Thursday, March 31, 2011

Remembering Janet McDonald

I considered publishing this posting on the anniversary of Janet’s passing, but thought that it would be more appropriate to publish it during Women’s History Month – a time when women’s stories garner more attention and when we collectively celebrate womanhood.


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On April 11, 2007, the world lost a prolific writer and extraordinary person. Janet McDonald, an award-winning contemporary American author and Paris resident, succumbed to colon cancer at the age of 53.


I first met Janet at the American Library on May 29, 1996. She had been invited to participate in an event called “Writers at Work: from Manuscript to Bookstore” for writers who were visiting or living in France. Participants read from their books, discussed their works, and recalled the challenges of becoming a published author. The program described Janet as follows:

Janet McDonald, international corporate lawyer, has a contract with Farrar-Strauss to publish her memoirs, “a sort of Tree Grows in Brooklyn”.

That memoir would be called Project Girl (1999), and it went on to be named Los Angeles Times Best Book of 1999. Raw and insightful, it poignantly tells the tale of Janet’s lifelong struggle to reconcile her upbringing in a New York City ghetto with the brilliance that gained her entry into another world – that of Vassar, Columbia University, Cornell, and NYU Law Schools and beyond. The opening chapter of the book quickly sets the tone for what is to come when Janet describes herself as a college-bound project girl as much drawn to books as she was tempted by violence.

After Project Girl, Janet went on to write six novels for young adults. She reached out to this audience from the vantage point of the “derailed” adolescence that she describes in Project Girl, and did so with great purpose and success. Spellbound (2001) was selected as the American Library Association’s Best Book for Young Adults and Chill Wind (2002) won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award. Janet’s last novel, Off-color, was published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux in October 2007. Four of her books have been translated into French.

During my few encounters with Janet, I found her to be quick-witted, eclectic, and yet awkwardly shy. After reading Project Girl, I felt that my initial perception of her was correct. However, I learned that the awkwardness that I had noted was a manifestation of her struggle to find her place in society. Here was a woman who was at once a Mensa member and reformed drug abuser, journalist and rape victim, reformed arsonist and corporate attorney. Her life had been an incredible series of crashing defeats and phoenix-like risings. I stood humbled by her resilience and her ability to maintain a sense of humor.

In Project Girl, Janet describes the Paris that she knew when she first arrived in France and the city that she came to know as an attorney at a French law firm. She offers a unique perspective on life in the City of Light. Following the success of the book, I approached her about writing a literary walk based upon her places of residence and preferred haunts. The project was never completed, but I have resurrected my notes. Among her favorite activities were going to the movies, roller skating, and playing Frisbee. She described her “once and future favorite spot” in Paris as the Eiffel Tower. For her, it was THE symbol of the place where she was finally happy…where she was home.

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Entrée to Black Paris!™ is a Discover Paris! blog.



25 comments:

Brian said...

Janet McDonald first came to my attention from the May 2014 rebroadcast of her appearance on This American Life.



Her 'Notes From a Native Daughter' program segment was joyful and captivating. I was saddened to hear Ira Glass speak of her tragic 2007 death during the credits at the end of the program.

I immediately procured a copy of her inspiring book Project Girl and read it cover to cover, unable to lay it aside.

An internet search also revealed an archived C-Span video from a book tour appearance at Mt. Holyoke College. Her humor and humanity shone through during that book reading and dialogue. What an inspirational role model for those young women!

http://www.c-span.org/video/?120229-1/book-discussion-project-girl

If you ever intend to publish your notes from the proposed walking tour of Paris project which you described in your blog, I think that it would be of great interest to those who have come to appreciate Miss McDonald for the remarkable human being she was.

Thank you for sharing this post.

Brian said...

The link I failed to include in my previous post for the episode of 'This American Life' was titled 'Americans in Paris':

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/165/americans-in-paris

About Beauford Delaney said...

Thanks for these comments, Brian. Janet was truly special!

gingermc said...

