’t often write while listening to music, I can always move with it—so I move through the city with whatever is current on my playlist—SZA, Kool & The Gang, Daddy Yankee, Tina Turner, Mariah Carey, etc. I don’t really care about what’s new and fresh and cool. I love what I love.
Okay, I have a final question. Name three songs on the playlist of your life, and one meal that you’ll never forget.
Watson: Only three songs? This is so hard: “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley, “Amazing Grace” by Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland, and “Golden” by Jill Scott.
Now for food. One eating experience I’ll never forget is having tea in Marrakech at a Moroccan tea house. You know how much I love tea—so having hot tea with an abundance of fresh mint and sugarcane coupled with delicate pastries while overlooking the medina is something I’ll never forget. The ceremony of it all was so special, the way the tea was poured back and forth from the pot to the glass so the flavors could blend, the stories shared about what each pastry represented. I was encouraged to sip slow and linger. It wasn’t just about the tea and warm donuts. It was about the conversation, the exchange of cultures.
That’s the powerful thing about breaking bread together. There’s a bonding that happens. There’s nothing like a good meal that ends in conversation and laughter long after the food is gone. You and I have had our fair share of those kinds of encounters. I love that those sentiments show up in the book.
I’m looking forward to more meals and playlist exchanges with you, Ellen. Thanks for talking with me.
Watch Us Rise by Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan. Bloomsbury, $18.99 Feb 12 ISBN 978-1-5476-0008-3