ALMA x Jacqueline Woodson

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It was a sunny and mild Tuesday evening in central Stockholm, the perfect night for an afterwork drink or dinner outside, but a few hundred of us sat in a darkened auditorium on the third floor of Kulturhuset, eagerly awaiting acclaimed American writer, Jacqueline Woodson.  Woodson would soon begin a conversation with literature professor Elina Druker as the 2018 Laureate of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), the world’s largest prize for children’s and young adult literature.

Ironically, I first heard of Woodson through her second novel of adult fiction, Another Brooklyn (2016), a story about female friendship set in the 1970s.  I spent a lot of time as a kid in pre-gentrified Brooklyn; it was an era that I remembered well and was keen to see represented in literature.  However, it’s Woodson’s work as a children’s author, portraying young characters (usually between ten to sixteen years old) and worlds not typically depicted in that genre, that has won her accolades and a beloved following.

Working with themes such as racism, segregation, socio-economic inequality and sexual identity, Woodson challenges us to reconsider what comprises “children’s literature;” to confront our own prejudices and comfort level; and to give young people their due as legitimate voices.  The force in Woodson’s body of work centers on its ability to transcend age groups.  During the author talk, she reflected that readers of all generations—and walks of life—confess that they can relate to the experiences and observations recounted in her stories.

Woodson described how she always wanted to write and was a voracious reader as a kid.  The library was her second home; a detail that was very similar to my own childhood.  She also spoke about the importance of diverse narratives and the concept of “mirrors and windows.”  Books are the most powerful when we can see ourselves in the characters and gain insight into worlds other than our own.  By grabbing readers at a young age, children’s books are wonderful tools to share our similarities and differences.

As a tip for writers, Woodson recommended being as specific as possible when crafting scenes.  We shouldn’t shy away from delving deeper into setting, detail, voice and emotion.  Through this specificity, scenes become more honest, authentic and, hence, more universal.  Druker asked Woodson to read out loud a few passages from her memoir, New York Times bestseller Brown Girl Dreaming (2014).  Written in a lyrical, verse-style, it’s a journey through Woodson’s childhood alongside the people and places that have shaped her identity.  Tight and concise, the requested passages encapsulated so much depth and feeling, transporting us in the audience to the landscape of Woodson’s history.

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The newly-released, Swedish translation of “Brown Girl Dreaming.”

It would have been enough for Woodson to be a brilliant, immensely gifted, prolific novelist who has been honored with the National Book Award; Coretta Scott King Award; the NAACP Image Award; and now, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, but she was also humble, conveying warmth, humor and empathy.  Did I forget to mention that she did a reading at the Obama White House?  I think everyone in the room would have liked to exchange thoughts with Woodson about a host of topics—both related and unrelated to her books.  I’m so proud my adopted country has recognized the beauty and breadth of Woodson’s writing.  I got the sense we all understood the urgency for inclusiveness in these divided times.

Woodson graciously signed books after the ALMA interview.  When I got home, I saw that she had written in mine: “Jennifer, my fellow brown girl dreaming!”

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What is ambition?

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It’s one of those loaded words that we intuitively understand yet still struggle with.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines ambition as a strong wish to achieve something and a desire to be successful, rich and powerful.  Implicit in this paradox is the suggestion that ambition fosters greed and hubris.  It carries a double-standard with it, too; one steeped in gender biases.  Men are complimented for their ambition:  He’s driven; he’ll be a good provider; or possibly start the next successful tech company.  Whereas in women, it’s treated with suspicion:  She’s selfish; too tough; unlikable.

Mia Lewis, the protagonist in my new book Lagging Indicators, is ambitious—unapologetically, competitively, aggressively so.  I first met women like Mia when I was young and new to the corporate world.  They were more seasoned professionals whose moxie and intensity made me uneasy at first, due to my own misconceptions about powerful, successful women.  I mistook their no-nonsense style for being cold, forceful and cocky.  But were they so different from the male excutives at the professional services firm I worked for?  Or did I hold them to a different, higher standard because they were women?  Did I expect them to be softer, more subtle?  A tall order considering this was Manhattan and they, like their male counterparts, had to manage demanding clients and were being judged every day.

After analyzing my unconscious biases, I stopped feeling intimidated and embraced what these women could teach me.  Their work-ethic was a given, but they spoke up; made connections; seized opportunities; and even self-promoted.  Since I was more of the quietly ambitious kind, I could only look on in admiration and think:  You go, girl.

Novelist Jessica Knoll recently wrote an essay in the New York Times that stirred some debate because she announced in the title that she wants to be rich and isn’t sorry about it.  I interpret “being rich” as a metaphor for control, security and power.  Knoll’s not sorry for being ambitious, for figuring out how the game is played (and won) by men and applying the same mindset and methods to get there.  Many were shocked by her bluntness; I was excited she tapped into an issue I explore with Mia.

Women today have made many strides, but recent events have also demonstrated how precarious this progress is.  The fight against objectification, harassment and scapegoating isn’t over; nor is the struggle to prove that we deserve a seat at the table.  Nurturing female ambition means offering women and girls the education and resources that allow them to reach their full potential, giving them the freedom and voice to choose who they want to be.

