Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

 

Featured Author Interview

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Voodoo Special Issue Home

Women & Voodoo: A Conversation with Jewell Parker Rhodes
With Kameelah Martin Samuel

August 2008

        I dreamed of Marie Laveau during my second reading of Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. I was mourning the loss of an unexpected pregnancy, juggling the pressures of dissertating and in a very troubled space; I was in need of healing and spiritual intervention. Marie appeared to instruct me on how to summon her spirit should I ever be incline to do so.  She performed the ritual herself to insure that it would be done correctly. She marked the sandy, rocky earth with three circles—a smaller one drawn inside the one that preceded it. She told me that when I was ready, I only needed to stand in the smallest circle, as she did, and add one last step: invoke her name loudly and clearly.  Voodoo dreams, indeed. Jewell Parker Rhodes’s novel tends to have that sort of effect on its readers.  When talks of women and voodoo arise, Jewell Parker Rhodes is an integral part of the conversation.  Author of three novels—Voodoo Dreams (1993), Voodoo Season (2005) and Yellow Moon (due in August 2008)—which center around the legend and legacy of Marie Laveau, the historical Voodoo Queen of nineteenth century New Orleans, Rhodes has carved a niche for herself in the space of women and spirit work. Rhodes’s voodoo series offers a culturally specific perspective on why Marie Laveau is heralded as one of the voodoo “foremothers [of] the human past” (Fandrich 3).

        Through her writing, Rhodes gives voice to the Laveau women much in the same vein as Maryse Condé did for Tituba in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem (Trans. 1992). Both women writers hark back to historical women of spiritual power and act something like an amanuensis for these iconic, conjuring women, but to what end?  Rhodes resurrects and even reconstitutes the Laveau women in her literature, paying homage, perhaps, to an ancestral past.  Her stories certainly tell the other side of history through the prisms of womanhood and an often-misunderstood priestess-hood. Above all else, Rhodes’s novels give credence and cultural acknowledgement to the African-based spiritual tradition of voodoo; through the use of voodoo imagery, healing rites, an occasional zombie and possession by the  deity Damballah, the relevance and reverence of voodoo by people of African descent is implicit. 

        In a continually expanding discourse on literature, women, and voodoo, Rhodes’s is a valued opinion.  She is both a participant in the scholarly dialogue and a contributor to the literary corpus. Her work moves beyond academia, however, exposing the history of New Orleans’s most infamous voodooienne to all who care to take it in. Voodoo Dreams was adapted as a stage production in 2001 and the dance theatre “Voodoo Queen,” to be performed in New York in 2009, takes its inspiration directly from Rhodes’s voodoo novels. As a fan, scholar, and teacher of her creative work I was pleased when I was offered the opportunity to engage Dr. Rhodes in a conversation about voodoo queens, African vampires, and her own reflections on women and voodoo:       


KMS:  This special issue of Women Writers is focused on Women and Voodoo. As a writer, an African American woman, what meaning or association is invoked when those two words are paired together—women and voodoo?

JPR:   Strength, sensuality, divinity, and nurturance—all come to mind when I think of women and voodoo.  For me, a voodooienne, has a strong self-identity.  She had the ability to proclaim, “I am,” in the most profound and heartfelt way.  Knowing oneself well is the bridge to the divine.  Not that a voodooienne is, herself, a god; rather, she is capable of experiencing a relationship with the spiritual—as in the miraculous in this life and beyond known boundaries. 

Sensuality/sensualness is often linked to stereotypical images of the exotic and carnal pleasures.  But “sensuality,” needs to be reclaimed as a word indicative of being in tune with all one’s senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound) as a means of perception, “knowing” worlds. Voodoo is of the spirit and of the body.  Possession, then, is the perfect metaphor and fruition of this spirit/body connection.  Spiritual and physical intuitiveness/”knowing” have enabled women, across generations, to nurture themselves, their families, and their communities.

