Jewell Parker Rhodes Biography

My grandmother taught me how to tell stories.

I grew up in a three-story brick house in Pittsburgh, raised by my grandparents. My dad lived there, too, and my aunt, and my sister, and my three cousins. That made nine of us total squeezed into the building, none of us ever finding more than a few minutes of solitude at a time.

To escape the heat and clutter, my grandmother and I sat on our stoop while she told me stories – stories about our family, slavery, her Louisiana childhood, stories about love and death and life. I still vividly remember the lessons she taught. “You never need an excuse for joy,” she would say. “Prejudice is sinful – all blood flows red,” she told me. “Wear clean underwear. Don’t let anyone ever think there’s trash in you.” I didn’t realize it then, but my grandmother was also carrying on the African American oral tradition, turning me into another storyteller in a line that’s continued for generations.

At the same time I inhaled books, blowing through them as fast as the librarians could give them to me, buying whatever ones I could afford with the change I got for turning in pop bottles. I read illustrated versions of classics like Robinson Crusoe, The Prince and the Pauper, the Arthurian legends. In my Pittsburgh ghetto, we never saw white people unless we took the bus downtown. I only saw them on the covers of my books.

I wrote my first book ever, “The Last Scream,” when I was eight years old. I illustrated it and bound it in yellow construction paper myself. My teacher encouraged me to read it in front of the class, and when I saw my friends react to the twists and turns of the story, I got my first taste of the power of my own literary voice. But I didn’t think about becoming a novelist until years later.

In third grade, my mother reappeared and took me and my sister to California. I lived there until my teen years, when I became a rebel and a flower child. I grew out a bushy Afro, blasted Jimi Hendrix. My mother found it all frustrating and grew tired of parenting me. On my sixteenth birthday, she kicked me out of the house

When I returned to Pittsburgh, my grandmother took out a loan so she could put me through college at Carnegie-Mellon. At first I studied dance and theater, but one day in my junior year I saw a copy of Gayl Jones’s Corregidora on the library shelf. Black women wrote novels? It was a revelation. I changed my major the very next day to drama criticism, and when I finished my undergrad, I went on to a master’s program in English. As much as I’d adored books as a child, the Pittsburgh school system never taught me the fundamentals of literature and I found myself way behind the rest of my class. I went to the library every day and studied as hard as I could to catch up.

In time, I earned not only my Bachelor’s degree but also my Master’s and a Doctor of Arts from Carnegie-Mellon.

One night, while I paged through a Time-Life cookbook on Creole and Acadian cooking, I came across a slice of Louisiana history: the great Bayou Teché waterway, the traditional “Fais dodo” lullaby, and the voodoo queen Marie Laveau. The story I wrote that night slowly expanded and transformed into Voodoo Dreams, my first novel.

My writing habits at the time were, in retrospect, a little insane. I only ever wrote at night, always with every aspect of the room arranged in a particular way. I wrote everything longhand on yellow legal paper; when I switched to a typewriter, I found I couldn’t make any changes to the story without starting over again from the beginning, retyping and reworking the whole manuscript. Even when I got a computer, the ritual maintained.

At long last, a completed draft of Voodoo Dreams emerged, but no one wanted to publish it. The lack of interest in my book also meant I didn’t get tenure at the university where I worked, and I felt lost, worthless. But eventually, for lack of any better option, I started writing again. I reconceived of the characters and the story just as I rediscovered myself. And finally, nineteen years after I started it, my first novel arrived on shelves.

From there I kept writing – a mystery trilogy, a memoir, two writing guides – but the whole time it felt as though I were practicing to someday write books for children, books with strong little girls who looked like me, the kid of of books I wished I could have read as a kid. When Hurricane Katrina swept Louisiana, I stared at the television, thinking “What about the children?” The cameras only lingered on their terrified faces for moments at a time. Then Lanesha’s voice sprung into my head and I knew I needed to write Ninth Ward.

My stories tend to come to me this way – less like I create them and more like they present themselves to me. One day I was doing the dishes, mulling over what I’d been reading recently about Chinese immigrants working alongside African Americans in the post-slavery South. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little girl with wild hair standing in front of me, hands on her hips, asking, “Why do I have to work? Why can’t I play?” Sugar was born.

Now I’ve written four books for children, with another one coming out next year. These days I spend almost all my time either writing new stories or traveling to meet the kids who have read them. I live with my husband in San Jose, along with two Toy Sheepdogs and a cat. I’m the proud mother of a daughter and a son, and the very proud grandmother of a newborn girl.

I feel tremendously lucky to be where I am today – writing books for kids is truly a dream come true. I’ve always attempt in my stories to capture the morals that meant the most to me growing up: the importance of self-respect, the power of black womanhood, the value of the people closest to us. When children tell me that these lessons resonate with them, it’s the greatest reward I could imagine. Above all else, I hope that my books can play some small part in inspiring a new generation of storytellers to carry on the tradition, maybe in the books they write or the films they direct or the songs they sing, or even in the tales they tell to their own grandchildren, years and years from now, sitting on a porch somewhere.

Want to learn more about Jewell? Read her short story Block Party, or her memoir Porch Stories.

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