I recently read my first Jacqueline Woodson book, The House You Pass On the Way, and really enjoyed it. I was expecting Autobiography of a Family Photo–same author, similar size, both with queer content–to have a lot in common with that book, but this turned out to be a completely different reading experience. Autobiography of a Family Photo is arranged in very short chapters, usually between one and three pages, and the next chapter often leaps forward a year. They tackle the turmoil of a family, and the tone is pretty dark. Poverty, sexual abuse, war, and homophobia are all touched on in this slim volume.
The short scenes feel like they just offer a glimpse at what is going on. They reminded me of poetry in that there was clearly a lot to be unpacked from each scene. What seems to tie this book together is trauma, both personal and the broader trauma of growing up poor and black (and queer) in an environment that punishes you for existing. It’s how each character attempts to deal with this trauma, including self-destructive behaviour. It’s the ongoing process of survival, all while trying to come to age and build an identity.
I read this during the 24 hour readathon, and that was clearly not the best context for this book. Although it is a small book, it would benefit from reading in small doses with a lot of time for reflection. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing is evocative and sparse. This isn’t a book that I would pick up lightly. It’s bleak, and it leaves a lot to the reader to interpret and connect. If you’re willing to commit to to it, though, I think this has a lot to offer.