KMS:   The spirituality of black women—both alternate and orthodox—as a subject has found its way into fiction (like Voodoo Dreams), film (Eve’s Bayou), and even scholarly writing.  Why do you suppose people—readers, writers, students, artists, etc.—are so drawn to the idea of women and spirit work? What attracted you to research and write about women and voodoo, for instance?

JPR:    Living an authentic, meaningful life is humanity’s highest pursuit.  Women, historically, have been denied this through repression and slavery, patriarchy and misogyny.  Black women’s spirituality is the armor against these ills as well as the agent for freedom.  I stumbled upon Marie Laveau as an accident in a Time/Life cookbook and on my website: www.jewellparkerrhodes.com, I have an essay on “How I Came To Write Voodoo Dreams.”  That essay was written decades ago, but the sentiment remains true—I was writing to save my life.  I still remain convinced that my life was changed by a woman of color (Marie Laveau)—a woman who despite the restrictive bounds of racism and sexism in nineteenth century New Orleans, was able to be in that world, to do good, and to claim and assert her spiritual grace.  This is not to say that Marie Laveau was “perfect”—except, in her perfection as a complicated human.  Voodoo, unlike other religious systems, doesn’t require us to be saints, just human.  What a gift!  “All that I am is GOOD.”  As a young woman and now as an older woman, I still feel the healing balm of those words each and every day.  If Marie Laveau can be in the nineteenth century, I can certainly be in the twenty-first.

Society, I believe, can seek to blind women to the gifts of women’s community.  When I was writing Voodoo Dreams, I remember being struck with the profound understanding that my grandmother, who raised me, had been a conjure woman.  She had been a spiritual black woman as impressive as Marie Laveau.  I always valued and loved grandmother—she taught me dream interpretation, holistic healing, and numbers and signs, that the world is alive and the dead are never gone.  Grandmother made me feel spiritually connected to world.  She told me stories—glorious, conjure stories.  For example, she told about an aunt who brought her mother back from the dead so she could hit the numbers.  The mother gave her daughter a number but then slapped her, marking her face, declaring, “Never call me back for anything as silly as the numbers.”   The mark lasted for months on my aunt’s face and she learned, said my Grandmother that money wasn’t a good enough reason to seek help from the dead.  Grandmother was teaching me through the story that when she died that I could call on her for help—but it had to be for important soul work, not materialism.  Grandmother always had wondrous sayings: “Do good and it’ll fly right back to you;” “A bird with a crooked wing means sorrow;” “Scratch the wall, somebody die.”   With each saying, Grandmother added a story.  So, not only did Grandmother teach me about conjure, she taught me about the power of narrative. She taught me how to live and also taught me my profession. 

Grandmother and Marie Laveau were/are kin.  I say, “are” because, for me, both women still exist.  Will always exist.  My Amazon short, “A Granddaughter’s Memories” and Porch Stories: A Grandmother’s Guide to Happiness—are both about my grandmother and the spirituality and conjure woman perspective that she passed on to me. 

Grandmother died when I was a college junior, and just after I had discovered Marie Laveau and written a short story called, “Bayou Teche,” about a northern girl in an abusive relationship calling upon her grandmother to conjure the power of Marie Laveau to save her.  This story was the start of my fourteen-year quest to write the novel, Voodoo Dreams.

In my novels, there is always an older black woman who serves as a conjuring guide—if not as literally as Grandmere in Voodoo Dreams, then, more metaphorically, like Miss Wright in Magic City, who in a mourning ritual helps heal a community of women.  For me, the line of women is important—I don’t believe it is accidental that I found Marie Laveau just before my grandmother died.  Nor is it accidental that I felt Marie and Grandmother guiding me as I wrote.  Nor is it accidental that I did my last and best draft of the novel as I was pregnant and mothering my daughter. 

“Women hand sight down through the generations.  Mother to daughter,” I wrote in Voodoo Dreams.  I believe this.  But while the “line of women” seems linear, I also envision it as a circle.  In the book, I write:

“The woman and child formed a circle with Marie in the center, its heart.  And around their circle, the other passengers formed circles around circles until they all clung together weeping and singing and praising the core of their multiplying circles—Marie Laveau possessed by Damballah.” 

