How I Came to Write Ninth Ward
By Jewell Parker Rhodes
I wrote my first children’s book, The Last Scream, when I was eight years old. It was a very thin book, bound in yellow construction paper, and illustrated by me! I read it aloud to my Homewood Elementary School classmates and thought I was in heaven.
I was the kid who preferred books to dolls. I was the kid they called “little professor” and the one always asking, teachers and librarians, “More, please.” Books were better than food.
It’s taken me forty years to be ready to write Ninth Ward, my second children’s book. Why so long? I was waiting for the magical moment when I felt the right story call to me.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, I was transfixed by new stories and images of the survivors. I always kept asking myself, “What about the children?”
My own family had experienced the 1994 Northridge Earthquake; my children were five and three. My three year old stopped speaking; my five year old, kept hiding. For a week, my husband, children, and two dogs all lived on our “big bed” in a broken house without utilities. But we were all safe, and we were all together—I couldn’t imagine the trauma of dislocation and death Katrina caused to Louisiana families.
Still, it wasn’t until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening New Orleans, that Lanesha’s voice spoke to me:
“They say I was born with a caul, a skin netting covering my face like a glove. My mother died birthing me. I would’ve died, too, if Mama Ya Ya hadn’t sliced the bloody membrane from my face.”
There she was! An orphan, someone nurtured with care by an elder, and someone born with a caul, a sign of “second sight.” I just knew Lanesha was a survivor—a strong, resilient, and heroic child to be celebrated. With loving from Mama Ya Ya, friends, and the companionship of a dog, Lanesha would endure. Lanesha is the child who throws her arms about herself and says, “I like me.”
With that voice, I knew I had my next story.
I was the child with far less self-esteem who sometimes hid in the closet, crying. My mother abandoned me as an infant and Grandmother Ernestine raised me. Grandmother, like Mama Ya Ya, was a conjure woman, believing in ancestors and holistic healing. She was the community griot, telling stories to heal us all. I was less cool, less smart, and less creative than Lanesha. Lanesha is the character I would’ve loved reading about!
Ninth Ward has sad moments but it isn’t a sad story. Just as the levees break, life sometimes seems unbearable. But Lanesha shares her story to inspire others—I think it’s a story of triumph—a particularly New Orleans triumph.
I was born in Pittsburgh but my very first adult novel was set in New Orleans and honored its mixed-blood stew of social and spiritual traditions. I’ve been writing about, visiting New Orleans ever since. I think I might have lived there in another life.
My entire life has been a journey on the way to writing Ninth Ward. Grandmother, my community, and teachers and librarians showered me with guidance and love. They all gave birth to Lanesha. A girl with hope, a big heart, and a firm belief that always, eventually, “The universe shines down with love.”