Culture

On Voodoo, Marie Laveau, and American Horror Story: A Q&A with Jewell Parker Rhodes

Angela Bassett in ‘American Horror Story: Coven’/Image © FX

In 1993, Jewell Parker Rhodes published Voodoo Dreams, a historical novel about the scandalous life of nineteenth-century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Twenty years later, Laveau has sensationally re-emerged as a character on "American Horror Story: Coven," portrayed by Angela Bassett as a supernatural supervixen with a score to settle against those who carelessly exploit her people and appropriate their magic.

Now, with many more voodoo-inspired novels under her belt -- including a trilogy about a descendant of Laveau's -- Rhodes is here with us to hold court on America's true occult legacy and Voodoo Dreams' long march to the big screen, as well as the significance of magic in storytelling and everyday life.

Signature: At what point did you become aware that Marie Laveau would be a character on "American Horror Story" this season?

Jewell Parker Rhodes: One person mentioned it via e-mail. Another on Facebook today! I tried the second season of "American Horror Story" and it scared me horribly. I guess I prefer my own imagination to a realized visual.

SIG: It still remains to be seen what liberties the show will take with Laveau's convoluted biographical information -- though, I was pleased to see that they've included scenes that show her working as a hairdresser, which is based in fact. Do you intend to watch? Any thoughts on the casting?

JPR: I'm not sure that I will watch. But when Voodoo Dreams first came out, [producer] Steve Tisch optioned the novel and had a script written. I also had the most wonderful time meeting Whoopi Goldberg at her L.A. home. Goldberg and Tisch had done "Corrina, Corrina" together and were interested in doing another joint project. Ms. Goldberg would have been a wondrous Grandmere or Marie Laveau.

When financing fell through and Ms. Goldberg went on to other projects, several other actresses' names were suggested -- my all-time favorite was Angela Bassett. I felt in some ways she echoed aspects of my novelized conception of Laveau in the biopic of Tina Turner's life, "What's Love Got to Do With It?" Ms. Bassett was amazing in that role -- strength, vulnerability, power, beauty, and fierce (in the end) self-love and self-valuing that far exceeded sexual/gender politics.

SIG: As a work of fiction, Voodoo Dreams cooks up its own unique blend of historical fact, speculation, and folktales, mixed with your creative inspiration. How did you strike that balance? Did you feel like there were ghosts reading over your shoulder as you wrote?

JPR: I was at the Yaddo artist colony when I began working on chapter one, and I felt the ghosts of Marie and my grandmother (the inspiration for Grandmere) were with me. My grandmother valued her Southern roots, folk culture, and healing. As to the balance, I did years of research but I didn't go back to it until I'd written several drafts, which took me many years. The most helpful thing was for me to re-imagine -- pretend-act to feel what I thought a woman of color with spiritual power might have felt in such a sexist and racist time. Feeling the spirit of New Orleans was easy from the first moment I stepped into that magical city -- especially the French Quarter. I took tons of photographs, and these photos helped me to remember the otherworldly atmosphere always. Once I was satisfied with the characters' journey and I'd gotten the emotional tone and atmosphere correct, I then went back to my research for corrections and other details to add texture to the book.

SIG: Voodoo Dreams is one of those novels that feels inherently cinematic, and for a long time it seemed perpetually on the verge of being adapted (at one point, by the inimitable Kasi Lemmons). Is this something you still hope for?

JPR: I would love for there to be a Voodoo Dreams movie, especially after seeing the glorious "Beasts of the Southern Wild." I so admired how the filmmakers captured Louisiana and the magical atmosphere. I cried.

Seeing Marie Laveau walk on water and working her spiritual miracles would just rock me. Several folks optioned Voodoo Dreams, but only Tisch productions I believe hired scriptwriters. I think Kasi Lemmons was considered as a possible scriptwriter, and they sent me her script for her movie "Eve's Bayou." But she wasn't hired. A team wrote the script. I think Ms. Lemmons would have been perfect.

