Renée Watson: Putting the Big Fro on the Front Cover
Updated: Apr 30
By Sandra Zvenyika
Renée Watson describes herself as an author, teacher, activist - but the bestselling writer who's just arrived in Tāmaki Makaurau is also funny, generous and deeply insightful. Her body of work consistently carries the message to young women, especially women of colour, that it is vital to fight for one's rights, for equal participation and for opportunity .
Her latest book, a collaboration with fellow author and long-time friend Ellen Hagan does exactly that.
Based on the premise that art can change the world, two girls in high school, with the help of a few friends, raise their voices above the din of the mainstream to champion women’s ideas and rights. In a nutshell, as Watson explains, “Watch us Riseexplores themes of blackness, women's rights, equality and how to navigate spaces, that by virtue of their structure, disenfranchise people of colour”.
Watson's own writing journey began early on as a seven-year-old growing up in Portland, Oregon, where she often put on plays with her family as cast members. However, the challenges of growing up in a society that either ignores or focuses exclusively on colour was not lost on her. She remembers as a child "it was difficult because inevitably I had some educators who could only see my blackness, and therefore, did not nurture any potential I might have had." However, things changed for her during her teens when she attended a predominantly black school and had one teacher who was very conscientious that she was teaching black kids: "[This teacher] knew we had a different context, a different life experience, we were different - and that difference deserves to be seen - she was one of the good ones."
Teaching and mentoring young women are very close to her heart, but writing - and doing so fulltime - thrills Watson in no small measure. "I'm so grateful to have the support of family and friends to do what I love," she says. "Children and young people are amazing. I love interacting, teaching, sharing and learning from them. My desire is to leave a legacy behind that will provide a place for them to draw from artistically."
Whether its poetry, young adult fiction or sharing story, Watson is committed to enabling others find their voice. She shares a poignant memory from her trip to Japan on the fifth anniversary of the devastating tsunami:
"At my workshop there was a young man who loved to write poetry but had been so deeply traumatised that he had not penned anything for five years. During that workshop he wrote and performed for the first time and it was an incredibly moving experience."
She adds, "sometimes it sounds clichéd when people say at the end of the day we are all human - but In Japan I fully connected to this young man. I had seen the scale of devastation caused by Katrina back home and I understood, the power of the written and spoken word to process and heal the human spirit connects us all."
It's a similar sentiment shared by her own influencers including Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisnero and Nikki Grimes to name just a few. One thing these incredible writers have in common, she shared, is their ability to articulate similar issues in ways that transcend age and time.
"Wherever there are people there will always be difference and navigating those differences with compassion and wisdom is part of what the written word does - these people are my inspirations in an industry that is constantly shifting and changing."
Weaving poetics, politics and prose, Watson's young adult fiction is punchy and engaging. But the undercurrent reflects a genuine push to dismantle the socio-cultural constructs of the world that we live in. "Sometimes it's as simple as having a black girl sporting a big afro on your book cover," she says.
It may seem a simple gesture, but it is in its own way is deeply radical and just one example of Watson's quiet but firm belief in changing not just the stories but how we are told them.
"The common narrative with other adults of colour in my community was that we had fought for and won equality through the civil rights movement - but at the same time, however, I also became aware of the blatant murder of an Ethiopian man by the local skinheads who in the late 80’s early nineties were terrorising people of colour - I then realised all things are not equal."
Watson knows that her cup is mighty full but she is passionate about creating a difference. When she needs a little top up its her friends and family that wrap themselves around her - and maybe with a little help from Beyoncé too.
Check out Rénee's event at the Auckland Writer's Festival here:
Sandra is a youngish woman native to the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe and has made Auckland her home. She is invested in several artistic pursuits including written expression, and on stage antics.
Written by Sandra Zvenyika. All interview remains the copyright of Black Creatives Aotearoa and may not be republished without permission.