INTERVIEWS with JOYCE CAROL THOMAS
I HAVE HEARD OF A LAND LETTER FROM THE AUTHOR
MARKED BY FIRE DISCUSSION AND QUESTIONS
FREE HELP FOR TEACHERS
CELEBRATING CHILDREN INTERVIEWS JOYCE CAROL THOMAS
Joyce Carol Thomas is the author of several books for young children, teens and adults. She has won several awards for her writing including the Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award, the American Book Award and the Teacher's Choice Award. Her books for young children include Joy!, The Angels' Lullaby, Cherish Me, You Are My Perfect Baby, Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, and Gingerbread Days; each book is a warmly illustrated collection of inspirational poems featuring African American children. The rhythmic writing style captures the attention of children. The poignant message makes adults want to read each book again and again-- even after the baby is asleep!!! Celebratingchildren.com interviewed Ms. Thomas.
CC. How did you begin writing?
JCT. Joyce Carol Thomas. As far back as I can remember I have been enchanted with words. I began using words to tell stories and found a joy in their creation, a joy that I can share with others.
CC. How has your writing evolved since you published your first book?
JCT. Because my first novel, Marked by Fire, was published by a major house and also received a National Book Award, my number of readers increased. Marked by Fire made it easier for the manuscripts that followed to find their way into about twenty more books.
CC. What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?
JCT. I read modern books as well as the classics, including the works of Shakespeare and the books of the King James version of the Bible. The poetry of Pablo Neruda, and the novel [Jubilee] and poetry of Margaret Walker [For My People], continue to make a strong impression on me.
CC. What are your all-time favorite children's books?
JCT. The fairy tales, including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, Aesop's Fables, and Bible stories, such as David and Goliath, are some of my favorites.
CC. One of the amazing aspects of your writing career is that you have written and published books for children, teenagers and adults. This is rather unusual as most writers focus with one audience. How are you able to successfully write for different age groups?
JCT. I write about everyday people and am transfixed by their beauty, their stories, and their zest for life. I see the human drama in children, in teens, in adults. And so, I write for us all.
CC. In a letter to visitors to Amazon.com, you describe how the memories from your great-grandmother and growing up in Oklahoma were the inspiration for I Have Heard of A Land. What were the inspirations for Cherish Me and You are My Perfect Baby?
JCT. I Have Heard of a Land is special because it connects us to the valiant ancestors who were brave enough to take wagon trains to a new tomorrow, to strike out for a new freedom, and to pioneer in a land called Oklahoma. Their courage stirs us even now. Inspiration comes in many forms. I have seven grandchildren who continue to be an incentive for me. I thought about them while writing Cherish Me and You are My Perfect Baby.
CC. The Bowlegged Rooster contains the same beautiful poetry found in Cherish Me, You are My Perfect Baby, Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, and Gingerbread Days. However, The Bowlegged Rooster seems a little different from these other books in that the main character is a rooster and not an African American child. What inspired you to write this book?
JCT. Many African-Americans live on farms. My family, in fact, lived on a turkey ranch when we first moved to California. One of my jobs was to feed the chickens and turkeys every morning. It did not take long for my imagination to make the journey from people to beloved farmyard animals. When animals stand in the place of people and playfully speak their minds, this is what I call signifying. My oldest granddaughter read the first chapter of The Bowlegged Rooster and commented, "Grandma, you have written the first signifying book for children, using gentle, sweet language." Signifying, as we know, is an African-American tradition. Using animals to imitate people is as ancient as the times when we sat around entertaining ourselves in Africa.
CC. Another book, The Gospel Cinderella, will be published next summer. Tell us a little about it.
JCT. The Gospel Cinderella is an African-American fairy tale, one in which a beautiful Black girl with a gift for singing is kept out of the limelight by her no-singing stepsisters and mean stepmother. This young girl's task is to make it to the Great Gospel Convention where her voice can be heard. Of course, in the way of all fairy tales, the book's ending is a rewarding and happy one for our heroine.
