Twists and Turns: An Interview with Janet McDonald by Jennifer Williams

Let her tell it, Janet McDonald is a project girl through and through. Author of the critically-acclaimed memoir Project Girl, she made it from the not-as-mean-as-you-think streets of the Farragut Housing Project in Brooklyn, NY to champagne toasts with Parisian literati, complete with her sense of self intact. Earlier this year, she was honored with the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent for Chill Wind, the second book in the trilogy chronicling the lives of teenage mothers and the different paths they choose. McDonald concludes the saga in her latest book, Twists and Turns. Listen in as we chat about how she got from the projects to Paris, from one project girl to another.
Jennifer: Congratulations on the award! What'd you do when you found out about it?
Janet: When I found out I'd won I was happy, but didn't really understand the significance of the award until other people told me about it. Then when I braved SARS and went to Toronto to accept it and there were hundreds of people at the awards ceremony, I knew. My agent Charlotte Sheedy took me out to dinner in Paris at an incredibly fine restaurant called Astrance.
Jennifer: Do you still think of yourself as a poor girl from the projects?
Janet: Being a project girl is about where you begin and identify, not necessarily where you land later in life. My mother says jokingly about me, You can take the girl out the projects, but you can't take the projects out the girl. Funny, but it can be true. And anyway, my name ain't that big. I still have plenty of blowin' up to do.
Jennifer: How did you get from the projects to Paris?
Janet: I could write a whole book about how I got from the projects to Paris. In fact, I already did! Project Girl. Let's just say I took the torturous, tortuous and sometimes tortious route. [laughs] Okay, how did I get to Paris? First, by leaving my hood, which I was scared to do but did. Just kept exploring farther and farther outside the projects, thanks to school. School was the vessel on which I sailed to far ports until I docked here because the people seemed cool and weren't all about racial drama.
Jennifer: What was it like living there as a Black American woman during the war?
Janet: Living in Paris is and will always be a blissful, magical experience for me, regardless of the vicissitudes of politics. I wrote a piece for Newsday about being an American in Paris at a time of such tension, feeling conflicting loyalties, torn between two lovers as it were. It wasn't a scary time for me, it was a silly time. A few French people were tearing stuff up in McDonald's restaurants, where other French people worked, and a few Americans were pouring Bordeaux in the sewer in New York. Both sides needed to raise the level of political discourse and eventually did. There is and always will be a close Franco-American bond. And France remains a welcoming place.
Jennifer: Do you ever come back home to visit Brooklyn, where you're from?
Janet: Are you kidding? I'm all about Brooklyn! My mother's still in the projects I grew up in, a lot of my friends are still there and I go back all the time. Been home about six times in the past year. But usually I go back once or twice a year for my mother's birthday or for some major holiday, like Christmas. Big up Brooklyn!
Jennifer: Why do you think you were able to make it out of the projects and some of your friends and family members weren't?
Janet: I had the opportunity to expand my world beyond the projects because I liked school and did well there, which opened the doors to more schools, i.e., college, law school, journalism school. But not everyone is made for school and that's okay too, which is why in the trilogy I try to offer alternatives to the academic one. More than one road leads away from Rome.
Jennifer: The Project Girl series is a refreshing change of pace from what we usually read about teenage mothers. What inspired you to write these stories?
Janet: Well, I guess since I grew up in the projects and know scores of Raven's and Aisha's, both among friends and in my family, I know the real deal outside the negative cliches and stereotypes. We're just real people like everybody else, trying to survive and, if we're lucky, thrive - be all the way live. People act like there's something wrong per se with being a teenage mother. But every mother is as good as the love and care she gives her children, and age ain't nuthin but a number anyway once you're out of puberty. Specifically, I was inspired by my four teenage nieces who all have kids and are responsible, loving, serious mothers. I wanted to show that there are different kinds of people in the projects, not just the stereotypes we all know about. My goal was to depict the humanity and hopefulness of project girls, show them creatively finding their own way in the world be it via college, entertainment, business or whatever.
Jennifer: Your books aren't at all preachy regarding teenage sexuality. Teens having sex is viewed as a given in the context of this series about teenage mothers.
Janet: Soapboxes are for soap. I'm not into preaching, which is why I was never into reading young adult literature because it was so preachy. I wanted to show reality as it is, not as I think it should be, and from there present positive ways that reality can be addressed. Teenagers have sex. And they ain't gonna stop because I say to. I think the scene in the lunchroom where all the girls are talking about condoms and protecting yourself gives a subtle message. And you also have the "virgin girl" Toya, who is yet another kind of project girl. The reality of teenage pregnancy is exactly as I describe it. Raven feels almost disoriented, like "How did this happen? How can I get my life back on course?" Reality is defying the odds, struggling through whatever situation you're in, and keeping your head up if you can. Other authors can preach and scold if they like.
Jennifer: The character of Aisha seems to serve as a cautionary figure; in stark contrast to Raven, she's an example of what can happen to a teenage girl who gets pregnant without having the love and support that Raven has at home.
Janet: I didn't create Aisha as a cautionary figure. Aisha's just a different kind of project girl with a different experience. But to me it's all good. Raven's more bookish but Aisha's savvier and a real survivor. She's also a good, loving mother who wants the best for her children, too. I mean, it's not ideal to get pregnant and drop out of high school and have few alternatives but public assistance, but it's real, so I just wanted to show that. But also have that person just deal with it, not have all this destructive drama that people tend to assume a project girl's life is about.
Jennifer: Not all the teenage fathers are deadbeats.
