Wendy Meddour profiles the American author Jewell Parker Rhodes, an author you might not have heard of, but should definitely seek out.
Jewell Parker Rhodes is not the sort of woman you forget. An inspirational writer and speaker, she has an infectious kind of warmth. Before I interviewed her at this year’s Oxford Literary Festival, she went and shook hands with everyone in the audience, making sure to ask them all their names. It’s the little things that make the biggest impact, and even the smallest member of the audience grew large. That’s what Rhodes and her work is all about: inclusivity, diversity and making sure everyone is visible.
Why? Because she knows how hard it is not to be seen. It’s how she described the difficult experience of being a reader: ‘I didn’t see me externally,’ said Rhodes. ‘I only saw white people on book covers. I do believe that not seeing myself in books, not reading books by people of color, that I almost missed my calling to be a writer. A frightening thought.’
Born in a ghetto on the North Side of Pittsburgh, Rhodes was brought up in a hyper-segregated society and abandoned by her mother as a child (‘some say she left with another man, some say she was in prison for drugs’). Yet, despite these difficult beginnings, she went on to become a highly accomplished writer (for both adults and children) and the Artistic Director and Piper Endowed Chair at the Virginia G Piper Center for Creative Writing, Arizona State University.
Rhodes’ work has become increasingly successful in the US but she is still largely unheard of in the UK. Perhaps this is no accident. Though ‘diversity’ in children’s books has improved drastically in the last twenty years, the absence of non-white faces on children’s book covers is a trend that sadly continues. Even within an American context, Rhodes had to fight to make sure that The Louisiana Trilogy featured their young black protagonists on the front.
As one might expect from a talented wordsmith, the books are all beautifully written. Sugar, Ninth Ward, and Bayoux Magic are set in different centuries and locations, but share a common theme: the power of storytelling as a means of breaking down racial prejudice, and as a way of coming to terms with the injustices of the past. In each narrative, the young, black female protagonist serves as a powerful catalyst for change. Despite the cruelty of their circumstances (a plantation, slavery, a threatened environment), they produce this change through their extraordinary capacity for friendship. This is combined with their relentless optimism and courage: an optimism and courage that Rhodes clearly shares. Fearless in her willingness to tackle difficult subjects, she has also just published Towers Falling: a book set fifteen years after 9/11. Once again, she uses this narrative space as a place in which to confront painful moments in history, and to explore and even heal.
‘Diversity in books is a civil rights frontier’
It is important to note that, although tackling undeniably difficult subjects, Rhodes’ children’s books are not characterized by pain. On the contrary, they are characterized by hope. As she stated in her keynote speech delivered to booksellers at the Children’s Institute in 2015: ‘Diversity in books is a civil rights frontier. As a nation, we’ve made progress. My life’s story bears witness to that. I am optimistic about the future. We all should be. We’re united by our humanity. United by our stories.’
Rhodes recommends that we all encourage our favourite writers to write more diverse books. When it’s suggested that it isn’t possible for ‘privileged’ or ‘white’ writers to write about other cultures, she waves a hand: ‘Hogwash […] empathy and humanity qualify us all’. There are, of course, rules that Rhodes instructs us to follow: ‘Don’t stereotype. Do your research. Write with empathy.’ But her message remains the same. Don’t let anyone remain invisible.
This was the thought left in my mind as I watched Rhodes signing books after our event. Amongst the predominantly white faces of Oxford, there was a little black girl in the queue, hiding behind her mother. Of course, Rhodes was characteristically warm to everyone, but when the hidden little girl came to the front, Rhodes stood up and greeted her like an old friend.
The little girl beamed. She was visible: ‘I want to be a writer. Like you.’
Wendy Meddour taught English Literature at Oxford University and is now a Lecturer in English Literature at University of Reading. Her debut children's book, A Hen in the Wardrobe, was shortlisted for the Branford Boase Award, was selected as one of the Guardian's 'Best 50 diverse Children's Books since the 1950s' and won the John C Laurence Award for 'improving relations between the races'. She launched a new series, The Secret Railway, this year.
Sugar (978-0-3160-4306-9), Ninth Ward (978-0-3160-4308-3), and Bayoux Magic (978-0-3162-2485-7) are published by Little Brown, US at £5.99 pbk. Towers Falling (978-0-3162-6222-4), also published by Little Brown, US is £12.99 hbk.