Community, motherhood, ancestral connections are all necessary for spiritual empowerment.  I believe women understand these values and, perhaps, that is why they are particularly called to spirit work.  Whether one is a mother or not, the capacity to carry life in your womb parallels the potential for a religious connection with spirits.  It is no accident that women most often tell family/cultural tales—perhaps, it’s because growing life in your womb reminds you of the woman who, in turn, carried you in her body.  “The line goes back to Eve,” I write in Voodoo Dreams.  Spirit work links, connects, and affirms.

KMS: In your writing, is it a conscious decision to have an elder woman always as an ancestor figure?

JPR:      Creating the ancestor figure was entirely unconscious.  For the longest time, I didn’t even realize that Grandmere in Voodoo Dreams was my grandmother, too.  Later, when I began thinking about writing a memoir about my grandmother, I discovered that I had created a historical lineage of black ancestral women throughout all my novels.  Even Anna Douglass in Douglass’ Women becomes the ancestral figure.  She dies, but before she dies she tells her life’s story to her daughter.  She conjures a bond of powerful self-awareness and self-love that she hopes will be as transformative for her daughter as it was for her.

KMS:   The African American root worker, voodoo queen, or as I like to call her, conjure woman, has a long history as an archetype. We have seen her characterized in the writings of Olaudah Equiano, Charles Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and many others.  She appears in such films as The Devil’s Daughter (1939), Daughters of the Dust (1992), The Skeleton Key (2005), and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). She has been lampooned in popular culture for decades. She even appeared in an American Express television advertisement, conjuring Kobe Bryant’s jersey for the New Orleans’s Hornets!  Should scholars and cultural critics be paying more attention to this figure? Why do you suppose she keeps rearing her head in the material culture of America?

JPR:     As an archetype, the conjure woman certainly has power; but, popular culture still tries to marginalize her power.  I think this is particularly related to the slave trade and the routes between Africa and the Caribbean and America.  Louisiana created its Code Noir law that specifically required that slaves from Haiti be baptized Catholic.  This was a direct response to voodoo and how African-based religions were misinterpreted. Add in gender, and the fear becomes even more powerful.  Even popular songs project a conjure woman’s power as emasculating. But when women artists, women of color engage the archetype, the image reveals a more nuanced portrait of power (political, social, personal, and spiritual).  However, if women/artists of color have accepted (consciously or unconsciously) white- and male-projected, race-based fear of the conjure woman, then their art can also promote, in varying degrees, a stereotype.  It is transgressive to portray the conjure woman as an inherent good.  To me, the conjure woman can be a mirror of societal relations and cultural assimilation. 

For example, in the novel, after the words, “The line goes back to Eve,” I write, “A woman who sinned.”  Marie, in the novel, learns that there is no sin attached to being a woman.  In voodoo, the snake in the Garden of Eden isn’t evil; rather, the snake (in voodoo, Damballah, a fertility figure) offers knowledge with the apple.  In voodoo, knowledge is always a good.  Yet, even today, there are women who believe in this Christian tale of Eve as a sinner who should have remained ignorant. Even though the tale is re-inscribed as a “Fortunate Fall;” there are still women who can’t help but believe that a conjure woman is negative and an evil being. 

When the conjure woman is trivialized or demonized in popular culture, we should ask ourselves, “why?”  A conjure woman, in my view, is something to strive toward…a wondrous, spiritual figure to become.

KMS:   Do you have a personal relationship with Voodoo? That is, are you a believer?

JPR:     I am a believer; but I do not believe I have ever experienced an authentic ceremony.  Iknow they exist, but I haven’t been part of one.  I think this is indicative of how racist America projected its fears of slave uprisings on African-based religious ceremonies.  In turn, black America became strategically aware of how playing on white fears, one could achieve degrees of liberation.  Racism added a material and commercial value to an experience that should have remained only spiritual.  The nineteenth century Marie Laveau was birthed from this confluence of influences.