SIG: You've written numerous novels since, many of which feature a strong magical component that hearkens back to Voodoo Dreams. Has this always been a subject of fascination and inspiration for you, or did writing Voodoo Dreams bring that out in you?

JPR: My grandmother and my upbringing filled me with the spirit of the church and the spirit of the faith brought by Africans to the new land, during slavery. African Americans blended two strong spiritual traditions. Voodoo (hoodoo, voudon, santeria -- whatever you call it) has these influences. Wherever slaves landed, they kept religious traditions alive and blended Catholicism and African spirit traditions.

I had always intended to write a sequel to Voodoo Dreams -- a novel about how at the turn of the century, jazz became the "new" African American secularized spirituality. Eventually I turned to a contemporary mystery/thriller series whereby a doctor in a charity hospital discovers she's Marie Laveau's descendant. So, faith and medicine mix. The first novel (Season) included the power of jazz for healing and saving women who'd become sex slaves (zombies). It was also published on the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Amazing.

My perspective on the trilogy changed -- it focused on the descendant becoming a stronger, forceful woman who uses science and spirit. In book two (Moon) my descendant of Marie, Dr. Lavant, battles a Wazimamoto -- which is an African vampire spirit created by colonialism. This spirit is a metaphor for cultural self-hatred. Marie Levant defeats it, because ultimately her love and pride of culture and self are stronger.

The third book is called Hurricane. Marie confronts a false voodooienne who poisons souls, and the poisoning of people through pesticides and oil damage has caused the massive erosion in Louisiana -- which made New Orleans especially vulnerable to hurricanes. I also write about political corruption and the failure to repair the levees.

In all my books, there is the spiritual -- that's how I was raised. in Ninth Ward, my middle-grade novel, Lanesha sees ghosts. They're not scary ghosts, but ancestors -- African American folklore believes after death, spirits remain, guiding, loving, watching over the living. Such love is what helps Lanesha and her best friend Tashon survive Katrina. Love from family members, love from one's community, and love from one's ancestors have always been the core values of African Diasporic spiritual traditions. Racism and misinterpretation have often led to horrific stereotypes.

What makes the historical Marie character so interesting is that she was (in my view) authentic, but she knew how to manipulate voodoo stereotypes to her advantage. As a woman of color during a time of slavery and intense sexism, she used every skill to be free -- to become, in fact, the most powerful woman in New Orleans in the nineteenth century.

SIG: Many other authors write about magic and the supernatural, especially for younger readers. However, most of that is pure escapism -- very few relate it so strongly and so convincingly to existing mystical traditions, or show how people interact with these beliefs in their daily lives. Do you have any thoughts on the forms that magic has taken/will take in the twenty-first century?

JPR: The world is changing. Twenty years ago, Voodoo Dreams almost didn't get published -- but it has remained alive, and now pop culture vehicles are keeping these traditions alive. The key is to be responsible culturally. I think "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is. I can't speak to "American Horror Story: Coven," I haven't seen it.

But I know Ninth Ward couldn't have been published twenty years ago -- yet here it is now, winning awards and being read in American schools. I think that kids and parents get my cultural take -- "magic" that is affirming, loving, and runs culturally deep. They ask questions, study, and invite me to Skype. I happen to like magic -- it's about the extraordinary in people and in our world. I loved "Merlin," Phillip Pullman's novels, A Wizard of Earthsea, and so many more.

But I think America is becoming more comfortable with magic as it manifests in African American communities. Think of our country's history of racism, think of how many bad "B" movies were made about voodoo and zombies, and the implicit racism in them that the spiritual practices of African American people were barbaric, primitive, sexual, and evil. In nineteenth-century New Orleans, there was the Code Noir, which legally mandated that blacks brought to New Orleans had to be baptized Catholic. This grew out of the fear of slave-holders watching slaves use music and dance, using the drum to call spirits and their spiritual trances. Slave-holders misinterpreted these ceremonies because of their vested interest in believing blacks were less than human, and that they were superior.

Today, children all over the U.S. write to me about how much they love Lanesha. Boys and girls of all cultures see resilience and triumph in this child who sees ghosts.