CC. You have won many awards for your books including the Coretta Scott King Author Award, National Book Award, Teacher's Choice Award, and American Library Association Notable Book Award. Which award means the most to you?
JCT. I cherish each award. Each honor and accolade from the Coretta Scott King, National Book Award, Teachers' Choice, and American Library Association judges is in its own way an affirmation and an encouragement to continue writing.
CC. Comment on the current state of the African-American children's book market compared to what is was at the beginning of your career.
JCT. I do believe that the African-American children's book market is flourishing. Parents, teachers, and librarians tell me that they are very delighted to find books on the market that they can give to Black children. The rest of the reading community also benefits, because readers from all cultural backgrounds get another glimpse into the lives of their classmates and friends. We are all encouraged to know that the bright and wondrous details of a Black child's world are now within reach of many readers.
CC. What's next for you?
JCT. Next for me are more books. Every morning I wake up with new ideas. Which one will find its way into a book? I'm as curious as my readers. In the year 2001 I'm publishing The Gospel Cinderella, Crowning Glory, A Mother's Heart (for all ages) and House of Light (a novel for adults).
Professors Tony Manna and Darwin Henderson
Kent State University, June 1996
Joyce Carol Thomas is a poet, novelist, and playwright. Through these three modes of perceiving the worldthe poet’s spare, sharp-edged wonder, the playwrights cunning orchestration of incident and character, and the novelists urge to bring us smack-face against life's pain, joy, and recoveriesshe evokes dilemmas and struggles which open the way to a better sense of self and often to a glorious personal epiphany. In whatever genre she's keyed to at the moment, Thomas peels back layers of life's complexities by focusing largely on the contradictions, catastrophes, and spiritual triumphs that unfold in a rural African-American community. With this community serving as her frame, she constructs lean but expressive portraits of the destructive and redemptive power of love, explores the values and meanings of secular and religious traditions, and lays out a stormy initiation for her young black protagonists. Rich in ambiguity and mystery and steeped in mythical and religious tropes and metaphors, her writing resonates a wonderfully bracing music.
Joyce Carol Thomas was born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the setting for three of her novels: Marked by Fire, Bright Shadow, and The Golden Pasture. Throughout much of her childhood, she was a migrant farm worker, first in Oklahoma and later in the San Joaquin Valley in California, where her family moved when she was ten years old. She traces her love of language and story to the songs and tales of her Mexican coworkers and the expressive rhythms of those who testified at church services. She earned degrees in Spanish and French and taught foreign language in public schools before pursuing a career as a writer. She has also held positions in English literature and creative writing at Purdue University, the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the University of Tennessee.
In the 1970s, Thomas wrote poetry and plays for adults. Critical acclaim began in 1982 with Marked by Fire, her first novel. In addition to the National Book Award for young adult fiction, Marked by Fire received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and Booklist’s children's reviewers Choice Award. The title also was listed on numerous best book lists, including the New York Times Outstanding Books for the Year and the American Library Associations Best Books for Young Adults. Bright Shadow, the sequel to Marked by Fire, was named a Coretta Scott King Honor Award Book.
Awards and honors have continued. Both A Gathering of Flowers, an anthology of multiethnic and multiracial short stories, which Thomas edited, and Brown Honey and Broomwheat Tea, a collection of her poems, were among titles recommended for children and young adults by the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Brown Honey and Broomwheat Tea also received the Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award and was listed as a Notable Children's Book in the Social Studies by the National Council for Social studies/Children’s Book Council joint committee.
Joyce Carol Thomas spoke to us by phone from her home in Berkeley, California, in September and December 1995, and in June 1996. This interview is a composite of these conversations.
M/H: Would you share something of your growing up in Oklahoma? Have significant people, events, and places found their way into your writing?
JCT: I grew up in Ponca City where my family lived on the Black side of town. There was a park dividing the Black side from the White side. To get to the White side or downtown you had to walk through that park. For the first several years of my life I rarely went over tot hat part of town. So you see, this Oklahoma community was a very sheltered place for me. It doesn't surprise me at all that in my writing I am deeply concerned with what happens within a community and how these experiences form a person's vision of the world. The forced with in the community interest me more than other circumstances and far more than forces from outside the community. I think what I'm saying is that if you're taking care of the inner life, chances are you'll be strong enough to handle any onslaught that comes your way from outside. At east that's how I've learned to live my own life.
