September 3, 2008

INTERVIEW - Jewell Parker Rhodes Bases Her Voodoo Mythos on Real Monsters and Memories

In her novel Voodoo Dreams, Jewell Parker Rhodes told the story of real-life voodoo priestess Marie Laveau's rise to adulthood (as well as power and infamy) in 19th century New Orleans. The tale doesn't end there, however. This month Rhodes published the second installation of her trilogy that extends Laveau's lineage to the present day. Kirkus Reviews describes Yellow Moon as "...a satisfying and eerie story that lies somewhere between the work of Anne Rice and James Lee Burke... A spooky, sexy novel about things that go bump in the night."

Bump indeed... While Yellow Moon continues to usher medical doctor Marie Levant toward truths about her ancestry and identity (a journey that began in 2005 with Voodoo Season), it also introduces an ancient evil in the form of the wazimamoto, a vampiric entity from African folklore that stalks a pre-Katrina New Orleans. In this incredible interview, Rhodes speaks at length about the practical and mystical aspects of storytelling -- and about making monsters that ooze authenticity.


TB: Having spent so many years writing the powerful dreams and visions of your characters, do you set more store by these kinds of experiences in real life than you used to?

JPR: My grandmother Ernestine, who taught me to believe in the power of dreams, raised me. She’d moved north to Pittsburgh -- and brought from the south, her hoodoo/voodoo traditions. She’d say: “A bird with a crooked wing means sorrow;” “Signs everywhere. Pay attention;” “Scratch a wall, somebody die.”

More importantly, my grandmother who has been dead for thirty years is still alive to me today. In the African American community the dead are never gone, their spirits are always accessible to us as ancestors. I still speak with my grandmother every day.

I believe in dreaming -- the power of dreaming for healing and making one’s self “whole.” Writing Voodoo Dreams helped to heal me. The process literally changed my life. As I was writing, I had vivid dreams -- even dream-states while writing. I also felt the presence of Marie Laveau and my grandmother. In the Amazon short -- “Down South: A Granddaughter’s Memories,” and the book, Porch Stories: A Grandmother’s Guide to Happiness, I celebrate my grandmother’s tales. As a child I witnessed grandmother getting an “impossible” call from an aunt who had just died. I can also tell you that my grandmother, while a minister’s wife, was also a conjure woman -- but I didn’t truly understand what she was teaching me until I wrote my first novel, Voodoo Dreams. I told my grandmother, just before she died, that I was writing a tale about a child “born with a caul,” which meant that the child would be prophetic with visions, dreams. Grandmother was so happy. She promptly told me how to bury a caul and never to forget the power of my own dreaming.

TB: Though the creature/killer in Yellow Moon, the wazimamoto, has traditional African roots, getting to make this monster your own must have been exciting. Can you describe that process?

JPR: Ever since I was a teenager and stumbled onto the idea of the African vampire, I’ve been waiting for the right tale to create the monster! Stoker’s Dracula seeks immortality; the wazimamoto, a vampire created from colonial oppression in Africa, seeks to destroy cultural traditions. For Africans, the British, French and Portuguese tried to steal “cultural blood.” So, Africans created oral tales of a vampire that drains blood. In America, we can talk about the slave traders as wazimamotos and folks who are mentally enslaved, who learn from the oppressors to hate their selves and their culture, can become wazimamotos, too.

I created my wazimamoto with the same respect that I would use to create any other character. The vampire has a history and motivation and while racist and misogynistic, it is also vulnerable and sympathetic.

I especially liked creating the vampire as a spirit that rises from the water. Water can baptize, cleanse. Agwe, the sea-god, is a force within the water. And water symbolizes the middle passage and all the sick slaves who were tossed overboard into the waters. My vampire comes to life not knowing what it is or who it had been in the past. In uncovering knowledge about itself, accessing memories, it has an opportunity to make a choice -- heal instead of hurt. But the wazimamoto—in learning its own name and history, rebirths itself into a killing machine. I like, too, how my vampire prefers the blood of sinners -- a pedophile priest, a murdering musician, etc. Evil begets more evil.

My creation was fun to write but underneath the vampire persona (I hope!) are some real questions about the nature of goodness and evil, the nature of humanity and re-birth.

TB: Voodoo is a classic staple of film and fiction to this day, usually exploiting these traditions for a cheap scare; your novels, though often scary, strive against that trend. Do you find it hard to strike that balance?

JPR: Absolutely. Stereotypes about voodoo lurk insidiously inside our cultural imagination. As a novelist, I try to be transgressive, working within fictional traditions -- historical, mystery, and horror -- yet, always questioning the cultural subtext of imagery, characterization, and themes that appear in western literature. This questioning helps me layer another perspective that has been historically suppressed in our history books, literature, and media.

For example, in Voodoo Dreams, I can embrace the idea that snakes are evil and use it to play on reader’s fears -- but then undermine that fear by discussing how many Louisiana slaves were forcibly baptized Catholic because the masters were fearful of their African-based spiritual traditions. In Catholicism, the snake from the Garden of Eden is evil, Satan, the fallen angel. But for slaves from an African tradition, the snake isn’t evil; rather, Damballah, the snake-god, is symbolic of fertility and creation. In authentic voodoo, knowledge is always considered good. So, in the voodoo tradition, Eve’s “fall from grace” isn’t a “fall” at all.