Janet: Jesse is a fictional character, but I'm sure there are boys like him. He's not really that unusual, just more of a middle class type who's a wannabe hip-hop homeboy. There are lots of them out there. Since he's a kid, he's not too eager to accept the responsibility of fatherhood, but I think that coming from a two-parent stable home he realizes the necessity and importance of that. Jennifer: You don't make much mention of racism. I think we expect to hear about that, especially when we're reading about poor black folks.
Janet: Yes. I wanted to show black people living in their black world and dealing with human problems. There is more to black life than racism. There is that certainly, but there is also just life. When you're in a predominantly or exclusively black environment, white folks and how they treat or don't treat you is not your everyday reality. You wake up, interact with family, go to the neighborhood store, go to school, hang with friends. You may not even deal with anyone white at all. I think it's important to show human beings in the projects, living their lives. We need new perspectives in our literature. Every book doesn't need to address the evil greedy white landlord and white racist cop. Those are stereotypes, too. True in some cases that we all know too well, but not true in all cases, so why not highlight something different that's also true so people will broaden their consciousness? I try to make the white and the black characters surprising in their humanity, not standard in their stereotype.
Jennifer: On a lighter note, one of my favorite lines from Spellbound, the first book in the trilogy, reads: "Their huge behinds quaking like pudding made Raven laugh out loud. She liked ghetto hips. Her homegirls had them."
Janet: Yes, I wanted to give a shout out to my booty girls. Living here in Paris and seeing African women I realized why we have certain physical characteristics. African women got back! And that's why we got back. And back is beautiful. The mainstream media tend to diss a certain kind of look among African American girls and women, one that is more African, more ethnic, and celebrate another look, one that is more mulatto, closer to white women. We come in all colors and shapes and sizes and we're all beautiful, India Arie and Alicia Keyes.
Jennifer: Did you know girls like the characters in the trilogy? How have they turned out?
Janet: Yes, I've known everybody. Parts of those characters exist in me, parts in friends, parts I just made up. They turned out just like the people in the book, fine. I hate to rain on people's corny parades, but in more cases than not people in the projects turn out fine. A couple of reviewers of the book were like, yeah it's a good book, but the ending is too happy. Why? Would it be more "realistic" if Raven bugged out and Aisha got hooked on drugs? Good things happen to us, too, not just bad.
Jennifer: Which character's experiences most closely mirror your own?
Janet: Probably Raven and her sister. Not that I was a teenage mother, I wasn't, but Raven is an academically-oriented project girl and her sister Dell got into law, working as a paralegal which is something I did as well. But of course, Aisha is my wannabe project girl self. She's great, all attitude and flamboyance but with a big heart.
Jennifer: What were you like back then, as a teenager in high school?
Janet: As a teenager I was an alienated, depressed mess with no self-esteem. I kind of bugged out in high school because I felt so out of place, in a new neighborhood, around people I wasn't used to. I got in trouble and even had to go to court for sending mad crazy letters to people who wouldn't be my friend. I stole records and gave them out to other kids hoping I'd be more popular. I experimented with drugs. I cut classes and hung out around school doing nothing. It was all pretty pitiful. I had to go to summer school just to get my diploma. Up until high school I had been a top student and loved school. Then adolescence just derailed me.
Jennifer: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Janet: I never knew what I wanted to be. Nothing appealed to me, really. Just wanted to be left alone. Six brothers and sisters can make you like that. I liked to write because you could escape into your head and be left alone.
Jennifer: You're an international attorney who lives in Paris. Why write books for and about teenage girls?
Janet: Why not write books about teenage girls? Someone has to care about us. Oops, I mean them (that was my wounded inner teen talking). I like to write and I feel like so many movies I see and books I hear of are about boys and their problems so I was like, I'm going to write about girls. Maybe since I had so many problems growing up and didn't have anything to read that spoke directly to me about my world I want to put something out there for other girls who might need some kind of encouragement or recognition.
Jennifer: For most women, it seems that there aren't enough hours in the day to nourish our artistic selves. How do you balance your work as an attorney with writing?
Janet: In France we have 6 weeks of vacation and it usually takes me about that long to write a book so it works out perfectly.
Jennifer: It only takes you six weeks to write a book from start to finish?
Janet: Yes. A month to a month and a half. Project Girl, my first book ever, took longer - about 2 months. But during those times I write 10 to 12 hours a day.
Jennifer: Now that the trilogy's over and you've exorcised some demons, what's next? Will you keep writing for young adults?
Janet: I'll keep writing for young adults because young adults are the coolest adults and the most interesting. We (oops! I mean, They) are still young enough to have dreams and fantasies and hopes for the future and still honest enough to be truthful about our problems and issues, either by talking or in our behavior. Older adults get all cynical and phony and manipulative and just kind of boring. I have a new book that will come out after Twists and Turns called Brother Hood, about a young man growing up in Harlem. That's all I'm saying.
Jennifer: Any advice for all the young mamas out there struggling?
Janet: All I can say is try to keep your head up, your eyes open and your mind broad. It's hard growing up, no matter what economic class you're in. What I do sometimes is imagine myself as a friend I want to help, then I advise and guide and care for that person as I would a best friend. Only I'm doing it for myself. Believe you have value because you do, regardless of what you're about. Believe you count because you do, no matter how unimportant society might make you feel. Believe that we're all in this together because we are, as we saw on September 11th. Be like Raven and keep your eye on your goal. Be like Aisha and deal with the real. 'Cause if you hang tough, you will be ah-ight. And ya know dat!
Jennifer Williams is an editor of Click here for Janet McDonald's Official Website