M/H: Are there specific experiences within the Ponca City community that appear in your work?
JCT: In my community there were many beautiful moments connected with church and the extended responsibility of adults for children. This was very evident in my life and my friends’ lives. Any adult could chastise you if you were caught doing something you weren't supposed to be doing. There was also a sense of pride in the achievements of any child, and everybody shared in that. It was absolutely wonderful to receive so much attention as a child. But there also were traumas. You’ll remember that in Marked by Fire, young Abyssinia loses her singing voice after a deacon from her church has raped her. I’m sure I was thinking, where is God in all this?For me as a writer, there is always this pull to deal with the reasons why terrible things can happen to wonderful, kind people. These things do happen, and they do come up in my work, because I continue to wonder about them as I wonder, I suppose, about the good things.
M/H: We were wondering about some of the motifs that keep surfacing in your work. Music, dreams, natural disasters, and the healing power of nature come to mind. These elements seem to create an unusual blend of fantasy and reality, as though you are defying the standard categories.
JCT: I think these signs or motifs come from my subconscious. They creep into the writing without my necessarily ordering them to, and it's only afterwards that I see how these elements become keys to understanding my work. For example, whenever I first receive a copy of a book I've done, I'm in the habit of putting it up on my mantle and lining it up next to my other books. I was amazed to see that I had been working with fire, air, water, and earth, the basic elements of all life: Marked by Fire, Bright Shadow, Water Girl, and The Golden Pasture. Amazed because I hadn't realized previously that this was my plan. So, you see, there is something, some power at work that I'm following. Perhaps it's the presence of the muse and revelations that come with respecting it. You mentioned natural catastrophes, storms, and so on. Music is there as well, for music is a special way the spirit has of revealing itself.
M/H: And dreams? There's the dream of revelation in Bright Shadow, for example, where Aunt Serena appears to Abyssinia to tell her how to get on with her life.
JCT: My characters often present themselves to me in dreams. When I was writing Marked by Fire, I had settled on calling a central character Trembling Slim, because I knew a person with that name when I was growing up. But then the character spoke to me in one of those waking dreams I've talked about. She told me her name should be Trembling Sally. So I promptly changed her name. People often wonder why I created such a mean character in trembling Sally. They don't know the half of it. What was I supposed to do? Trembling Sally revealed herself to me. I couldn't judge whether she's a good or bad person. I just had to accept her, and let her actions speak for her. As a story keeps evolving, the characters keep talking, and then when they're done, it's done. I can't tell you how I know this, but I do know it. And sometimes they do come back to make their appearances in other books.
M/H: The power of stories and storytelling also keeps surfacing in your novels.JCT: I have my mother to thank for that. She was a storyteller. Every year when we went out to pick cotton in Red Rock, the women told stories at night to entertain us. My mother, who was the lead teller, specialized in really scary stories. I remember that one of the women would slip and put on a sheet, and when my mother reached the scariest part of the story, out of the house would run this woman in her sheet and scare us half to death. The interesting thing is that nobody told the same story twice. Nobody was allowed to. If you did tell one that somebody had heard before, folks would say, Get out of here. Go set yourself down. So, I never heard the same stories, but I heard stories with the same elements. The creativity of it, in the best sense of he word, had a lot to do with being able to make a story on the spot, which could entertain and hold your listeners. Yes, storytelling is significant for me, but I'm not actually retelling the stories I heard as a child. Rather, the stories that appear in my work are in the tradition of stories Id heard growing up, particularly those stories with elements of fear and humor and the participation t hat was built into storytelling through call and response.