My teenage daughter and I also enjoyed the recent rebroadcast of her appearance on NPR. My teen recently visited Paris on a class trip so it was especially poignant - we were so taken with her interview that we researched to find more information about her books, and found this site.

Brian said...

I have updated Janet's Wikipedia page with several links and some previously missing biographical notes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_McDonald

Bea said...

Brian, my discovery of Janet was, indeed, like yours: a rebroadcast of the Americans in Paris episode on T.A.L. from this year. Inspired to know more, I then ordered her book and have just read the final pages a few minutes' ago. What an amazing person she was!

Ms. Wells, thank you for this post on Janet McDonald. I second Brian, a Paris walking tour comprised of Ms. McDonald's favorite haunts and activities would certainly be engaging!

Nikki P said...

Remarkable to have found this blog and profoundly sad to just now learn of Janet's passing. Very sad. I met Janet in Paris sometime in the 1990's - I was studying at a physical theatre school and she appeared at my gym one day. A transplanted Canadian meeting a transplanted American, we became fast friends. I have a photo of her, posing, outside one of the most prestigious landmark restaurants in Paris. We look good :)Thoughts of her came to me yesterday - out of no where. I couldn't remember her name at first and went to bed recalling that it began with a 'J'. This morning I looked in an old address book and found it! I tried looking on FB to no avail when I googled ...so very sad to learn she has left. A kindred spirit I know we would have reconnected sans doute. I would love to hear from anyone who knew her: nikkipmail@gmail.com

Nikki P said...

Remarkable to have found this blog and profoundly sad to just now learn of Janet's passing. Very sad. I met Janet in Paris sometime in the 1990's - I was studying at a physical theatre school and she appeared at my gym one day. A transplanted Canadian meeting a transplanted American, we became fast friends. I have a photo of her, posing, outside one of the most prestigious landmark restaurants in Paris. We look good :)Thoughts of her came to me yesterday - out of no where. I couldn't remember her name at first and went to bed recalling that it began with a 'J'. This morning I looked in an old address book and found it! I tried looking on FB to no avail when I googled ...so very sad to learn she has left. A kindred spirit I know we would have reconnected sans doute. I would love to hear from anyone who knew her: nikkipmail@gmail.com

Christopher Paul said...

Just heard her story via This American Life. I can't believe this woman is not with us anymore. How full of life and happy her voice was. I celebrate her.

Unknown said...

I've been thinking of Janet McDonald while wearing my new cowboy boots so thought I'd better check online to see why. Okay it's April 4th and I now see she passed April 11th 8 years ago. She didn't seem to think black or white. She was just Janet. Paris seemed to be the same way. No black / white thing standing in the way of just being individuals. I have every one of her books that she wrote for young people and Project Girl about her life. She greatly influenced me and will always be remembered.

ella said...

Ditto Brian and Bea: I heard the original broadcast of This American Life when it aired more than a decade ago. Her low, lovely voice and laughter as she described trying to jump a movie ticket line always stuck with me: "They weren't afraid of us; I guess because they don't hate us." (My own theory about US black-white relations has generally been the vice versa of that: the average white person [generalizing broadly here] hates black people because s/he fears them; knowing deep down that they have painfully earned a grievance.)

I think and write a lot about racism in America, try to do my part to counteract it, and thought of that interview from time to time. About two summers ago I googled the TAL episode, ordered Project Girl and devoured it. Decided to re-listen to the episode, and gasped to hear the sad coda about her passing. Only 53. So much left to write, to live, to laugh over. I often incorporate her name into various of digital passwords as a reminder to myself to not squander time.

Qu'elle repose en paix, Mlle. McDonald. You are not forgotten.

Thanks, Brian, for adding all the links on wikipedia; I know I searched more about her before, without success.

Bonnie in Pittsburgh

Unknown said...

Thank you, Ira Glass, for rebroadcasting today (July 20th, 2019) your interview of Janet McDonald. I am totally convinced that she has much to offer about living in Paris, and her life, in general. I shall purchase her book(s) and read them with heart; and send t heir msges to my Francophile friends, as well as, in general, anyone I know who loves a wonderful person, and writer, etc.

