'Hurricane' concludes Rhodes' voodoo trilogy
She dipped her hands into the pail. The water was clear, and she washed her palms clean. She cupped water in her hands, and smelled it as it dripped, disappeared through her fingers.
Plain water. No special odor. She tasted it. Just water. How did it connect with the shape-changing spirit’s words: “Watch the waters?”
Throughout Jewell Parker Rhodes’ newly published novel, “Hurricane,” the spiritually powerful Marie Lavant is warned about the water. But what do the warnings mean? What should she do?
Readers who have already devoured the first two books in Rhodes’ New Orleans trilogy know that they are in for a gripping story filled with spirit beings, romance, mystery, danger – and a reverence for things unseen.
“Hurricane,” the last of the trilogy, follows Dr. Levant, who is a descendent of the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, in the days before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans as she is pulled into the investigation of the murder of a family and tries to discover what residents of DeLaire are hiding.
The first book in the trilogy, originally called as “Yellow Moon,” and now renamed “Moon,” was published in 2004. “Voodoo Season” – now “Season” – followed in 2006. “Hurricane” completed the series in April 2011.
Rhodes answered questions about “Hurricane” and her trilogy for Insight.
Did you have "Hurricane" in mind for the last book in the trilogy when you started on the first one?
Not at all. Originally, I had planned a paranormal mystery series with my protagonist (a descendent of Marie Laveau) using her skills as a doctor and spiritual healer to solve crimes. But, when Katrina hit, I felt called to respond. Especially since my character was a doctor at Charity Hospital which was slow to be evacuated. To this day, Charity remains closed, an enormous towering derelict of stone, reflecting a public health system permanently damaged.
I knew my trilogy had to incorporate Katrina and the environmental racism that left many low-income residents especially vulnerable when the levees broke.
Marie, as a protagonist, had to develop in spiritual power while also accumulating knowledge about New Orleans’s history and its environs. The layering of landscape—and its deterioration related to changing the Mississippi River’s course in the 19th century, pesticide dumping, and oil drilling in the 20th and 21st century.
“Hurricane” was in publication when the BP oil spill occurred. Though the novel explored oil damage and the Gulf Dead Zone, I was able to recall the manuscript and develop more about an oil spill’s destructive power.
Where did you do your research on voodoo and all of the other gods, beliefs and ceremonies you wrote about in “Hurricane”?
In 2009, the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution mounted a brilliant exhibit, honoring the African water goddess, Mami Wata, and the permutations of how her spirit transformed as slaves carried their faith into the New World. The Fowler Museum at UCLA first exhibited the collection of sculpture, paintings, and mixed media and published a glorious book, “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas,” written by Henry John Drewal (and contributors Houlberg, Jewsiewicki, Noell, Nunley, and Salmons).
Mami Wata’s core emphasis on fertility, creating new land and new worlds, and celebrating womanist power resonated deeply with me.
Mami Wata, for me, became a symbol for the Mississippi River itself, dammed to serve human needs. Clearly, responsible environmental stewardship means balancing resources with certain and potential damage, and having a care for how for the vitality of the environment for future generations.
There is frequently a dog in your stories. Why is this?
Kind Dog (named after the dog in the British Ant and Bee books) is in “Season” and “Moon.” Spot is the dog in “Ninth Ward,” my children’s book about Katrina. The dog in “Hurricane” is named Beauregard.
I love dogs and have experienced first hand their love, loyalty, and bravery during the Northridge earthquake disaster. Both the trilogy and “Ninth Ward” serve as tributes to animals and are, specifically, a loving nod toward Kahn, a black lab mix, that my family rescued and had the privilege of knowing for 12 years.
Did you have the end of Hurricane in mind when you started writing it?
I didn’t know specifically how “Hurricane” would end. I assumed it would end back in the city. But when I wrote the last bits of dialogue, when K-Paul and Marie are driving, racing behind the hurricane, it seemed right. So, I stopped.
You left us hanging about whether Marie chooses Parker or K-Paul. Was this deliberate? Do you have a favorite of the two whom you think Marie should be with?
I’m not sure why I left Marie’s romantic choice open. Maybe I was unconsciously leaving it open for another book. So many folks want to know what happens with Marie’s love life!
But I also think I didn’t write a choice because I didn’t want a romantic attachment to trump Marie’s journey in becoming a strong woman and gifted spiritualist. Her choice of a companion matters far less than the healing she gives to her community.
I like both Parker and K-Paul. Of course, there’s still the beloved memory of Reneaux. Marie has had good men in her life; and Reneaux, Parker, and K-Paul were lucky to have had the opportunity to know such a splendid woman as Marie.
What's next on your writing "to-do" list?
I’ve finished a young adult novel. Now I’m writing another children’s book and an adult novel.
You said that the first chapter of Ninth Ward came to you in a dream. Did you immediately start working on the book? And how soon in the writing process did you see the end?
When Hurricane Katrina hit, I worried about the children. It wasn’t, however, until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening the Gulf, that I went to sleep and work up with Lanesha’s voice and the first lines of “Ninth Ward.” My wonderful Little, Brown editor, Jennifer Hunt, asked for a 48-hour exclusive to see the book and promptly bought it. Jennifer and I worked on revising and editing the book for another year. “Ninth Ward” was published in August 2010, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
What does “Hurricane” mean to you?
For centuries, environmental damage and environmental racism have afflicted Louisiana and the Gulf marshes and waters. Science, spirituality, and historical perspective are all needed by my protagonist, Marie to understand why New Orleans was so vulnerable in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina and why the levees failed.
In the metaphorical world of “Hurricane,” Mami Wata came to symbolize the devastation of the Gulf coast region, in general, and the dead zone in the Gulf, in particular. Irresponsible environmental stewardship that had made New Orleans and the coast especially vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina seemed, in my imagination, a cry from Nature, Mami Wata, herself.
Having constricted Mami Wata, her waters were unable to give birth to new land that was essential to creating and sustaining life – both human and animal.
The 2010 BP oil spill compounded problems in the Gulf of Mexico and reinforced my theme of human hubris versus humility in resource extraction.
My protagonist, Marie, doesn’t have the answer to solve environmental problems. But she does have faith—a spiritual belief that Nature, itself, is a good to be honored. She also has courage and optimism to lend her talents to heal a community undone by natural and man-made disaster.
“Hurricane” ends my contemporary voodoo trilogy. Marie Laveau neé Levant has become a quintessential Louisianan. She’s become strong enough to keep fighting for the city and state she calls home. She’s comfortable with her spiritual power, unafraid of battling injustice, and honored to proclaim her name to the world: “I am Marie Laveau.”
She is one, in a long line of women, handing sight, strength, and love, down through the generations.