Life and Work
Jewell Parker Rhodes began life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her family relocated to California when she was in third grade; however, after her mother left and her parents divorced, she returned to Pittsburgh and her grandmother. She used her “personal angst” creatively, claiming that her “background as a working class child of divorced parents raised in the steel mill hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania gave [her] a great deal of material for . . . creative dissertation” (“New Writers”).
Although Rhodes passed much of her childhood reading books and writing, she also had a great love of television. She wasn’t even aware of the possibility of Blacks becoming authors until she was a junior in college. She had always dreamed of becoming an actress, until she discovered a novel by Gayl Jones titled Corregidora. Almost immediately, her whole world changed (Mvuyekure 401). She says, “It took me a week to change my major from drama to English. I felt as though I discovered myself—my true self.” Her novels always feature strong women; even when she attempts to write about men, she ends up focusing on the sister or the mother (“Mining” 431). She feels that writing about Black women has brought about personal growth, both as a writer and as a woman. Rhodes claims that she uses her writing to “clear my mind, explore my identity, and to encourage…a better world in which my children, everybody’s children, will live” (“New Writers”).
Rhodes obtained a bachelor of arts in drama criticism, a master of arts in English, and her doctorate of arts in English (creative writing), all from Carnegie Mellon University. She currently teaches creative writing and American Literature at Arizona State University. She resides in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Jewell Parker Rhodes interweaves truth and fiction in her novels. She seeks to “write/rewrite the emotional, human aspects that history sometimes obscures,” especially those whose stories were not accurately portrayed in the history books. (“New Writers”).
Although Rhodes insists that her “work is not autobiographical,” she treats themes rooted in her life experiences: “abandonment by a mother-figure, loneliness, self-reliance, a yearning for ‘home.’” She avoids didactics, hoping instead “to make you feel for a minute what it might have like to be a Black man in 1921 or a working white woman in 1921, to feel that space. So if a new generation can feel it, then that compassion and empathy might change people and then change worlds” (“Mining” 437-38).
She was inspired by the writings of Gayl Jones, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Charles Dickens. In fact, “John’s incestuous relations with the three Maries inVoodoo Dreams are shaped after Corregidora’s relations to Ursa Corregidora’s Great-Grandma, Grandma, and Ma in Gayl Jones’ novel” (Mvuyekure 401). But she claims Dickens as the source of her “plot-oriented” mentality (qtd. in Mvuyekure 402).
Her work is informed by voodoo and other African American traditions. As Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure explains, “The confluence of the African-based metaphysical concepts, coupled with African dance aesthetic, the Negro spirituals and blues, allow Rhodes to deconstruct the conventional format of the historical novel” (402). He also points out that critical reception of the results of this strategy has been overwhelmingly positive: “[a]ll reviewers agree that [she] is an excellent writer who has an excellent command of form and knows how to combine oral traditions, storytelling, and history” (405).
In Douglass’ Women, Rhodes looks at the life of Frederick Douglass through the eyes of his wife and his mistress. His wife, Anna Douglass, bore five children during their forty-four years of marriage, while his mistress, Ottilie Assing, provided him with intellectual companionship. Although they all lived together under the same roof, it was not a successful free love arrangement. The novel positions family obligations against intellectual ideals. Marita Golden finds Douglass’ Women to be “richly imagined, haunting and beautifully written. Bringing Anna Douglass and Ottilie Assing out from the prodigious shadow cast by Frederick Douglass, Jewell Parker Rhodes plunges the reader straight into the hearts of these two remarkable women” (qtd. in Dr. Jewell).
Magic City’s main characters are Joe Samuels, an African American man, and Mary Keane, a white woman, who are based on the real life figures of Dick Rowland and Sarah Page. The story revolves around the events of a riot that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1920, during which the National Guard bombed the Black community of Greenwood. In the novel, a white man, in a misguided attempt to force Mary Keane to marry him, rapes her. Then, a few hours later Joe Samuels rides in the elevator she operated. She screams, and the people outside the elevator assume that he was her rapist. This small confusion was the spark that ignited the riot that led to the bombing of the community. In the novel, Rhodes explores the reasoning behind the Black migration to Oklahoma and their struggle to survive once there. Mvuyekure identifies the novel’s related themes as “magic, dream, escape, and survival” (401). In it Rhodes also brings to light the common despair of Blacks and Jews when faced with the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan. By the end, there is some measure of closure in the fact that Joe decides to stay in Tulsa and help with the rebuilding process, thereby putting down roots in a place from which he had once hoped to escape.
