by Scott Phuc Thinh Nguyen
I was fortunate to have met Jacqueline Woodson, an American author of children's and young adult literature, this fall, 2022, as she was presented the John Steinbeck, "In the Souls of the People" award by the Martha Heasley Cox Steinbeck Center at San José State University. Woodson, who has written over two dozen books, adds this Steinbeck award to her many honors, not the least of which include the National Book Award and the Newberry Medal.
So, it was with this and my introduction to her wonderful literature, that I came to listen to Woodson in conversation with Stanford University English professor and director of African and African American Studies, Michelle Elam.
Woodson’s honest and poignant writing about the African American experience is present in her work. Her writing was for me, a point of interest, as I had just read her latest poetry collection, Brown Girl Dreaming. Elam invited Woodson to speak about the histories that informed this work and others. I was rapt as Woodson’s response brought me and fellow listeners to the subject of the Nation’s founding institution, slavery, which has not only deeply affected people of color but whites. We must acknowledge a type of shared trauma this institution still has on America’s collective psyche.
I gleaned that learning history is not simply about names, dates, and events; in fact, we learn history to see, understand, and address lingering problems. We learn to talk about and critique history so that we will not make the mistake of simply assuming history is a thing that just happened and that it can be ignored. Woodson inspired me and my fellow listeners to be the tellers of our own stories, especially as this rightly challenges the predominant historical narratives we’re fed early on.
I was quite young when I told my mom and dad, “I want to study in the United States.” I can remember how the thought of setting foot here stayed with me throughout my childhood. You might say that I was as an Asian boy dreaming; so, years later, it was no surprise to find the title of Woodson’s book somehow spoke to me and my experiences.
I was young when sometimes I would wander the streets of Vietnam, past houses that sat uncomfortably close to one another, and neighbors that had surrendered all promise of personal space. In fact, a bit of adolescent frustration and claustrophobia might have conspired to push me outside where at least the motorbikes roared, and their horns shouted at people absent the presence of mind to make way. In this hustle and bustle, I saw unlicensed vendors set up shop on the pavement, making their daily bread cooking street food. I saw how their bespoke businesses had to be scrappy and how their pay was rarely commensurate to the sweat and time they gave this work. It seemed to be a poor way to live, and I thought there had to be an escape from poverty such as this.
Where my family and I were not impoverished, the poverty I saw, still deeply affected my emotional well-being. I knew from the sixteen consecutive years I had lived in my community in Vietnam that my financial stability would be slim to none if I did not go abroad. I dreamed of having the chance of a better life and greater opportunities upon studying in the United States.
And then there was the literature of Jacqueline Woodson. I learned that like me she was a dreamer who just happened to be born in the United States, the land of my dreams, but despite her birthright, she also had to seek a better life and greater opportunities. There were parallels between her fight for a way out from racial segregation and my fight for a way out from political and economic injustice.
Controlled by communist ideologies, Vietnam is deeply hierarchical. People who have a position in the Party are guaranteed a chance to be prosperous. Political fealty is valued over knowledge, scholarship, and free thought. The implication is therefore that those who do not fully embrace communism will, in some ways, be denied social status and economic success. This implication has scared a lot of people, me included. And it has made me dream of a day Vietnam can be a better place for all its people. So, I was inspired by Woodson’s words: “It will be spring again, and the light will be gold” (Brown Girl Dreaming).
Woodson wrote a passage to memorialize her grandfather, William Woodson’s experience with integration. “We’ll face this [injustice] in our life someday, and our mother will tell us over and over again, that it will sometimes be scary when we walk into a room and no one there is like us and likes us” (The Day You Begin). This passage both resonated with me and showed me that the fight for equality and inclusion is ongoing. It is a fight that movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) and organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) wage in solidarity, day-in and day-out. So, in homage to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to the title of Woodson’s collection, Brown Girl Dreaming, I am now here in the United States, studying, and holding fast to my dreams.