Saturday, August 22, 2020

Q&A with Jewell Parker Rhodes

Jewell Parker Rhodes is the author of Black Brother, Black Brother, a new middle grade novel for kids. Her many other books include Ghost Boys and Ninth Ward. She teaches at Arizona State University. 

Q: In the afterword to Black Brother, Black Brother you write, “I felt compelled to explore both racism and colorism affecting two biracial brothers.” How did you create your characters Donte and Trey?

A: One of the reasons I was compelled was because my family is biracial. Raising my two children—one presents for some as White and one presents as African American—I watched as society treated them so differently. Genetically they’re the same. People would argue with them that they couldn’t be brothers and sisters. 

It struck me how racism and colorism were working to tear our family unit apart. It’s been a struggle. Besides the unfairness, it causes a myriad of emotions. With lots of love, nothing can break that bond.

Donte and Trey are not my son and daughter. I don’t speak for my kids. I thought about writing about a boy and a girl, but the complexities of gender were too much to handle.

I loved how they were so bonded and yet were typical siblings who might fight. Of all the relationships I write about, Donte and Trey were the most real and I know siblings can be a great resource. I wanted to mirror for a child what they often have in their life. I love how they love each other. 

Q: You note that you were inspired to include fencing in the book because of the French author Alexandre Dumas’s African heritage. Can you say more about that?

A: I discovered Dumas as a black fencer when I was in my 20s. I happen to like swords. I like samurai movies. I bonded with my husband-to-be at the time over swords. My husband did take fencing in college, like the father in the book. We took our kids to do fencing. We had to drive an hour to get there!

I’m not athletic, but I had been a dancer. Watching fencing was amazing—it’s a lot like dance. My son is not athletic in terms of ball sports. He loved chess. Chess is a lot like fencing in its tactics and strategy. You’re on a team but you’re an individual.

I’m making a plea for how we have representation. A lot of children of color could do some sports but are not exposed to them. They could be a diver, a fencer, an equestrian. It’s the way race and sports excluded children of color from certain sports.

I like the honor code. The first stories I bought for myself were comic books, classic illustrated comics like The Prince and the Pauper, the King Arthur stories, stories about chivalry. I wanted to be Prince Valiant. I loved how fencing has an ethical and moral code to it.  

Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: The title never changed. I had an idea that kids would be taunting Donte, saying “Black brother, black brother.” The explosiveness of how they wanted black to be seen as a stain, pointing out the differences between the brothers.

I’m generally bad at titles, but that chant, that harassment, the denial of brotherhood and of blackness as a positive force, I wanted to upend that. 

Q: The novel takes place in Boston and suburban Newton, Massachusetts. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Setting is always important. We had moved to Boston for Evan to go to art school, and that was where he was being a moody teenager and the dean said to come and get him. It was a boarding school, but we lived across the street. One of the workers who had called in a complaint said the next time he was going to call the police.

Boston has a history of segregation. I felt my son’s life was being threatened and if the police came, he’d be subject to who knows what. You see a stark economic divide, and yet we were living in a wealthy community and my kids were among a minority at school and in the community.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: An understanding that we are all human. In the age of, it gives us evidence that race is a social construct. 

My grandmother would say that we are all a mixed-blood stew. In the African American community, we know we are a mixed-blood stew. 

We are all a mixed-blood stew. We are all human. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished the first draft of a book called Paradise on Fire. It was inspired by the Paradise fire. We raised our kids in the West. East Coast racism is very different from the West Coast version. 

In the West, there are things about the landscape that call to my heart. I live in Seattle now. I think about children of color who never go to our national parks. I wanted to show that there are other landscapes to explore and talk about. It’s a call to climate action and learning about the West.

There’s an organization in D.C. called City Kids. I was in Wyoming four or five years ago, and I saw a group of Black kids—they were from City Kids spending the summer in Wyoming. I so admire that. I never learned to swim or ride a horse. I wanted my husband to make sure our kids could do that.

Kids locked in an urban environment might not know they could be a river rafter or a climatologist.

In the book, six Black kids go for a summer in California and then there’s a forest fire and they have to learn how to survive. My books are bits and pieces of things that happen in my life. They all start weaving together. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Black Brother, Black Brother is a companion book to Ghost Boys. In Ghost Boys, there’s the murder of young Black boys and the ways in which there’s the tragedy of their deaths and they look to the living to find hope. I came across the school-to-prison pipeline. 

In Black Brother, it speaks more to enlightenment and positive self-esteem. We don’t want more ghosts.

The novel also was inspired by Invisible Man. The family’s last name is Ellison. Donte goes from saying he wished he were invisible to accepting his visibility. He’s not defined by the gaze of the oppressor. He’s visible without that other gaze. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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