There were several reasons that prompted me to pick up Another Brooklyn in the New Books section of my local library. To start with, its author, Jacqueline Woodson, had won the National Book Award in 2014 for her critically acclaimed memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming. Also, the title of the book reminded me of the classic 1943 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I had read several years ago, and which is still often quoted whenever Brooklyn is being discussed. Then there is also the fact that I recently visited Brooklyn—and walked on the famous Brooklyn Bridge—so I feel a visceral connection to the place.
And finally, Brooklyn is now one of the main cities in the U.S. going through a rapid gentrification process with enormous increases in the housing prices and apartment rentals, pricing out the traditional African-Americans who have lived there for generations. Another Brooklyn captures a time before all this happened, when Brooklyn was still very much a place dominated by black people, and it provides a fascinating glimpse into what it was like. In fact, the book is primarily set in the 1970s, when white people were fleeing from Brooklyn because of the influx of black people. The irony would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
Anyway, getting back to the book, Another Brooklyn is the coming-of-age story of four girls growing up in Brooklyn, how they become inseparable friends, how they grow up from being kids to adolescents, and how they eventually drift apart and go their own separate ways as adults. August, the protagonist, is one of the four girls—she has recently moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee with her father and brother, following the tragic death of her mother (which she refuses to acknowledge for several years until she goes to meet a therapist at the insistence of her father). As she is adjusting to her new surroundings, Angela sees the clique of the other three—Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi—and desperately wants to be a part of it. This happens quite soon, without much fanfare, and the story then goes on to explore different issues through the interactions of the four friends with each other, their families, and the others around them.
What really impressed me about this book was that the issues that are explored through the lens of the four friends are issues that are common to any race and culture—the changes that adolescence brings in girls and in how others react to them, the growing interest in and from boys, going out on dates, the pressure from boyfriends to “go all the way,” the repercussions of resistance, the betrayals by close friends, teen pregnancies, parental expectations and failing to meet them, and the large part that luck plays in becoming successful even if you are very talented. There are no “black” issues as such, and from that perspective, the book is not at all stereotypical. About the only time race comes into play is when the parents of one of the girls, who is half-Chinese and half-black, disapprove of her friends and think that she can do better. (Not that this stops her.)
There are also none of the usual story lines you would expect. Soon after their arrival in Brooklyn, August’s father gets inducted into the Nation of Islam and eventually her brother also starts following Islam. Yet, there is nothing that shows the religion as being harmful or hurtful in any way. The father is not abusive, neither is the brother. They were poor, but always had enough to eat and were able to help those worse off than them. August is an academically good student, focuses on AP exams and SATs in high school, eventually goes to an Ivy League school, and becomes an anthropologist as an adult, travelling the world to study about death and dying in different cultures. (She returns to Brooklyn when her father dies and a chance glimpse of one of her friends on the subway brings back memories of her childhood to her.)
In addition to not being about race or racism at all, what also distinguishes Another Brooklyn is its lack of drama. This are no big defining moments when things change, no life-changing events, no plot twists and turns. This makes it more true to how life is for most people. The writing is also every poetic, making the term “understated eloquence” a very apt description of the book. I really liked it—not only was it beautifully written and different from other books I have read, it gave me a first-person glimpse into a life and culture I didn’t know much about.
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Publisher: Amistad (HarperCollins)
Publication Date: August 2016
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.