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.

Glossary: Sugar

China’s Yangtze River (sometimes called Changjiang, “the long river”) is the 3rd longest in the world at 3,988 miles.  The Yangtze is home to many endangered species, like the Chinese Alligator and Yangtze sturgeon, as well as the extinct river dolphin.  It begins near the border of Tibet and ends in the East China Sea, spanning almost the entire width of the country.
The Yangtze is like America’s Mississippi River (the 4th longest in the world at 2,530 miles) in many ways.  Both of these long and winding rivers divide each country in half, marking important cultural differences from one side to the next.  Both end in large delta systems that are centers for trade.  Some of the most important cities in both China and America developed on the shores of these rivers.  People have tried to control these rivers with damns and huge levee systems in order to prevent flooding and harness the power of the river for human use.  Both rivers have been sites of international interest, with people from many countries around the world seeking to use and control the river for their own gain.

The Chinese Zodiac is an astrological system that relates each calendar year to an animal.  There are twelve animal signs altogether, one for each year of the zodiac. The animal signs repeat every 12 years, which is the length of the zodiac cycle.  The first sign of the cycle is the rat, who is fast and sneaky, and the last is the pig, who is slow but smart.  Each animal is associated with different traits, which a person born in that year is also thought to possess.  Someone born in the year of the dog would seem honest, loyal and friendly, while a person born in the year of the dragon would be strong, proud and fiery. Each sign is also enhanced by the qualities of an element, either earth, water, metal, wood, or fire.

The Chinese name for the Sichuan Opera, Bian Lian, literally means “Face-Changing” because of the elaborate use of masks. Performers wear brightly colored costumes and move to quick, dramatic music. They wear vividly colored masks, which they change within a fraction of a second.  Only the sons of performers are allowed to learn the secrets of the Sichuan Opera; no women, and no outsiders, are permitted to perform this masked dance.

In China, Buddhism is the most popular religion. It is based on the teachings of the Supreme Buddha, which means “the enlightened one.”  Like Christianity, Buddhism is based on an actual man, named Siddhārtha Gautama, who lived in India around 480 BCE.  Buddha taught his people that through meditation and moderate living one can achieve Nirvana, or perfect peace of mind.  Today the Buddha is depicted in paintings and statues all over the world. He is usually seated cross legged while he meditates, wearing robes over his round belly, a happy expression on his face.

In China, it was customary for men to wear their hair in Queues, or brained ponytails, until the early 20th century.  The hairstyle consisted of the hair on the front of the head being shaved off above the temples every ten days and the rest of the hair braided into a long ponytail, which would grow long enough to reach the man’s waist.  For hundreds of years every man in China was forced to wear this hairstyle; if a man refused to wear his hair in a queue, he would be executed for treason.  For this reason, it became very important to Chinese men to keep their queues, even after they immigrated to America, because it was a part of their identities.  Many Americans did not like or understand the queues, and sometimes even tried to force Chinese men to shave them off.

Br’er Rabbit is a central figure in the Uncle Remus stories of the Southern United States. He is a trickster character who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn. The story of Br’er Rabbit, a contraction of “Brother Rabbit”, has been linked to trickster figures in both African and Cherokee cultures.  Many people believe that in the American stories Br’er Rabbit represents the enslaved African who uses his wits to overcome circumstances and to exact revenge on his adversaries, representing the white slave-owners. Though not always successful, his efforts made him a folk hero. Disney later adapted the character for their movie Song of the South, and today Disneyland’s ride “Splash Mountain” is based on his stories.

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