In western culture, we’re taught that darkness is evil; blackness, terrifying. In America, particularly, darkness was used as a religious reason to enslave Africans. The belief that Cain was given the “mark” of darkness for fratricide, and that all black peoples are Cain’s children marked by his sin, is terrible. In my books, I can overturn conventional imagery by demonstrating that darkness can be comforting (a home place for one’s soul) and that all people of color are beautiful. Darkness can be as illuminating as light.

As a writer, I try to use literary conventions that “scare" us; but, then, I try to educate and demonstrate another perspective. In Voodoo Dreams, I juxtapose authentic versus inauthentic voodoo ceremonies. I ask the question: how did we get these stereotypes of African-based faiths? While the short answer is racism and the slave trade, I also consider how the great Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, might have contributed to these stereotypes. If you were a woman living at a time when most women of color were slaves or mistresses, and you discovered that by playing to the dominant culture’s fears, you could have more freedom and aid your community, wouldn’t you scare the dominant culture even more?

TB: How has that informed the way you portray zombies?

JPR: The zombies in Voodoo Dreams and Voodoo Season are terrifying. Nonetheless, research indicates that zombies can be created by using chemicals from “the gills of a puffer fish,” known for their paralytic power. I embrace this idea and argue that in authentic voodoo, with its respect for human life, no one would ever create a zombie. But as in all religions, there are those who practice faith in a humanistic, loving way and those who use faith as an excuse to hurt, discriminate, and oppress.

In my novels, zombies aren’t creatures trying to eat people. Rather, they are people who are experiencing the ultimate horror of losing their identity. Losing one’s self is something to cry about -- a human tragedy far more graphic, and psychologically terrifying, than shuffling around as a dim-witted cannibal. If zombies are mentally alive, then what does it mean for their bodies to buried? In Voodoo Season, a caesarean is performed on a young girl that my protagonist believes is dead, but isn’t. That’s horrifying.

In Voodoo Season, the zombies are quadroon women being used for modern-day prostitution. This echoes the tradition of nineteenth century New Orleans’ quadroon balls when women of color were bred quadroon -- to be one-fourth black, and become mistresses for French aristocrats. (This tradition was truly perverse.)

TB: How do you feel about the state and fate of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina -- especially since the city's gothic and romantic associations have always seemed so connected to its geography?

JPR: Voodoo Season was published the day the levees broke in New Orleans. Because of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, my mystery/ horror trilogy, was forever changed. My protagonist, Dr. Marie Levant (Laveau’s descendant) is a doctor in Charity Hospital. In Voodoo Season, Dr. Levant is just learning about her spiritual heritage. In Yellow Moon, it rains never-ending, because as a writer, I know, the hurricane is coming. Dr. Levant is tested both spiritually and scientifically…because Hurricane Levee Blues, the last novel will have a monster more devastating than the wazimamoto—namely, social and environmental injustice. It is no accident that parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are called “Cancer Alley.” It is no accident that the bayous are rapidly disappearing, no accident that poor people and people of color were hurt disproportionately because of Katrina.

On September 23, I am scheduled to give a reading in New Orleans at Octavia Books. As I write this, Hurricane Gustav has become a Category Three Hurricane and New Orleanians are trying to evacuate their city. Can disaster really strike twice? I hope not. As Americans, we show our true character in how we protect all our citizens and communities.

TB: What does it feel like to find yourself entrusted with introducing new generations to voodoo traditions and tales? Are you surprised to find yourself still writing about these things after all these years?

JPR: I never would have guessed how central Marie Laveau and voodoo would have become to my writing career. I’m not from New Orleans but I feel it is my second home -- the landscape, people, and the food all call to my soul. When I started writing about voodoo, many folks told me they were afraid to read my books -- not because of horror conventions, but because they were afraid that I would contribute to stereotypical images.

Over the years, I have been honored by the folks who read my novels -- especially honored that Voodoo Dreams (a 1993 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Authors selection) has stayed alive and available for so many years. There are German, British, and Italian editions. Recorded Books did an audio version in 2002 and, in 2008, a Turkish publisher bought translation rights.

I believe twenty-first century readers are more open to diverse stories, tales of differing paths toward spirituality. I also believe readers identify with my passion and my respect for all cultures and people. And if I can entertain a reader... so much the better. My job is to make readers believe in miracles, feel that the world is alive with spirits, and understand that voodoo is rooted in life-affirming beliefs. I made this journey in understanding -- I knew nothing about voodoo, nothing about Louisiana history, nothing about the voodoo queen who, it is said, walked on water and healed yellow fever victims with brush of her hand.

Fundamentally, I’m a storyteller -- telling stories that I need to believe in, stories that have the potential to shape my life. I believe I was “called” to write about Marie Laveau and voodoo; however, I’m not a religious or cultural expert. Just a tale-maker. I’m still searching for clarity -- asking essential questions about how to live a good life. Amazingly enough, I’ve found answers in telling tales about the bayou, wazimamotos, zombies, spirit-loas, and the music inherent in African-based faiths. I’m so grateful.

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