Dr. Jewell Parker Rhodes should not need an introduction. An award-winning, prolific writer whose oeuvre spans generations, she is the author of 7 children’s books and 7 adult books. Though she began her career writing for adults, she has since reinvented herself as an adored children’s author with a natural flair for sensitive stories that aren’t afraid to broach topics like racial injustice and reveal the riches of African American heritage. Her fifth children’s book, Ghost Boys (2018), has garnered over 30 awards and honors including the Jane Addams Peace Award and Walter Dean Myers Award. A response to Amerikkka’s long history of murdering young Black boys from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, Ghost Boys begins when twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer and enters the ghost world where he meets other children who have faced the same fate. Novels like Towers Falling, Ninth Ward, and Magic City—which deal with 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Tulsa Race Massacre respectively—are based on other large crises in American history. But with two trilogies set in Louisiana, history is not her only compass: Jewell is drawn time and time again to the folkloric traditions of the Deep South. In this interview, she sheds light on learning those traditions from her dear Grandmother, how to adapt oral culture for printed children’s books, everything she still yearns to write about, and her inspirational journey from not knowing Black people write books, to writing some of the best ones around.

Jane: Though you began your author career writing books for adults like Voodoo Dreams (1993), you have since written 7 books for children. Why and how did you start writing for children?

JEWELL: That’s a terrific question! I always wanted to write for children. Always, always, always! I started with adult books, trying to become good enough to write for children. I think that children are the best audience, and that’s why they deserve the very best. I didn’t want to, you know, practice on them [laughs]. Sometimes stories come to me in dreams or I’ll read something, even something like a recipe. I have stories bubbling in me all the time. It’s just a matter of when they come out. 

To write a book, I have to get the call. For around 30 years, I talked to my agent about writing a children’s book and he would say whenever you’re ready, Jewell. But I didn’t get my calling until the day Katrina hit. One of the novels in my adult series set in New Orleans came out that day. My publisher sent me to New Orleans two weeks after the hurricane to sell my books, which was crazy because the town was truly devastated. The people were still recovering. In some ways, they still are. When I was there, I thought: What about the children? What about the animals? And that was when, finally, I woke up as if from a dream and Lanesha’s voice (Ninth Ward, 2010) was inside my head. That voice was my lifeline.

I’ve been writing for children for around 15 years and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my writing career. I will have other adult projects, but I am finally writing the books I need to write, the books that a teacher can use in the classroom or a kid can curl up in bed with. To me, that’s the highest honor.

Jane: I love how you have a mission in writing. You’re not just writing to write. You really want to create a better future.

JEWELL: Yes, I do. I have always believed that words have power. Everything that I write explores things that have been repressed in society, especially African American heritage. You know, exploring what we can do to make the world a more empathetic place. Writing for children is perfect because, in my novels, it’s very often a child who rejects the bias of an adult and says, no, that’s not right. I firmly believe children can lead us. My hope has sustained itself because of the generations coming behind me. There are ways in which my generation has a lot to account for, particularly in America after 9/11. We got scared and ended up scapegoating people. A lot of our politics right now are even more virulent. I’m writing to remind you that when you were your eighth-grade loving and wonderful self, you were supportive of all the different cultures in your community. I think children represent the best of us.

“I’ve been writing for children for around 15 years and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my writing career.”

Jane: Children’s writers often say they write the books they wish they had as kids. Do you write the books you wish you had as a middle-grader?

JEWELL: Absolutely! My family was very poor. We didn’t have books in the home. I relied on my school librarians to feed me books. As soon as I was done with one, they’d give me another one. And, well, the books were all written by white authors with white characters. I did not know that Black people wrote books! I literally thought I had to be a white male in order to be a writer. I went to college for drama because I love stories. One day I went into the library and saw on the new fiction shelf a book by a Black woman—Corregidora by Gayl Jones—and I was like, Black women write books… 

The very next day, I changed my major to English. I was in search of my identity as a Black woman wanting to know more about Black culture. I had heard about Marie Laveau, the strong Black woman in 19th century New Orleans who had more freedoms and power than any other. Most Black women at the time were mistresses going to quadroon and octoroon balls. Or they were slaves. Or impoverished. Or free people of color. And I thought, here’s a Black woman in history who could be a role model for me because she achieved a spiritual essence and found a way to not only survive but thrive. I wanted to undermine the negative associations our culture puts on voodoo. That took me on a long journey to learn about the African and African American spiritual traditions.