My novel, Voodoo Dreams, asks, “Where is the center of belief?”  Inside the person experiencing the miracle or outside with eyewitness verification?  For me, the answer always is and always will be inside the one experiencing the miracle.  That’s why in the novel, DeLavier’s newspaper article about Marie’s miracle of walking on water is flat compared to the fictional experience of readers feeling Marie walking on water.  If my novel works, it approximates the power of a voodoo ceremony.  In other words, the readers believe in their internal feelings about the power of voodoo and DeLavier’s “truth,” written for a newspaper, no less, is unnecessarily validating of the experience!  We are witness to our own miracles. 

So, I have experienced, first hand and inside-myself, miracles.  I am a believer.

KMS:   Ashé!! In a previous interview, you discussed how you worked late into the night while composing Voodoo Dreams and alluded to sensing another presence, perhaps Marie Laveau’s, in the room. Do you believe that Marie is pleased with your rendering of her legend?  Do you think that by invoking her name and history in your writing, that she is somehow present in the text?

JPR:     Yes, I do believe Marie is pleased and was present during the novel’s creation.  Voodoo Dreams was rejected a dozen times, took a year for St. Martin’s to accept it, and when Hope Dellon, my editor, did she offered that she had no idea who would buy the book and, therefore, could only offer $4,000.00.  The novel has been selling for nearly fifteen years; there are many international editions; and, last year, I signed a contract for a Turkish edition!  And next January, two German artists, will be creating a dance based upon the novel in New York.  What accounts for this power? 

Marie Laveau was with me as I wrote the book—especially in the final drafts, when I stripped myself bare and opened my heart and soul and tried to answer the question: “What would it have felt like to have been a woman with spiritual gifts in a world that actively denied those gifts?”  That is why I wrote a novel—to get at the passions and feelings of how Marie was able to navigate this world and hold onto her spirit and not corrupt her self and her faith.  All my passion—all that I was capable of giving at the time, is in Voodoo Dreams.  Marie and my grandmother were beside me, nurturing me, each step of the way.  Because of that, my life was forever changed…my spirit was forever changed.  A novel, unlike a nonfiction book, attempts to make readers feel, as well as take Marie’s journey through the book.  This experience, I believe, has a special power.  As far as I know, no other novelist has approached Marie with full acceptance that, of course, a woman could make miracles! Have authentic spiritual gifts. 

I believe readers feel Marie’s journey and they feel my journey, my passion to save my life, and to resurrect and find redemption in Marie’s.  If readers let go of suspicion, I believe, they, as me, are taken on a wild ride in the novel that ends in triumphant celebration of conjure women and all women.

In one sense, there is no good reason for why I, a Pittsburgh girl, should write about Louisiana’s Marie Laveau.  Except there was, as I discovered, a connection with the African disapora and how I was raised by my grandmother…and, fundamentally, how I, as a girl…as a girl of color needed to affirm myself.  When I finished Voodoo Dreams, I became a woman…Jewell Parker Rhodes.  It didn’t matter if the book was ever published…for, I had triumphed…I had followed Marie’s journey, my grandmother’s life journey, the journey of all women to love themselves in a world that often alienates, demeans them.  I, and all women, have the potential to make miracles and walk on water every day.  All we need to do is believe.

KMS:   Please allow me to qualify my previous question.  I ask about Marie being present in the text because after reading your work, particularly Voodoo Dreams, colleagues, students, and reading friends alike have all reported a heightened sense of the supernatural and very intense dreams--- present company included! How do you respond to such reader response as the author? Surely, this is not the first you have heard of such “spirited” responses to your work!!!

