Academic journal article African American Review

An Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes

Academic journal article African American Review

An Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes

Article excerpt

On March 31, 1995, Jewell Parker Rhodes arrived in Warrensburg, Missouri, for a speaking engagement at Central Missouri State University. Her topic was Voodoo Dreams, published by St. Martin's Press in 1993, and now available in paperback from Picador, U.S.A.

In the two days Rhodes was on Central's campus, she visited a creative writing class and delivered a lecture to the larger university. Later, she held an author's signing at Warrensburg Books, along with Brenda Nelson, the model whose portrait graces the book's dust jacket. The person who arranged for Rhodes's visit to campus, Barbara C. Rhodes (no relation to the author), asked the author if she would agree to an interview about the making of Voodoo Dreams. Jewell Parker Rhodes generously suggested a one-hour interview, but when she warmed to her topic, the discussion lasted well beyond the allotted time. The interview that follows treats three general subjects: the author's preparation for writing the novel, the story of the novel, and the story of the author herself. The original text has been compressed for readability, but every effort has been made to maintain the author's original meaning.

Ramsey: You titled your novel Voodoo Dreams:, and we're wondering, why Dreams?

Rhodes: Actually, that title was selected by Hope Dellon, my editor at St. Martin's Press. My title was Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen. I worked with that title for several decades, but they didn't think it had the marketing appeal that it should. We went through a whole list of alternatives and, of all of them, Voodoo Dreams was the best. There were ways in which, once having said Voodoo Dreams, it made me think about dreams within the context of the novel - the dreams of a young woman trying to become a woman, the dreams of love, the dreams of spirituality, and Damballah possession - Marie dreaming Jacques home after he's been murdered. She dreams him home to Africa, which I see as her acting as a spirit guide or midwife to his other life. So dreams, I think, finally do work, but it was not my original title.

Barbara Rhodes: In your Author's Statement' you indicate that the experience of writing your novel gave you great satisfaction.

Rhodes: I think, since it was such a multi-year process, the satisfaction really came from the second time that I went back to the manuscript, the second comprehensive draft. There I learned to appreciate writing as a process, to identify with the pleasure of the moment, the pleasure of getting this paragraph right, this scene right, the pleasure of just thinking, well, what else can I do here that I haven't done? I took a great joy out of that. I always got, I think, a spiritual satisfaction because I felt so connected to Marie Laveau and so connected to my grandmother. There are ways in which I was writing to save my own life. When I came back to the manuscript for that second draft, I hadn't written for about three years - nonfiction, short stories, anything - and I had this feeling that if I didn't achieve this goal that my life would be diminished. So when I finally achieved it, or felt that I had achieved it, I felt wonderful. I truly enjoyed the journey, the process of getting there, and that became a kind of armor that kept me from feeling insecure about what happened next, the various stages of publishing.

Barbara Rhodes: I heard you say something like that last night when you were talking to the class, that you have to write for your own satisfaction. The writing comes first, and then you have to become the business person on the publishing side.

Rhodes: Yes, but it took three years before a publisher finally said yes to the manuscript, and accepted it for publication. And that was another three years in which I could easily have said, "I am not any good. I'm worthless as an artist." I think that is all connected to the struggle I had as an African American woman who was not surrounded by a family of books, not surrounded by my vision or the role model of other writers. …

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