Like a siren song, New Orleans has always called my name.
Living, as a child, in a concrete, steel mill ghetto in Pittsburgh, stories stirred me and kept my hopes alive that there were wonderful places and people where America’s “mixed blood stew” of cultures triumphed and made cultural magic. New Orleans is such a quintessential place.
My first creative writing teacher said, “Write what you know.” I wanted to write what I could imagine! Amazingly, at nineteen, I turned to my cookbook shelf for inspiration. I read and learned about bayous, swamps, and conjure, and the famous, nineteenth century voodoo queen, Marie Laveau. I began an adventure that would end in a sprawling historical novel, that tells the story of how, in the nineteenth century, slave faiths were misrepresented by sexism and racism; and how Marie Laveau, a remarkable woman, who helped yellow fever victims, the poor, and local prostitutes, triumphed, reaffirming African-based spirituality and its liberation power. Even today, thousands visit New Orleans’s above ground cemetery, to deliver offerings of rice and scratch an “X” on Laveau’s tombstone.
As a young woman, trying to locate my own worth and spiritual power, I couldn’t have asked for a better guide than Marie Laveau. Mapping Laveau’s journey, I learned to reappraise my southern folkloric routes, and learned, like Laveau, to believe, deeply and heartfeltly, that “Life be a celebration. Being a woman be just fine!” Being a woman, being a mother, empowering my own voice was all made easier by recognizing that if real woman of color could overcome nineteenth century sexism and racism, there was no excuse for me to believe I couldn’t. Courage and democratic ideals trump all “isms.”
(1993) is an epic book for those who want to breathe, smell, see, and feel New Orleans during its historic traumas. But, I promise, the journey will uplift you, like a Mississippi tide!
In 2006, I began a trilogy sequel to Voodoo Dreams. The first novel, , was to be the start of a contemporary, mystery—exploring how Dr. Levant, a Laveau great granddaughter, combines her medical knowledge with spiritual healing. Voodoo Season was published the day Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. In the ensuring days, as I watched the horror of the levees breakings, and the destruction of the city and its environs, I knew two things: my trilogy would have to be altered to reflect the new history; and that I felt called to write to write the trilogy—almost as if it had been foreordained. As a novelist, I had studied and accumulated realms of date on the environmental ravages of oil, tide, and chemical pollutants, resulting in loss of land, fishing dead zone, and cancerous communities. followed Voodoo Season; in April 2011, Atria Books will publish the final book of the mystery series, Hurricane. All three books speak to the beauty of New Orleans’s and includes a wake-up call to honor the spirit of New Orleans—including the famous water spirits— Agwe, Yemaya and Mami Wati who like all natural elements are striving to help life thrive.
Atria Books has redesigned and renamed the trilogy: Season, Moon, and Hurricane (see attached photos).
I’ve very proud that New Orleans has become my mystical, “let the good times roll,” swamp dreams, imaginative home. There is a marvelous graciousness, grit, and determination in Louisiana people. They have endured and will endure. Bayou lands, swamp tours, sugar plantations, trawling the Mississippi in a riverboat, toe-stomping at Preservation Hall, and dancing all night on Bourbon Street, are all part of the magic. Shrimp and grits, jambalya, dirty beans and rice, beignets and cafe au lait are not to be missed.
New Orleans has helped me to achieve my dream of being a writer. The lore and Louisiana people inspired my first adult novel, Voodoo Dreams, and my first children’s book, Ninth Ward.
This summer I will return to New Orleans to receive the 2011 Coretta Scott Author Honor Book Award for , in which I honor all the brave and resilient children who survived Katrina and the levees breaking. My protagonists, Lanesha and TaShon survive and thrive with friendship, love of family and a dog named, Spot, believing, as all New Orleans’s residents do—that times might be tough, this year might be hard but always, eventually, the universe shines down with love.
*Jewell Parker Rhodes is the award winning author of six novels, a memoir, two writing texts, and a children’s book. www.jewellparkerrhodes.com; www.jewellparkerhodes.com/children. She is the Piper Endowed Chair Professor at Arizona State University.
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