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YA author Renee Watson to speak about concepts of home at EMU on May 23



Author and performer Renee Watson writes for a young adult audience, especially children in marginalized groups because she wants to help them process trauma. Watson’s two YA books, “This Side of Home” and “Piecing Me Together,” explore racial tensions and concepts such as gentrification in a way that helps her readers explore what the concepts mean to them in a healthy and productive manner.

“Sometimes young people don’t want to go to counseling, but maybe need to — need to express what they are feeling and what they are thinking,” Watson said in an interview with the Emerald.

Her work aims to help those who might not have access to counseling because of socio-economic status or other resources.

Cover artwork of Renee Watson’s most recent novel, “Piecing Me Together.”

Watson attended Jefferson High School in North Portland. She has always been a writer and grew up performing in her church. A short story she wrote in middle school ended up inspiring her book “This Side of Home,” about two young African-American sisters in high school and their experiences with the gentrification of their neighborhood.

“Theatre and poetry and music have always been ingrained in me,” Watson said of her childhood. “I didn’t know then as a teenager, but I could use those things as a tool to fight against injustice.”

She wrote a one-act play in high school and The Firehouse Theater company in Portland selected it to be performed. “I remember sitting in the audience watching the actors say my words,” Watson said. “That blew my mind.” After seeing her work in performance, she knew that she wanted to become more involved in the arts.

Watson eventually left Portland to attend the Eugene Lang College at New School for the Arts in New York City. Now, she resides in New York City, having lived in both Brooklyn and Harlem. Watson is part of the i, too arts collective which refurbished Langston Hughes’s brownstone in Harlem to become an arts space. The collective holds readings, resident writers and arts programs for youth. It also seeks to expand on the legacy of Hughes’s work and preserve the building he lived in.

When Watson works on poetry with teenagers, she tells them that there are no rules. For instance, they can break the line of poetry when they want to.

“You are always told what you have to do, where you have to be. You don’t have a lot of control over your life,” Watson said of being a teenager. “Sometimes just the act of making without a lot of restrictions can give a young person a sense of power and control.”

Her advice for young artists and writers is to keep friends who have big dreams around them. Her presentation at the EMU is part of a lecture series called the BE series. Entitled BE Home, the talk will focus on how home isn’t just a place.

“You build home wherever you go,” Watson said. “I’ll be taking the audience on a journey from when I grew up as a young Black girl living in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll be reading poetry and excerpts from my short stories about my girlhood, about being black and finding my power in my voice.”

Watson will speak on May 23 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the EMU’s Redwood Auditorium. The lecture is free. 


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Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies

Sararosa Davies is the senior A&C editor at the Emerald. A former editor at the youth-run music blog Garage Music News, her written work has been featured in City Pages in Minneapolis, Eugene Weekly and Sirius XM's music blog. She's one of many Minnesotan transplants in Oregon.

Send her tips and questions at [email protected] or check out her work at www.sararosadavies.com