M/H: Your novel The Golden Pasture is a considerable departure from the novels you'd previously written. For one thing, you feature the coming of age of a young male protagonist. For anther, the isolated ranch, though not too distant from Ponca City has replaced the familiar Ponca City community. What prompted you to write The Golden Pasture? JCT: That story has an interesting history behind it. I know that when many people think of Black characters and themes in young adult novels, they often recall books either framed in an urban setting or remotely set in the slave era. While these stories certainly have their place, sometimes their themes place Black characters in a state of perpetual shame because the characters are presented as victims and rarely as victors. There are more Black American stories that also deserve telling. For example, the heritage of Blacks in the West is only recently finding a homestead in fiction. The fact is that Black folks were often some of the best cowboys to ride the range. Another important fact about the history of African-Americans in the Westthough this rarely surfacesis the cooperation that took place between Blacks and American Indians. Native Americans and African Americans shared farming techniques, hunted buffalo together, and intermarried. Their coexistence was commonplace. When the Native woman is introduced in The Golden Pasture as Carl Lee’s birth mother, I am remembering a legacy rooted in my personal history. Also, the Appaloosa horse Carl Lee adores in the novel figures in my personal history, but I’ll have to backtrack quite a few years to show how it does. In post-Civil War Mississippi my paternal grandfather, Grandfather Haynes, bought a saddle horse, which was a bold move on his part. In those days, it was all right for a Black person to buy a mule, of course, but anybody buying a saddle horse was not thinking about picking cotton. Needless to say, the Nightriders, the vigilantes who were forerunners of the Ku Klux Klan, did not take kindly to the discovery that my grandfather had bought the horse for himself and his family. A group of Nightriders tacked a sign on a tree for my grandfather to read. The message said, nigger, get the hell outta Mississippi. Well, my grandfather and grandmother Haynes had been saving moneyburying canning jars under the chicken housefor just such an occasion, because my uppity grandfather had a mouth on him. It was this saddle horse that partially prompted my family to move to Oklahoma. My maternal grandparents were also rural people. Like Carl Lee’s grandfather in The Golden Pasture, they participated in the Boley Rodeo and lived in a place called Green Pastures, which, by the way, was the working title for the novel. Blacks in the West, the cooperation between Native Americans and African Americans, Black cowboys, the Haynes familythese are pieces of a remarkable heritage to which I am indebted. This is the heritage that helped me fictionalize my western, rural novel. The story I chose to tell, then, is about a boy in Oklahoma and his heritage as a descendent of western cowboys.
M/H: You’ve written a number of plays and Marked by Fire and When the Nightingale Sings have both been adapted for stage musicals. What do you like about working in the theatre? JCT: The chance to be surprised. In the theatre, everybody at one point in time becomes part of what’s going on. The play is created not only by what the characters do and say and how the actors interpret their characters, but also by the community of the audience getting stirred by what is going on before them.
M/H: When did the opportunity arise for you to move into the picture book format? That’s a relatively recent development, isn’t it?
JCT: Because I write poems all the time, I always have a large reserve of poetry to draw on. In a way that’s what I did for the collection that became Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea. When I dipped into that reserve, I emerged with a number of poems that worked well together.
M/H: Did you intend to have them published in a picture book format?
JCT: No, I just laid out the poems I’d gathered and saw an interesting movement through family and heritage and personal roots. It was my editor who envisioned them in a picture book. That has turned out to be one of those fortunate developments. I love the feel and look of Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, and I love how Floyd Cooper plays with light in his striking illustrations. There’s a real sense of cultural truth and pride in Floyd’s pictures.
M/H: Did Gingerbread Days take shape in a similar way?
JCT: The poems in Gingerbread Days grew out of memories associated with one of my favorite brothers, a medical doctor, who died when I was writing Marked by Fire. He was an amazing person, so mischievous and so much fun to be with. I had visited his gravesite and all these memories about family ties came to me. And so Gingerbread Days was born. I wrote those poems in a few days. If you look carefully at this collection, you can’t help but notice that I went after the same kind of balance that you find in all my work, a balance in terms of capturing both male and female experiences as well as experiences that unite children and their elders. There’s also my longstanding concern for the joy and pain of living. Of course, I didn’t see this until I could gain some distance from the writing. I could then look back and see what I had done in Gingerbread Days. Because these are what I call text-drive poems, meaning that the writing came first and the pictures followed from them, the poems spoke to Floyd Cooper on their own and in their own good time. His pictures truly illuminate the poems, because he captured their emotional content. He drew the illustrations out of the emotions the poems called forth from his personality, not from my suggestions about what they mean.