JRP:     No, I haven’t heard from women reporting intense dreams or a heightened sense of the supernatural.  I hear from lots of praise from readers about the experience of reading the book, but they don’t necessarily mention personal, “spirited” responses.  Lots of time I hear from women who won’t read my book because of the title or the cover art.  I find this sad, especially when women of color tell me they fear my book with its superstitious stuff!  I’m sad, because I believe these fears are rooted in nineteenth century racism.  I ask these women do you believe that you can have a personal spiritual connection (Holy Ghost, etc.); do you believe that music (drums, in a historic sense) can enhance spirituality?  Do you believe the world is alive? Filled with the known and unknown?  That our ancestors are spiritually connected to the living? And that healing and loving our community is a great good?  Most often, they answer yes.  And I respond, “That’s voodoo.”  Every country in which African slaves landed, you can find commonalities of belief—Santeria, Rastafarian movement, Haitian Voodoo, black churches throughout America, all draw from the well-spring of West African religions. 

KMS:   How do you react to hearing about Spirit working through your novels?

JPR:     I am thrilled.  To be clear, I was enthralled when I was writing the book.  I felt I was Marie. She was me.  Magic happened.  Conjure inspired.  The final three years writing Voodoo Dreams changed me; this writing took place, for the most part, between 12:00am and dawn.  In those hours, spirits moved through me.  I felt a desperate need to tell the tale right, in all its emotional power and complexity.  However, there was one scene that I didn’t write when I submitted the manuscript—namely, the scene when Marie is incarcerated after a riot is begun in her name.  My editor, Hope Dellon, said she felt there was a scene missing.  She was right.  It took me three months to write the jail scene where Marie is pregnant, overhearing the brutal rape of a quadroon woman.  After this scene, Marie fully accepts and understands her responsibility to her community.  Unfortunately, my soul was scarred writing that scene, and I, like Marie, had to work myself toward healing.

KMS:   I have taught Voodoo Dreams in both undergraduate and graduate courses and inevitably the subject of stereotypes arises. Students are sometimes taken aback by your unapologetic depictions of the more “horrific,” less romanticized aspects of the religion…ritual sacrifice of animals, Jacques as zombie, the ecstatic, ravenous sexual behavior during spirit possession, etc.  How do you strike the balance between creativity and showing reverence for a tradition such as Voodoo, which has a long history of misrepresentation?  Is it important for you to maintain such balance?

JPR:     In Voodoo Dreams, there are authentic and inauthentic rituals.  This was on purpose.  I wanted to explore the pressures on Marie to corrupt her faith.  First and foremost, there is racist oppression—a wider society that “thrills” and is “fearful” of dancing, possession, and sacrifice.  Marie confronts as a New World Voodoo Queen, these people and, I believe, she became complicit in promoting the master narrative stereotype.  Marie was at the historical crux of African-American assimilation and acculturation.  So, if theatricality, flamboyance frightens/awes the master society to leave you alone…to grant you freedoms, why not cater to base, inauthentic desire?  This is a survival/political strategy that doesn’t deny the real, intimate power of a voodooienne. 

Chapter One of Voodoo Dreams is, purposefully, not an authentic ceremony.  It is my dare to readers—if you can read past Chapter One, I will take you on a journey…deconstruct the negative voodoo stereotypes, explain why Marie was complicit in promoting them but, at the same time, demonstrate that her spiritual powers were real.  It is the African American trickster—the “double consciousness,” perhaps…Marie had to have functioned on two planes—namely, one, the plane of “how do I encourage a sexist/racist society to allow me freedoms, to leave me alone?” and two, “how do I fulfill my commitment, to being spiritual and serving my community?”

Some readers say that Voodoo Dreams promotes stereotypes.  I say that they’re not reading carefully enough or else misunderstanding my intention.  My novel is about political/social survival while balancing/maintaining authentic grace.  Marie had to battle the society-at-large as well as blacks who had accepted racist notions of African-based faiths.  John, as the antagonist, is the perfect example of how the New World corrupted the faith and how, he in turn, is locked in an us/them battle.  Despite John, Marie finds real freedom—distinguishing between real spirituality and ceremonies skewered to non-believers and folks of color who saw the practice of voodoo as merely a political and commercial tool.

Zombies can be created; there is a science explanation for how someone can be “drugged” into a death-like appearance.  So, there is a reality to this stereotype.  In the novel, I deal with the reality to heighten then tension and pressures on Marie to be inauthentic.

