Evoking the "Holy and the Horrible": Conversations with Joyce Carol Thomas

By Henderson, Darwin L.; Manna, Anthony L. | African American Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Evoking the "Holy and the Horrible": Conversations with Joyce Carol Thomas


Henderson, Darwin L., Manna, Anthony L., African American Review


Joyce Carol Thomas is a poet, novelist, and playwright. Through these three modes of perceiving the world - the poet's spare, sharp-edged wonder; the playwright's cunning orchestration of incident and character; and the novelist's urge to bring us smack-face against life's pain, joy, and recoveries - she evokes dilemmas and struggles which open the way to a better sense of self and often to a glorious personal epiphany. In whatever genre she's keyed to at the moment, Thomas peels back layers of life's complexities by focusing largely on the contradictions, catastrophes, and spiritual triumphs that unfold in a rural African American community. With this community serving as her frame, she constructs lean but expressive portraits of the destructive and redemptive power of love, explores the values and meanings of secular and religious traditions, and lays out stormy initiations for her young black protagonists. Rich in ambiguity and mystery, and steeped in mythical and religious tropes and metaphors, her writing resonates with a wonderfully bracing music.

Thomas was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the setting for three of her novels: Marked by Fire (1982), Bright Shadow (1983), and The Golden Pasture (1986). Throughout much of her childhood, she was a migrant farm worker, first in Oklahoma and later in the San Joaquin Valley in California, where her family moved when she was ten years old. She traces her love of language and story to the songs and tales of her Mexican co-workers and the expressive rhythms of those who testified at church services. She earned degrees in Spanish and French and taught foreign languages in public schools before pursuing a career as a writer. She has also held positions in English literature and creative writing at Purdue University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of Tennessee.

In the 1970s, Thomas wrote poetry and plays for adults. Critical acclaim began in 1982 with Marked by Fire, her first novel. In addition to the National Book Award for young-adult fiction, Marked by Fire received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and Booklist's children's Reviewers Choice Award. The title also was listed on numerous best-book lists, including the New York Times Outstanding Books of the Year and the ALA's Best Books for Young Adults. Bright Shadow, the sequel to Marked by Fire, was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Award Book.

Awards and honors have continued. Both A Gathering of Flowers, an anthology of multiethnic and multiracial short stories, which Thomas edited in 1990, and Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea (1993), a collection of her poems, were among the titles recommended for children and young adults by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea also received the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award and was listed as a Notable Children's Book in the Social Studies by the National Council for Social Studies/Children's Book Council joint committee.

Joyce Carol Thomas spoke to us by phone from her home in Berkeley, California, in September and December, 1995, and in June, 1996. This interview is a composite of these conversations.

Interviewers: Would you share something of your growing up in Oklahoma? Have significant people, events, and places found their way into your writing?

Thomas: I grew up in Ponca City, where my family lived on the black side of town. There was a park dividing the black side from the white side, and to get to the white side or downtown you had to walk through that park. For the first several years of my life I rarely went over to that part of town. So you see, this Oklahoma community was a very sheltered place for me. It doesn't surprise me at all that in my writing I am deeply concerned with what happens within a community and how these experiences form a person's vision of the world. The forces within the community interest me more than other circumstances and far more than forces from outside the community. …

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