M/H: You told us once that you’re so busy writing, you donut have time to keep a journal. How do you trust yourself to remember experiences that might somehow influence your writing?
JCT: I believe if an experience has made an impact, it will bubble up when it needs to. If it's so powerful that it has nerve enough to come into my study and sit down beside me, I trust it. I'm simply going to have to trust what demands to be told. The image that comes my way and persists is the one I turn toward.
M/H: where does this gift of recognition come from?
JCT: I truly don't know, but the mystery of it has always fascinated me. I go on to talk abut he poet’s struggles and joys with the muse, but I always come back to the awesome mystery of it. I have no idea why the muse calls me. People call it different thingsa muse, an inspiration, a gift. I wrote a poem called Musing that I think addresses the mystery of gift.
M/H: Doesn't this poem predict some of the themes in your later work?
JCT: Which themes are you thinking of?
M/H: In Musing you acknowledge both the joy and pain of human experience. Weave come to recognize this contrast as a central metaphor in your work. You once referred to it as the tug between the holy and the horrible.
JCT: To be honest, I can't say that I had previously thought of the poem in this light. It seems to me that the work is lived first and understood later. When I’m writing, ideas come rushing in and I seize them in the moment. It’s only in retrospect that I might see how a particular piece fits into the large landscape of my work. After I’ve worked on a piece for a long time, reshaping it over many months, and then reshaping it again and again. I have a tendency to put it out of my mind once it's finally on its way to the publisher. I believe it’s a tribute to my readers and critics when I say that they often help me to look again and to see aspects of my work that I might otherwise not see so clearly. I love to hear of the different meanings readers take from my work. Now that you’ve asked me to remember Musing, I can see how that final image of flying in the poem is linked to Zelma’s wish to fly in Young Reverend Zelma Lee Moses, a short story which I wrote much later for A Gathering of Flowers.
M/H: Flying spells nothing but trouble for Reverend Zelma.
JCT: Yes, it does, until she understands that she doesn't need to literally fly to make her true spirit soar. That’s also the kind of freedom Marigold conjures with her singing in When the Nightingale Sings. I’m thinking here of those final moments in the novel when Marigold’s glorious voice makes it possible for her and all those folks she touches with her singing to transcend the here and now for the time being until the next crisis comes along. What I wrote was this: The people's spirits seemed to rise as one with the song until they were all changed into higher beings with angel wings. Come to think of it, the image of flying has always intrigued me.
M/H: To get back to the theme of the holy and the horrible, what are you attempting to reveal by focusing on this tension?
JCT: That dimensions of the beauty, the ugliness, and the grace exist in all of us and can touch all of us.
M/H: Is it important for young people to know this? JCT: In my work I’m revealing some of both the joy and the pain in this world. I think young people need to know about the full range of experience. They need to know about hope and joy because they are innocent and beautiful people, but they also need to know that not everybody is a friend. We wish this were not the case, but it is. You only have to read the newspaper or watch the news on TV to see that young Black men are still being hurt or killed just by walking down the street. It seems to me that a need for caution is just as important as a need for celebration or affirmation. I don't mean to restrict an awareness of this dualityof brightness and of shadowto African-American youth; while growing up, all young people should be alert to what affirms a life as well as what threatens it.
M/H: Yet your writing is deeply tied to an African-American identity. Do you feel that you have something to say to readers who haven't been shaped by this identity?
JCT: &It is gratifying to know&that in regard to a culture, we get to the general through the specific.
M/H: What do you mean by that?
