Memory and Narrative: Finding Common Ground

Memory and Narrative: Finding Common Ground

George Luks, Brooklyn Bridge, 1916, [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

Today’s post is written by Gail Arnoff, an adjunct professor at John Carroll University and Presidential Fellow in the SAGES program at Case Western University. She has taught in many Books@Work programs. 

As a shy, dreamy teenager who wrote poetry and often lived more fully with the fantasies in my head than in the real world, I could easily relate to Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical Another Brooklyn. As in The Glass Menagerie, Woodson’s narrator, a young woman named August, pieces together bits of memory from her childhood to find some comfort in her life as an adult. The opportunity to talk about Another Brooklyn with a diverse group of paraprofessionals from two suburban schools intrigued me. With no previous exposure to Woodson, the participants had little knowledge of her or her poetic, impressionistic writing style. To my surprise, they weren’t immediately drawn to the story of August, a motherless girl growing up in Brooklyn in the 1960s. In our first session, we talked about the book in very general terms as we got to know a little bit about each other.

We finished reading the book for the second session and began to compare our impressions: With a rating of five bookmarks (best book ever) down to one bookmark (would tell friends not to read the book), how would you rate this book and why? Most members of the group gave it three bookmarks (a good read, but I wouldn’t recommend it), with only a few higher and lower. I was curious to find out why this articulate, multicultural group did not connect to such a lovely, but ultimately sad, story. Most of the participants said that they preferred more traditional books which had straightforward plots, something they could follow easily. Another Brooklyn moves back and forth in time, mixing dreamlike and realistic states of mind, often omitting specific details of particular vignettes and anecdotes.

Another Brooklyn cover

Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn; cover image via Goodreads

In the third session, we had a more abstract and personalized conversation centered around a set of more personal questions: moments during your childhood when you felt a true sense of belonging and moments when you did not feel that you belonged. We explored what made us feel this way, and why. The questions led to a lively session about friends and feelings; everyone could come up with times of belonging as well as isolation. Several participants could relate to the experience of being latch-key children. One of the women told us about a girl in her neighborhood who wasn’t allowed to play outside after school. We compared her to August, who, along with her little brother, had to stay inside their apartment in Brooklyn while their father was at work. But the participant’s neighbor seemed to have lived in a murkier situation, and her memories suggested something more sinister. Some of us were quite moved by that memory, and we speculated about what might have been going on.

By our fourth and final session, we began to talk about death, a strong thematic current in the book. Throughout her childhood, August is in denial about her mother’s suicide. Only as teenagers, when August and her brother return to their childhood home, are they able to totally able to accept the fact of their mother’s death. When August’s therapist asks her when she realized that her mother was dead, August replies, “Never. Every day. Yesterday. Right at this moment. When my father took us back to the water”(166).

August goes on to attend an Ivy League college and complete a PhD in anthropology, with a concentration on death rituals around the world. At the beginning of the last session, we explored all of the death rituals which are interspersed throughout the book, and we shared the death rituals our families or religions observed. In this discussion the group came together, some eager to talk, others to listen, all of them comfortable sharing what were, in some cases, painful memories. I told the group about the Jewish ritual of shoveling dirt onto the casket after it is lowered into the grave. Everyone laughed when I related how at the funeral of my grandmother, who was a very unpleasant woman, all of the cousins filled in the entire grave just to be sure that our grandmother didn’t get out. We heard about other traditions associated with death and funerals from several others. With laughter and even a few tears, we broached this difficult subject together.

But tackling death, with all of its emotions and complications, became a powerful way to revisit a difficult book. I was intrigued and touched at the end of our sessions together that several of the women said that they planned to read the book again. Although they still didn’t really like the book, they had learned quite a bit from talking about it. Maybe, just maybe, they would reread it and send me an email about their experience. I said a slightly teary goodbye to the group – a group that bonded over personal conversations and an exploration of August’s challenged childhood – thanking them for their willingness to talk about Another Brooklyn, as well as to share part of themselves. And so ended our time together, a time which I remember so fondly.

Jacqueline Woodson writes in the closing lines of the book, “At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, be[comes] memory”(170). Tackling such a stylistically unique book may have been difficult for our group in the beginning. But as we dug deeper, Another Brooklyn unlocked memories that we shared and connected over. That’s the beauty of a great book.

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Gail Arnoff

Gail Arnoff

Gail Arnoff has been teaching since 1967 in a variety of settings: public schools, adolescent psychiatric units, and colleges.  Currently she is an adjunct in the English Department at John Carroll University and a Presidential Fellow in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.