There was a moment where, supposedly, Marie walked on water. If you look at the newspapers of the day, there’s an article talking about Marie Laveau walking across Lake Pontchartrain like Christ. And if it’s in the newspaper, it’s got to be true, right? [both laugh] I play with that in my writing. Why couldn’t a Black woman walk on water? Why couldn’t a Black woman make miracles? There’s a moment by the end of the novel, after her journey and her suffering, where she says: Je suis Marie Laveaux. When I was writing that, I felt that I had grown up and become Jewell Parker Rhodes. It took me 10 years to write Voodoo Dreams. I learned so much. I learned to say, yes, I am a Black writer. I learned what it meant to write in the African American story tradition. 

I was a lonely little girl. My mother had abandoned me as an infant and my grandmother raised me. I always felt that my mother left because of me and I would go hide in the closet. After a while, my grandmother would notice I was missing and she called, Jewell? Jewell? I love that call. That sense of somebody finding me meant a lot to me and made me feel special. My grandmother always told me stories. It also took me until college to understand the gift my grandmother had given me in terms of oral storytelling. 

“It also took me until college to understand the gift my grandmother had given me in terms of oral storytelling.”

Jane: Thank you for sharing that. That’s truly beautiful. I’m really interested in oral culture. You’ve said that your “secret weapon is writing in the African American oral tradition.” How do you adapt that oral tradition for print?

JEWELL: Whoa, nobody has ever asked me that! It’s, I think, one of the most important questions. Grandmother, on hot summer nights, would sit with us on the porch and tell stories. She never finished the third grade. She had to work all her life, taking care of babies. She would give us a treat, an ice cube with salt on it—we couldn’t afford popsicles or ice cream cones—and she would tell stories. She would  start with, “I remember…”, not once upon a time, “I remember.” Her stories were an embroidery of truth and exaggerated fantasy, but there was always this sense that when you tell a story, there is a moral to it and the person telling the story is a kind of shaman. In their storytelling, they have given you a gift of culture, morals, and entertainment. And so, in my children’s novels, in particular, I use the I voice. I don’t use the third person: it is the child who is empowered and telling their story. They have spiritual abilities and their journey is going to show you morals and how to be better, or braver, or more resilient in the world. I displace that adult role to the child. 

The other thing that Grandmother’s oral tradition relied on was the motifs of our folklore. You know, spirits and signs. That’s why some of my characters are ghosts, and that comes from a phrase that my Grandmother used to say: every goodbye ain’t gone. It means that everybody dead is not gone. Spirits can be accessible. Even though my Grandmother has been dead for like 30 to 40 years, I can still call on her presence. My Grandmother’s stories would also talk about the power of dreams or the power of signs. I remember ladybugs were a big deal for good luck. Or if you saw a blackbird, it was a beautiful sign of a spirit that might, in fact, be going back to Africa, be going home. I think children have a sense of spiritual yearning and they respond to that sense of wonderment. It excites them, and it comes from the oral tradition.

Another real key is that I pay attention to rhythm. I know how to write Standard English, right? I’m a professor [laughs]. But I have struggled my entire career with copyeditors and publishers who want to standardize my language. I might say ‘me and Tom’ rather than ‘Tom and I’. Or if I put words together in a certain rhythm and pacing to emulate somebody like my Grandmother speaking her dialogue and telling her stories, they always want to change it. And it’s only been after like, I think, 17 projects that they’ve stopped. They’d basically rewrite everything and I had to go back and write it the way that I had it. It felt like an affront. Now I have an editor, Alvina Ling at Hachette, who tells copyeditors to leave my stuff. 

“I have struggled my entire career with copyeditors and publishers who want to standardize my language.”