JCT: Cherish Me is about a Black child's experience, but the poem also touches a longing for connectedness that all of us feel at some time or another. This is what I hope happens to readers of all ages and backgrounds when they come to my writing, that they gain at least a little awareness of the lives of Black Americans while also finding those universal needs and concerns that transcend the very special circumstances of a particular group. I also had the specific and the universal in mind when I put together the anthology A Gathering of Flowers. The stories represent the experiences of various ethnic and racial groups. The emotional content is the thread that connects all those different experiences. The connection it seems is always through the emotion.
INTERVIEW with JOYCE CAROL THOMAS
Professor Marilyn Kallet, Director of Creative Writing, University of Tennessee
This interview took place at Thomas' house overlooking Norris Lake in Careyville, Tennessee, on May 26, 1994. The house is full of windows and light, a necessity for the poet. Thomas served lunch during the interview, and for dessert she had made a sweet potato pie.
MK: How did your family happen to settle in Ponca City, Oklahoma?
JCT: My father's side of the family came from Mississippi. I didn't know until very recently that my maternal grandmother came from Tennessee. I was in California last March helping my Aunt Corine with insurance questions. The insurance agent asked her, "Where was your mother born?" She said "Tennessee." I almost fell off my chair! I had never heard this before because my mother's mother died when my mother was twelve. My mother was the oldest girl. There were five daughters and she raised the rest of them, including my Aunt Corine, the youngest. They had heard that their own mother was born in Tennessee. After I got back to Tennessee I called Aunt Lavinia, who lives in Oklahoma. She's ninety-some years old. Speaking of women who still have a lot of energy and power! At ninety, this woman herds cattle on the farm. She's very sharp mentally. She keeps the books too.
Aunt Lavinia remembered going back to Tennessee. "Which town! Which town!" I asked. I had to know. She thought it was Memphis. There's a bush growing in Aunt Lavinia's yard in Oklahoma, a bush brought back from Tennessee. That was a revelation.
MK: Who were the storytellers in your family?
JCT: My mother used to tell ghost stories. She was quite good. Since she was the oldest daughter, she was always the lead teller. She was an amazing woman who did many things well. I'm still in awe of her.
MK: Is it fair to say your mother was the strongest influence on your life and on your creative life?
JCT: I'd say so, yes.
MK: I am trying to imagine what your mother's life was like. She had thirteen children, nine survived. Did the others die in childbirth?
JCT: Yes. I've seen pictures of my mother when she was very young. Very frail-looking. I remember her saying that after she had her first child, she became
MK: Didn't we all!
JCT: Yes. She got some meat on her bones. She gained strength from having her first child.
MK: Here's a woman who was herself a creative force. What was her life like? Did you all help her?
JCT: Oh, absolutely.
MK: Did she have other aspirations besides being a mother?
JCT: If she did, I didn't know them. When would she have had time for other things? Being a mother must have been more than enough. It was a
MK: Your family was not rich. There were many children, yet in your work there is never a sense of deprivation. I feel a sense throughout of plenitude and joyfulness, a sense of abundance on every level.
JCT: I'm glad.
MK: Where did the sense of fullness come from?
JCT: In my new book of poems, Gingerbread Days, the last words are "People are more important than things." Hearing that bird sing is more important to me than my gold watch. Where value is placed might have a lot to do with a sense of beauty and plenty. A bush gives you one flower and that's a lot.
MK: Where I came from if you didn't have matching socks and sweaters you were an outcast!
MK: Do you experience your own work as a gift?
JCT: I don't consciously think about it, but when you ask me, the answer is yes.
MK: To what extent is the work "given"? We both know how much hard work is involved, and yet...
JCT: Part of it is given. For me, the demonstration of this is when I'm so deeply into it that I forget something's cooking! (hearty laughter) Better take the pie out of the oven! When I'm taken away from the present and taken somewhere else by the work - that's one way of showing that this is not something that I am consciously doing. The "gift" part is that something is coming through me.
MK: You're a medium. You've told me wonderful stories about characters who've spoken to you. I was thinking specifically about one of the characters whose name you changed....