I have never believed that sexuality is a negative.  Racist perceptions twisted the worship of slaves (especially, dance) into sexual/lewd connotations.  But to be sexual is to be human.  In Voodoo Dreams, Marie is seduced by John’s knowledge of her family history (of which she is ignorant, and, thus, vulnerable to manipulation) and, like many young women, enthralled by his ability to make her feel sexual.  Yet, Marie, as with religion, learns to celebrate her capacity to be a sexual being.  John’s power to move her sexually is insignificant compared to her womanly capacity to feel and to be a sexual being.  This is what deserves celebrating.  John can’t negate Marie’s spiritual or sexual power because they are hers.   The emphasis should not be on how someone else makes us feel; rather, we should be awed by our human ability to feel, to be sexual.

KMS:   We also see in this novel, Marie working through a number of obstacles in order to come to terms with her identity.  One of her struggles is reconciling how Catholicism and Christianity at large subordinates women, removing them from any direct connection to divinity:

“She looked closely at Father Christophe.  Pale skin, a shaved circle on his head, a coarse tunic.  He was remarkably unintimidating.  It was the setting of painted saints, gold filigree, and custom and ritual that made him seem more powerful.  But a man is all he is, thought Marie.  A man like DeLavier.  Like Jacques.  Why should he, or any man, have the power to condemn her? Even Christ had been a man once.” (Rhodes 111)

What role does Catholicism play for you and your characters’ embodiment of women and voodoo? 

JPR:     Catholicism is heavily rooted in patriarchy.  In general, the belief is that only priests can serve as intermediaries between parishioners and Christ and women are, in general, handmaidens to serve the faith.  Yet, a conjure woman needs no male intermediary to feel spirituality. Voodoo argues that all people, not just priests, can have a personal relationship with god(s).  Interestingly, many non-Catholic faiths believe this, too. 

The passage you cite reflects that men are just that—men, subject to fault and flaws, and, yet, nonetheless, unfairly given societal preference and power over women.  In Christianity, women’s stories and women’s gospels often have been suppressed.  Some women are granted sainthood, be it a small ratio compared to men.  Marie is recognizing that Christianity can’t be relied upon for a non-biased response to her religious abilities.

KMS:   It would seem that Marie is struggling with a more complex case of double consciousness, to use Du Bois’s term. Would you agree? She not only has to deal with being a woman of color in racist America, but she also has to negotiate her Catholic and Voodoo identities.  Why was it so important to bring that particular issue to the surface of the novel and allow readers to take the journey of self-discovery with Marie?

JPR:     You’re absolutely right—Marie is involved in complex cultural negotiations.  It is important to note that despite these negotiations, Marie is successful in ensuring the survival of African-based spirituality in her community.  But I also hope that understanding these complex negotiations will make readers sympathetic to Marie’s promotion, at times, of voodoo as theatrical performance.  The era she lived in, the societal issues she dealt with were overwhelming, yet, she managed to survive/thrive and, though, some would argue her legacy continues today as a mixed blessing; I would argue that she is a triumphant heroine.  Not perfect but a human heroine who, despite great odds, ensured that a powerful, affirmative image of black women’s spirituality was sustained.

KMS:   The image and actions of Grandmére echo that of Zora Neale Hurston’s Nanny in Their Eyes were Watching God—particularly in the way that both elder women wish to marry off their granddaughters for their own protection.  I have read that Morrison is a great influence for you. Does Hurston figure into your literary ancestry?  Is this comparison of grandmothers a reflection of Hurston’s influence or simply coincidental?  Is anything in a novel ever coincidental?

JPR:     I love Hurtson.  Though I don’t believe Hurston, in recording oral anecdotes about Marie Laveau in Mules and Men, uncovered the “whole truth” of Marie.  However, I don’t believe the “whole truth” was Hurston’s intention—rather, she captured the “truth” of oral tales and individual/cultural perceptions.  My novel, I hope, captures an “emotional truth”—adding another layer of empathy and understanding of Marie.