We have privileged certain kinds of narratives. Anything different is seen as lesser or incorrect. There are studies on sociolinguistics and code shifting in spoken language. But the concept that there could be code shifting in novels is still waiting to catch up. I remember when I started reading Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and I was like, wow, this sounds like my folk! If you compare it to novels by white authors, you’d understand and know there is a Black system of communication that’s different. I can go into all kinds of academic and scholarly things about those differences.

I’m trying to do that for children, so they don’t grow up and wait until college for the Black voice. Even today, there are a lot of ethnic writers who write in more traditional master narrative tradition because that’s what they’ve been taught. I think that’s why my kids like my books: it’s talking to them authentically. I don’t think it’s just Black kids, but also Hispanic and even white kids. All kinds of kids. Books are complicated things and people respond in different ways.

We need more diversity in publishing so that people’s modes of storytelling which might stem from their own cultural traditions don’t get repressed. 

Jane: 100%. This is one of the most important problems facing the industry. The whole idea of literature and storytelling is so rooted in whiteness, and we don’t even realise the extent to which it is.

JEWELL: Yes, yes, yes, yes! You should be in my classroom! My generation of academic professors were the first ones to teach African American literature in the university classroom, as well as women’s studies and ethnic studies. It was a long journey in America. I get a lot from the classroom, lots of my subject matters. My second novel, after Voodoo Dreams, is about the Tulsa Race Massacre (Magic City, 1998). I was the first to write a novel about the Tulsa Race Massacre and the book did not do very well. People would write letters saying this is a lie. It never happened. You know, there were responses from the KKK. They reissued it this May for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Jane: Is there anything you haven’t written yet about that you’ve always wanted to write about?

JEWELL: I knew I wanted to write about Alexandre Dumas when I was 25 and it took until my 60s. He’s in Black Brother, Black Brother. So I do have ideas that are very old. I did a trip from Istanbul all the way up to Norway because I wanted to talk about vikings, about the clash of faiths and cultures. I want it to be a great adventure story. 

I’m thinking of doing a story about the Galapagos. I’d like to come to Cambridge and look into Darwin because I discovered a lot of the sailors were actually people of colour. I read an article about how a young man of colour was a great asset to Darwin’s work. He was a merchant seaman but when he was dining with Darwin, he didn’t use the knife and fork because he had a tradition of eating with his hands. There was a comment about how that’s why he will never be civilized, that he’d regressed. That kind of idea comes from a time when I was in grad school reading Kafka. There’s a story short in which they talk about having educated a gorilla. He wears clothes, speaks English, like Frankenstein’s monster in a top hat and tail. The story is also about how lonely he is and how painfully torturous it is to be a community of one. I wanted to write a paper because it seemed to me that that also happened with discrimination towards who was a good Negro or not. The colonization that comes with colorism, texturism, and all that stuff. Intra-racism as well as inter-racism. The teacher said, no, no, you can’t do that, it doesn’t make any sense. But I knew that by going to college and being the first in my family to go, I had become different from them. And it was very, very sad.

I want to write a quintessential animal story. I adore Watership Down. When I was a little kid, I did identify a lot with animal stories in which abused animals had their happy ending. It gives you a way of talking about social ills like climate and environmental change. It’s not just getting hotter for human beings. What are man-made disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the BP Oil Spill doing to these innocent and helpless creatures? When I was writing Sugar (2013), I visited Laura Plantation up in the northern part of the Mississippi River. They had stories in French about the Br’er rabbit as well as trickster stories. Sugar is filled with those stories. All the Africans learned French—the master’s language. Their stories talked about African animals like hyenas, which later became rabbit stories. I want to write about slavery, but with a different twist. I’ll be going to West Africa. I like the idea of having two people—one is stolen and taken on the slave ship, and the other manages to escape. In terms of my heritage, I’m a little bit of everything. I have some Scottish, Irish, Norwegian, Nigerian, and Congolese. Grandma always said I’m a mixed-blood stew. But there’s one part of my ancestry I don’t know anything about, the part from Africa. I’m going to write about that next.

DR. JEWELL PARKER RHODES grew up in Pennsylvania. She is a best-selling author of adult and children’s books, a Coretta Scott King Honour award-winner, and a professor of creative writing at Arizona State University. She currently lives in Seattle. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.