Rhodes takes us back to New Orleans in the 1850s in Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. The city’s varied inhabitants include white aristocrats, creoles, and a slave population who all fear and revere the infamous voodooienne, Marie Laveau. While told in an elaborate setting with fantastic characters and plenty of magic, the underlying story is that of a daughter attempting to find her mother. Grandmere is an old voodooienne who has abandoned her mother’s Membe beliefs and taken the child of her slain daughter away from New Orleans and away from voodoo to live. But, inevitably, the history of the family cannot be escaped and the child eventually takes her mother’s place as leader of the voodoo ceremonies led by John, a disbeliever himself, who uses the ceremonies to make money and the influence of these women’s heritage to wield power over the community.
Rhodes begins and ends the novel with the same scene, in which Damballah possesses Marie, and a python kills her lover, teacher, and adversary, John: “He opened his arms. ‘I’m not afraid, Marie.’ The snake slid across her arms to his. ‘Not of this. Not of you. Any power you have still comes from me.’ The snake’s tail drifted down his chest” (10). The opening scene makes readers feel they have been dropped into the middle of the story, and so they have. Circular logic and events abound. All the principle women characters are named Marie—the grandmother, daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter. The story is captivating and sometimes shocking, but the suspense is delightful. Not only does Rhodes divulge information slowly to show Marie’s frustration in her attempt to discover her roots, but she also creates the same frustration for her readers. She drags us along teetering on the precipice between expectations and reality, male and female, religion and magic.
With her fourth and most recent novel, Voodoo Season: A Marie Laveau Mystery, Rhodes returns to the New Orleans of her first novel, but surprises readers with a contemporary setting this time. The great-great granddaughter of Marie Laveau, a medical doctor from Chicago, finds herself embroiled in a mystery part medical, part magical, whose solution holds the key to a tradition of injustice and abuse for women of color. Thus, this latest novel joins Rhodes’s first three in allowing a deeper and more complete understanding of a historical situation while critiquing various aspects of American society and culture. Through all her novels, Rhodes passes along to her readers the lesson she herself claims to have learned in the process of writing the first one: “that history lies, obscures, twists truth, particularly about women and African Americans, [or] those who may have been disempowered because of race, religion, class or gender” (“Mining” 431).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
- Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. New York: Picador, 1993.
- Magic City. New York: HarperCollins, 1997; 1998.
- Douglass’ Women. New York: Atria-Simon & Shuster, 2002.
- Voodoo Season: A Marie Laveau Mystery. New York: Atria-Simon & Shuster, 2005.
- “Long Distances.” Peregrine 7 (1989): 27-54.
- “Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen.” Feminist Studies 16.2 (1990): 331-44.
- “Enough Rides.” Callaloo 14.1 (1991): 12-19.
- “Caroline Seeds.” The Raven Chronicles 2 (1992): 15-20.
- “Block Party.” All Together, Heath Middle Literature. Ed. Donna E. Alvermann, et al. Washington: Heath, 1995: 96-101.
- “Mirror, Mirror.” Bakumin 5.2 (1995): 75-93.
- Free Within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors. New York: Main Street-Doubleday-Random House, 1999.
- The African American Guide to Writing and Publishing. New York: Broadway-Random House, 2001.
- Yaddo Creative Writing Fellowship
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Baker, Houston A., Jr. Rev. of Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. African American Review 29.1 (1995): 157-60.
- Compton, Wayde. “Culture at the Crossroads: Voodoo Aesthetics and the Axis of Blackness in Literature of the Black Diaspora.” Matatu: A Journal for African Culture and Society 27-28 (2003): 481-513.
- Gottfried, Harriet. “Fiction—Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau by Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Rev. of Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. Library Journal. 1 Oct. 1993: 128.
- Handman, Fran. Rev of Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. The New York Review of Books (1994): 24.
- Lowe, John. “Calypso Magnolia: The Caribbean Side of the South.” South Central Review 22.1 (2005): 54-80.
- Mvuyekure, Pierre-Damien. “Jewell Parker Rhodes (1954-).” Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport: Greenwood, 1999. 401-06.
- Rhodes, Barbara. Rev. of Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. CLA Journal 39.4 (1996): 498-503.
- Steinberg, Sybil S. “Fiction—Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau by Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Rev. of Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. Publishers Weekly 27 Sep. 1993: 44.
- “An Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes.” African American Review 29.4 (1995): 593-603.
- “Interview with Jewell Parker Rhodes” at Hamline University. 22 Apr. 2003.
- “Mining Magic, Mining Dreams: A Conversation with Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Callaloo 20.2 (1997): 431-40.
- “New Writers Showcase: Jewell Parker Rhodes.” Interview with Maxine Thompson. Black Butterfly Press. 12 Mar. 2004. < www.maxinethompson.com >