Janet McDonald 1953-2007: make some noise for the Project Girl.
Janet grew up one of seven children in public housing in Brooklyn and went on to earn degrees from Vassar College, New York University School of Law and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was a member of MENSA and practiced law in New York, Seattle and Paris, France where she moved in 1995. In an interview for Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, she said: "I had a 'hood, but I never felt like I had a country, so now I have a country." She brought her 'hood with her, as her mother always said "You can take the girl out of the projects, but you can't take the projects out the girl."
The storyteller lurking beneath the lawyer emerged when Janet published her critically acclaimed memoir Project Girl (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999). Soon, Janet turned her narrative gifts to fiction, eventually leaving law and authoring six young adult novels. Spellbound (2001), was selected as one of the best books for young adults by the American Library Association (ALA) and Chill Wind (2002) won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Teachers and librarians often said that books such as Brother Hood (2004) and Harlem Hustle (2006) transformed reluctant readers into book lovers.
In a quintessential Janet McDonald essay "Up the Down Staircase: Where Snoop and Shakespeare Meet" she explained: "My books house teen mothers, high-school dropouts, shoplifting homeboys, preppy drug dealers, and girl arsonists. A few characters are gay, others are straight. Most strive to achieve a positive goal; some seek little more than their idle, pointless status quo. The cast also includes paralegals, college kids, teenage entrepreneurs, computer-savvy project girls, and budding artists."
Janet's frequent joke that young adults were her peers, coupled with her youthful energy and appearance made it easy to forget her chronological age. This in part made it a shock when she was diagnosed with colon cancer, but she fought hard to rise and fly. Before she died, Janet finished Off Color, her final novel, to be published by Foster/Farrar in November 2007.
Reflecting on the paintings of fellow expat Parisian Beauford Delaney, James Baldwin concluded "Great art can only be created out of love." Janet loved and was beloved by many--from readers and writers, to project girls and Ph.D.s--a mosaic that embodied her celebration of "unibrow literature, the union of academy and street into a work that enlightens and entertains."
The morning of my departure after a visit last winter, Janet was having "a good day," and insisted on escorting me to the airport bus. I protested, but she handed me a green Metro carnet and ordered me out the door. On our way to the station, she pointed her finger and announced, "I could kiss that meter. I could kiss this building."
"Don't do it," I said, worried about germs invading her compromised immune system. Janet ignored me again. She knew that nothing in Paris could hurt her, so she wrapped both hands around that green parking meter and pressed her lips to it as if embracing a lover, "Thank you!"
"Thank you!" she exclaimed again after delivering a huge bisou to the building's elegant facade. "J'taime Paris! It's like the dedication in my book." Her 2003 novel Twists and Turns is dedicated "To Paris, Where I became possible."
"It's true," Janet said emphatically, "Paris is where I became possible. It's where I became free."
Thank you, indeed.
Retha Powers is general editor of the forthcoming Bartlett's Familiar Black Quotations (Little, Brown and Company).
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2007|
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