I do agree that Grandmere echoes Nanny in Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Marriage is a social contract that recognizes husbands’s patriarchical power.  Grandmere and Nanny have bought into this notion of marriage because society has taught/encouraged them to do so.  Janie and Marie are bolder, bigger, and more alive than that!

KMS:   Speaking of Morrison, in “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” she warns against the failures of generations of women: “Pilate is the apogee of all that: of the best that is female and the best that is male, and that balance is disturbed if it is not nurtured, and if it is not counted on, and if it is not reproduced.  That is the disability we must be on guard against for the future—the female who produces the female who produces the female” (344).  Both Voodoo Dreams and Voodoo Season deal with the succession of the Leveau/Levant women.  Do you think that a line of women, devoid of love and healthy relationships with men of various relations, is doomed to failure?  Does Morrison’s statement resonate with the women of your imaginative creation?

It would seem that the imbalance Morrison speaks of could be attributed to the inhumanity of the slave trade…the balance between male and female bonds has already been disrupted! There are certainly repercussions and perhaps psychological wounds to be nursed, but there is something redemptive about the female line.  It insures future lifelines, generations who can continue to work towards restoring that balance, no?

JPR:     Morrison seems to be referring to the Jungian notion that within each of us is an anima/animus or vice versa if you’re a man.  I believe that Marie, by the end of Voodoo Dreams, and, I believe, that by the end of my contemporary trilogy about Marie Levant, the Marie Laveau descendent, that she will become, too, a kind of Pilate/pilot.  I think, though, that the language—“we must be on guard against for the future—the female who produces the female who produces the female”—is problematic.  I believe being female is, it self, a whole that can involve (and here is the problem with gendered language again) male and female characteristics.  I think it is interesting that no one would say we should guard against—“the man who produces the man who produces the man.”  But, if you’re talking about a totality of humanity that includes various unique shadings/manifestations of anima/animus, then we can be biologically different (male/female), be unique, without suggesting that one gender is inherently deficient or better.  We all have the potential to experience the full range of humanity. Unfortunately, we are often “mis-educated” into a narrow range of so-called appropriate behaviors.  That’s why Marie as a powerful force is “transgressive” to society as we know it—but, I don’t believe she is “transgressive,” an outlaw in terms of being a woman—in terms of her humanity which, by nature, includes a spectrum of feelings and characteristics.

As you suggest, Kameelah, perhaps Morrison is suggesting that there is a balance within Pilate that somehow has been lost within her daughter and granddaughter.  “Balance,” for me, is less problematic in terms of language and I agree, we all need emotional balance in order to be whole.  But I still don’t think “femaleness” is a problem.  In Song of Solomon, the daughter and granddaughter become more narcissistic, more insular in their perceptions and life (and as I recall, this withdrawal from life stems from abusive relations with men!).  Is slavery somehow responsible for the black men’s abuse?  Certainly, a cause and effect case can be made for Milkman.  Ultimately, though, it will be a woman and a woman’s/children’s song/tale that gives him the keys to redemption.  This will provide him with the spiritual milk to sustain him.

Women’s lives extend across the generations; inextricably, we are linked woman to woman, linked by the power and potential to create life in the body and with words.  Mothers/midwives/ storytellers…women have and have always had the power to birth and rebirth themselves, and their sisters and daughters (literally and metaphorically). Women also birth fathers, husbands, and sons.  Yet, why, amazingly, has western culture, for hundreds of years, privileged men?  Clearly, by wounding women, they wound the image of the conjure woman, particularly, in popular culture.  Nonetheless, women are intimate with blood and bloodlines…and it is this intimacy and nurturance of successive generations that will, I believe, aid us all—male and female—and help us create human relationships based upon mutual respect and mutual understanding. 

Women having healthy, romantic relationships with men is another complicated matter.  For nineteenth century Marie, I didn’t think it was possible for her to have a good relationship in the context of the world she lived in.  In my contemporary trilogy, however, I believe Dr. Levant has healthier relationships (Reneaux in Voodoo Season and Parks in Yellow Moon).  But one dies; the other, eventually, leaves. I have hope that in Hurricane Levee Blues, Levant will have a sustained, satisfying relationship.  I think in the twentieth-first century, it should be about time! 