Maybe ambition isn’t such a dirty word after all.  What do you think?

A tribute to my mother…

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Shortly before Mother’s Day in 2004, I flew from Stockholm to New York, not to wish my mother a Happy Mother’s Day in person, but to say my final goodbyes as she lay dying of pancreatic cancer.  The cancer had spread quickly to her liver and lymph nodes; the doctors told us she wouldn’t make it past May.  I had given birth a month earlier to my second child, a son, and my mother wanted to see and hold him while she was still sitting up and clear-headed.  Her situation was so grave, I didn’t know if she would outlive my 8 ½ hour flight from Stockholm.

Although I was now a mother of two, I became a child again in the face of my own mother’s cancer.  Words like “terminal” and “do not resuscitate” made no sense since my worst childhood nightmare had been realized.  I was very attached to my mom and couldn’t imagine life without her.  As a kid, I checked up on her while she slept to make sure she was still breathing.  Moving to Stockholm hadn’t altered the closeness of our relationship.  We spoke on the phone almost every day and I came to visit for several weeks in the summer.  My mother was the heart, soul and rock of our family.  She was the most unselfish person I knew and always available for me and my older sister, despite commuting forty minutes from home every day to work as a French teacher and then coming back to tutor other kids in the afternoon.  She sewed most of our clothes, made home-cooked meals every night, and drove us to our activities.  Above all, she was always fully present and never seemed distracted.  We had wonderful conversations around the kitchen table about her childhood in Haiti and what it was like when she and my father moved to New York in the late ‘60s.

I have my mother to thank for my love of reading, art, classical music, and all things beautiful.  We often woke up on Sunday mornings to the drumbeat of Ravel’s Bolero on the record player.  My mother had a set of leather-bound books that she purchased via an installment plan and I loved to turn the gold-edged, tissue-thin pages, struggling to understand Shakespearean English.  Her favorite perfume was First by Van Cleef & Arpels; I kept her last, half-used bottle and am overwhelmed by memories of her whenever I smell it.  After my sister and I became salary-earning adults, it felt completely natural for us to treat our amazing mom with a trip to Paris for her 50th Birthday.  An ardent Francophile, she could finally visit the Louvre, Versailles and charm Parisians with her impeccable French.  The trip was a success, though in true Mom form, she was never really clear about her exact age and had already turned fifty a couple of years earlier!  But we didn’t know this at the time.  My sister and I would discover our mother’s true year of birth much later, when we prepared her death certificate.

My mother taught me how to live a life of purpose filled with love, compassion, service and kindness.  And during those grief-filled days in May, my mother was also teaching me how to die.  I don’t know if she had already gone through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.  Aside from denial and bargaining, I have a difficult time imagining my mother angry and depressed because that’s not how she approached life.  She was of a generation that just got on with it, without any drama or fanfare.  However, she exuded a peaceful acceptance by the time I reached her bedside.  A spiritual person, she could put her life in perspective and considered me and my sister her greatest sources of joy and accomplishment.  She rarely complained about the excruciating pain piercing her abdomen and never once asked, “Why me?”

My mother left us on May 24th that year.  It was devastating, a loss from which I haven’t fully recovered, but I’m comforted by all the lives she touched.  At her funeral, the church was teeming with family, friends, colleagues and students who wanted to say thank you and pay their last respects.

I miss my mother every day and am so grateful she had been mine for thirty-two years.  My biggest regret is that my own children didn’t have the chance to know and love her the way I did.

 

Welcome to my website!

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My name is Jennifer Dahlberg and I’m a writer living in Stockholm, Sweden, with my Swedish husband and our two children.  Moving to Sweden was a big change for this native New Yorker, but I’ve always been curious about other countries and cultures and my years here have filled me with tons of inspiration and, hopefully, perspective.  Sweden has also given me the opportunity to pursue my passion: writing.  I’ve been an avid reader my whole life and joined the newspaper, yearbook and literary magazine in high school.  I then went on to study political science in college with the goal of becoming a journalist.  However, my life took an unexpected turn (love!) and I decided to spend it abroad.  Luckily, writing is a portable career and I wrote my debut novel, Uptown and Down during my first few years in Stockholm.  There’s something to be said for the long, dark winters here; going outside seems like a dismal proposition, so one is compelled to hunker down, focus and get things done.  Work hard from November – March and you’ll be rewarded with longer, leisurely daylight hours from April – August.

This time of year is a moment of renewal and it certainly reflects how I feel right now.  After years of hard work, I’ve finally finished the manuscript for my second book, Lagging Indicators.  Writing requires intense commitment, often at the expense of anything superfluous.  In a few months, Lagging Indicators will find its way into the world and I now have the time—and courage—to share my thoughts and ideas with you.  While this website will be primarily about my writing and what unleashes my creativity, I also draw inspiration from everything around me: my children, nature, art, music, fashion, design, travel, literature, popular culture, politics, news, food…  Anything from a road trip in India to watching a basketball game with my son can get the “wheels in my head turning,” as I like to say!  This website will give me a platform to express myself on a broad range of topics and perhaps I can inspire, inform and entertain.  I also welcome your feedback. I want us to have a dialogue because writing can be a pretty lonely vocation :).  Thank you for joining me on this journey!