This week, On The Same Page has the honor of interviewing Jewel Parker Rhodes, veteran author of Voodoo Queen, Magic City and Freeing Ourselves Within.
Jewell Parker Rhodes
M.T.: To paraphrase Toni Cade Bambara, famous short story author of Gorilla, My Love , the storyteller snatches us back from the edge to hear the next chapter. Toni Cade Bambara writes about "...How it was; how it be. Passing it along in the relay. That is what I work to do: to produce stories that save our lives." (Black Women Writers (1950-1980), A Critical Evaluation, Edited by Mari Evans, p. 41.) Do you agree that storytelling/writing is a form of salvation?
J.P.R.: I agree that writing is a form of salvation. As a child, I had always written and read books but no one encouraged me to be an artist. Also, no one gave me any material by a writer of color. It wasn't until I was 19, a junior in college, that I discovered the black literary tradition. It took me a week to change my major from Drama to English. I felt as though I discovered myself--my true self. I still think it is a miracle that I stumbled upon Marie Laveau as my first subject. Writing about this glorious, spiritual, Black woman helped me grow not only as a writer but as a woman. All of my books have been intensely personal and passionate. I've used writing to clear my mind, explore my identity, and to encourage, I think, a better world in which my children, everybody's children, will live.
M.T.: Taken from the same cited book, Toni Morrison wrote "…If anything I do, in the way of writing novels or whatever I write, isn't about the village or the community or about you, then it isn't about anything." What do you think Ms. Morrison meant by "the village?" (p. 339)
J.P.R.: I think "village" has multiple meanings. First and foremost, I think Ms. Morrison is encouraging specificity. It is in "the details" of lives lived that we uncover the truth of our community. Whether writing science fiction or historical fiction, it is the details of the writer's experience, the writer's village which informs perception, content, and theme. Knowing one's village is an extension of the artist truly knowing him or her self. Ms. Morrison, perhaps, also means that the artist should function as "mirror," "critic," and "counsel" to the village. Writing has the power to change the world and any artist should be conscious of that fact. Consequently, artists have responsibilities to the communal whole. As a writer, I believe I have many villages which nurture and inspire me--my immediate family, my African American community, my community of women...by logical extension, everything human is my community. But my strength as a writer comes, as I believe Ms. Morrison intends, in recognizing the concrete, specific nature of my village. I do not write about humanity, in general, but write about the village of black women I have known through my experience, heritage, memory, and rememory. A portrait of my grandmother redrawn in VOODOO DREAMS speaks to my immediate community and, I think, by extension, to the larger, global village of ancestors and our intergenerational heritage and attachment.
M.T.: How does your background lend itself to your writing?
J.P.R.: My background as a working class child of divorced parents raised in the steel mill hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania gave me a great deal of material for my creative dissertation. I used my personal angst to give me my first real subject. Some themes are repeated in my work--abandonment by a mother-figure, loneliness, self-reliance, a yearning for "home," etc. But, in general, my work is not autobiographical. Instead, I think my training in graduate school gave me a love of history and how history informs subject matter. I seek my present in history; I try to write/rewrite the emotional, human aspects that history sometimes obscures.
M.T.: In writing, which element do you think is more important, plot or character?
J.P.R.: Writers should focus on character above all else. Character drives plot; when it is the reverse, you have poorly written fiction with one-dimensional characters. If an audience doesn't care about your characters, they'll not care about plot, about anything that happens to them. Importantly, too, is for a writer to LOVE all their characters and to present them in multi-dimensions, with motivations and memories. Even a hateful character needs to be loved by the author. Without love, you'll write stereotypes and/or flat characters. Everyone wants to understand human nature--it is the writer's task to reveal it.
M.T.: What was the inspiration for your novel, Voodoo Queen?
J.P.R.: I was inspired to write about Marie Laveau from a Time Life Cookbook on Creole and Acadian cooking. My fiction teacher when I was a junior in college, wanted me to write "what I knew." I wanted to write from my imagination and the cookbook prose about Marie Laveau and Bayou Teche inspired me. I wrote a story, "Bayou Teche," in an all-nighter and this story was subsequently published and formed the foundation of Chapter Two in VOODOO DREAMS. I later learned once I was deep in the novel that I WAS writing about "what I knew." I was writing about the strength, passion, spirituality, and vulnerability within black women. I was writing about the conjure history of my grandmother.
M.T.: What inspired your novel, Magic City?
J.P.R.: MAGIC CITY was inspired by a newspaper clipping. I had never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot--or of the community called, Deep Greenwood, the "Negro's Wall Street." I didn't even know that Oklahoma had a significant black population. So, I was inspired by "lack of knowledge." Iwas also inspired to write a story praising and celebrating the heorism of black men. Becoming a mother to a son also encouraged me to imagine men's lives. While VOODOO DREAMS praised, more exclusively, the power of women; MAGIC CITY praises black men and women. But the primary focus is on hearing the men's voices....hearing their strengths and testifying to their glory and wonder.
M.T.: Why did you write Free Within Ourselves?
J.P.R.: I wrote FREE WITHIN OURSELVES because it wasn't until my mid-30's that I finally accepted myself as a a writer. An educational system which never reflected my heritage, subtle racism in the creative writing classroom, overt racism in academia against writing about black peoples, all suppressed my identity as a writer. Today, the path is different for black writers. The world is more accepting of multi-ethnic voices. Nonetheless, I wanted to create a "homeplace" for writers---a book which would help them learn quicker, support their self-esteem, and provide practical and spiritual advice. Many nights I felt so isolated. A book like FREE WITHIN OURSELVES would have comforted me and encouraged me to get on with writing. Simply put: I wrote the book I wish I would have had when I was developing as a writer. FREE WITHIN OURSELVES, I hope, will be of service to African American authors.
M.T.: What are your feelings about the flooding of the market with "sister friend" books?
J.P.R.: The market does seem to be flooded with "sister friend" books. I LIKE "sister friend" books but I worry that publishing is encouraging a stereotype of what African American literature is and is not. For the writer who wants to write a contemporary, "sister friend" book, I say "go for it." But publishing has to be as welcoming of all types of fiction written by black authors. Our heritage is that black authors have written superbly in every genre and sub-genre there is! Mysteries, romances, family dramas, etc. -- black authors' creativity is unlimited. To overly encourage only "one" type of black story is to silence all the other wonderful stories waiting to be born.
M.T.: Thank you for this wonderful interview, Jewell Parker Rhodes. Her books can be ordered at Amazon.com.