KMS:   You are currently working on a trilogy—Voodoo Season, Yellow Moon, and Hurricane Levee Blues.  Can you tell us more about your concept for this trilogy and if women and voodoo are the focus of the forthcoming novels? Yellow Moon is due in August. What can readers expect from this novel?

JPR:     I had always wanted to do a sequel to Voodoo Dreams.  Preferably, about the early twentieth century and Storyvillle.  But the eras were too close, the influence of Voodoo Dreams too great.  So, the trilogy, intended to stretch me as a writer, was also intended as a contemporary mystery series with appropriate genre conventions.

On Voodoo Season’s publication date, the levees broke in New Orleans.  I really felt that Marie was saying, “Gotcha.”  My mystery series became complex in a new way—especially, since Marie’s descendent is a doctor in Charity Hospital.  So, how can I not write about Charity and the impact of Katrina on the poor, black community?  Race/gender/class —core issues in Voodoo Dreams—are in the forefront of the series in a new way. Yellow Moon is awash with rain; there is my awareness that the hurricane is coming, and the levees will break.  Levant’s journey during the trilogy is to confront the horrors in Katrina’s wake.  Will her spirituality help her?  I believe so.  In each book, Levant is becoming more self-aware, stronger, and, if the descendent of a woman who walked on water can’t save souls, then who can?

To be honest, though—I don’t know the ending of Hurricane Levee Blues.  Writing always changes things.  Characters behave in unexpected ways.  There is the possibility that Levant will break, even though I don’t want her to.  I am fully aware that despair might overwhelm Levant when she realizes that she’s fighting similar race/class/gender battles that Marie fought nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

KMS:   I noticed that your website previously listed Voodoo Jazz as the original title for part two of the trilogy. What prompted the change to Yellow Moon and what is the significance of that title? 

JPR:     When I thought I was going to write a sequel to Voodoo Dreams, I planned on writing about how jazz became a secular version of voodoo during the turn between the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries.  Amiri Baraka writes about this in Blues People.  When I jumped to contemporary times, the title stuck but my agent and editor didn’t like it.  So, instead, I incorporated the Neville Brothers song, “Yellow Moon.”  The song is romantic, but I particularly focused on the lines: “Yellow moon, yellow moon, why you keep peeping in my window?  Do you know something I don’t know?”  I linked the links between “moon” (feminine/nature symbol), perception, and knowledge (which includes the spiritual).  Also, from Voodoo Dreams, yellow is a color of disease, warning…and even resonates with the historical yellow fever outbreaks of New Orleans.  In Yellow Moon, the world and Marie are both sickening because of the wazimamoto (an African vampire created as a response to colonialism).  A yellow moon also means death, according to my grandmother’s tales.  So, Yellow Moon, as a title, seems to be appropriate for a novel that is a bridge between Levant’s self-discovery of her spiritual heritage in Voodoo Season and her needing to be a fully realized Voodoo Queen in order to have any chance of surviving spiritually, physically, and psychologically in Hurricane Levee Blues.

KMS:   Which texts concerning women and voodoo do you consider a must read?  Are there any up and coming novels or authors writing about African diasporic religions/experiences for whom we should keep our eyes open?   

JPR: Martha Ward’s Voodoo Queen The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau is extremely good as is Joseph Murphy’s Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Disapora. 

In fiction, I, like you, love Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.  These are all old texts.  There is  one novel that I read in galleys—The Accidental Santera by Irete Lazo.  It’s a warm and funny book—revealing another perspective on spiritual/spirited women and our sisters in the Latino community.

 


Works Cited

 

Fandrich, Ina Johanna. "The Mysterious Voodoo Queen Marie Laveaux: A Study of Power and Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans." Dissertation. Temple University, 1994.

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.”  Black Women Writers, 1950-1980. Ed.

Mari Evans. New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1984.339-45.

Rhodes, Jewell Parker. Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. New York: Picador, 1993.











   

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