Many thanks, again, for bringing her into your radio realm; people such as Janet need to be remembered and your show was uplifting in this regard! (as it is in many regards...)

Merci encore... PEggy Elder (Philadelphia)

Jaron said...

Just now heard a re-re-broadcast of the episode and share all the sentiments here about Janet. What an incredible human being...

Trish Vahayvoo said...

just now listened to the rebroadcast of 'American in Paris," heard this show a long time ago and both times struck by the lovely voice and vitality of Janet McDonald so sad to hear of her passing just now. I will hopefully in near future find a copy of "Project Girl."

Unknown said...

Sitting here with a tender heart after listening earlier to Ira Glass' interview with Janet. Such a lovely, vibrant voice. Googled her book, Project Girl during the prog and was shocked when she was mentioned in the past tense online. I had no idea she had died. I enjoyed listening to her in previous interviews elsewhere and had read about her. I spent the night reading some of her work and the beautiful memories others have shared of her. Bless you dear Janet. You were a beautiful presence and you are remembered with love.

Unknown said...

Thank you Brian for the updates and entries. And thanks Ira Glass for the re-broadcast of that episode from 2000. I listened tonight on WNYC in NY.

Unknown said...

I also just heard the TAL reprodcast and like many here was struck by what a sage Janet McDonald was. I am a sociology professor who studies many of the issues Janet spoke so eloquently about. I was struck by how she so beautifully and insightfully described her own experiences and understood them as being shaped by the broader social forces in the countries in which she lived. She just nailed it. I am excited to read her book but was so sad to hear of her death.

Philo said...

I had the opposite reaction listening to the This American Life episode. I was angered by her observations about race in Paris and found them to be borderline psychotic. Especially about cutting the line because white people are afraid of black people. This went unchallenged as these type of racist views of white people often do on TAL, and was even laughed off. Gross.

Unknown said...

Listened to the podcast today for the first time and enjoyed Janet's segment.Looked her up after the segment and ended up here. I'll look for her memoir and read it.

A said...

Like many here I just heard the rebroadcast of This American Life and was charmed by Janet's warmth and insight. I'm also an American living in Paris and wanted to see if she was still living here and if it would be possible to get in touch. So sorry to hear of her passing. Quelle femme merveilleuse.

Sam said...

Likewise. Got hear after I listened to the TAL re-broadcast.I was in the middle of washing a large pile of dishes and I had to stop everything I was doing to do this search.
I was shocked and saddened to hear that joyful voice is no more... I'm going to get her book.

Laureen said...

Besides her book Project Girl she wrote at least 7--maybe 8-- books for young people. It makes me sad to think of her passing.

Unknown said...

Just heard the episode in The American Life about Americans living in Paris. i was fascinated by Janet Macdonald and how I related with her feelings about being and living in a different country. I was sad and in shock when in the end of the program, a note announced that she passed in 2007. When the podcast was recorded, she sounded happy, and complete about her edition to move to Paris. She found home, and was happy about it.

EA said...

Like everyone else, I just finished listening to the rerun of Americans in Paris and was so sad to hear that Janet had died at a young age. I like that this page has become a little tribute to her effect on people even after just 15 minutes of a radio episode.

Unknown said...

This thread is incredible! After hearing the TAL rebroadcast, I ordered "Project Girl" from my library. Her French insights captivated me. And because my daughter went to Vassar like Janet, I was extra curious about her experiences there. I just finished her book. Magnificent. Heartbreaking. Powerfully inspiring. But then to learn she died fewer than 10 years later is just devastating. I wish she were here for so much. For the Obamas. For Ta-Nahisi Coates. For "Hamilton." For the centuries-overdue racial reckoning that is starting to happen here and elsewhere. I'm glad her spirit will live on in her books (and that TAL broadcast!). I hope her mama is still thriving.