JCT: At one point in my story I wanted to create a scary character and I thought of the name, "Trembling Slim", and so I was busy writing about him. And this character said, "My name is not Trembling Slim. I'm Trembling Sally." And I thought, "Whoa, yes! Yes, whatever you say!" When those kinds of things happen it is really wonderful! You feel as if you have been given a gift when a presence comes into your story and says this is who I am.
MK: Since you work in several different genres, I'm wondering if these presences come in different ways.
JCT: I think that kind of presence - character-presence - comes mainly in fiction, in the novels. I'm not sure about the poems. For me poetry is like breathing. It's always with me no matter what I'm working on. A poem comes and I stop and I write it down. It doesn't come and go the way a Trembling Sally would. It's always there.
MK: Light is a constant in your writing. Also we often find images of poetry, music, and food. Food is not as prevalent as light and music but it's often there.
JCT: Wherever the light is in the house, there I am. It was the same way in Berkeley - wherever the light was that's where you could find me. I would be right by the light, writing. Not to see better necessarily, but to find a combination of feelings - well being, warmth. It's as though a part of me thinks that I can write better if I'm sitting near the light. Like cats. Cats follow the light too.
MK: The impulse toward light is instinctual, but also connected with inner seeing.
MK: What about food images? Are you hungry all the time?
JCT: Food was one way of showing love. We didn't have a lot of things. But my mother used to do some amazing things with food. You know how some people think their mother's food was really good, but it really wasn't? Well, my mother's was really good! After we were grown we went back and she'd cook, and it would be excellent and by then we'd have something to compare it to... The food was just wonderful. One time when my mother didn't have any fruit, she made a pie out of fruit juice left over from her canned peaches. With that juice left in the Mason jar she made this wonderful pie. She used butter and nutmeg. She made the crust - it was so delicious! My sister and I still talk about it - she made this pie out of nothing! It was good! We didn't have a lot of gifts that were clothes or toys, possessions. Cooking well is one way of showing love,
MK: What role did your father play? What was he like?
JCT: He was very much a traditional male figure. My mother would say, "That's how men are." After having so many sons, she wanted a girl baby so badly. My father took her dolls and threw them away and said, "You don't need girl dolls. If you want a girl, I'll be the one to give you a girl." She loved him.
MK: In addition to speaking of individual influences on your life and work you have spoken about how the church was an early influence, inspiring your love of language. Can you say more about that? How often did you go to church as a child?
JCT: Church services were beautiful. The sounds of the biblical names - Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego - they seemed to me to be poetic and musical. If there happened to be a revival going we would be there every night. I'd be so tired some nights! As far back as I can remember I heard the music and the rhythms. I was what they called a "bench baby" - a baby brought to church, put on the front pew. When she cries, the nearest someone picks her up.
MK: That feeling of being in the music and rhythm comes through in the story "The Young Reverend Zelma Lee Moses." That story was told in rhythms. Church was a place where music poured into you when you were a baby on that bench, being picked up by loving hands. Was there a real person behind the character of Queen Mother Rhythm in When the Nightingale Sings? (A play by Thomas and also a novel by that name).
JCT: The name, Queen Mother Rhythm, came to me, and I was enchanted by it. Queen Mother Rhythm seems to be a composite. Mother Augusta and Young Reverend Zelma Lee Moses remind me of women I grew up around, and of some of the greatest gospel singers whose music I love. I pay tribute to those strong women with her character.
MK: Strong women are at the heart of those stories. I asked the poet, Joy Harjo, whether there was a connection between poetry and prayer and she said, "Of course."
JCT: Absolutely, for me. I do feel that sense of presence and spirit and prayer and God. I say "Thank you God" when I write a poem that works.
MK: Were you able to write while you were raising your four children?
JCT: Yes. Women do need to know that they can have children and still write.
MK: It's hard any way you slice it.
JCT: It is hard, but it's doable. If it's in you, if it's strong enough, you find a way to do it. A lot of men get up at four and write until it's time to go to work.
Think about time as being a slice of pie. You sometimes have more than at other times. Now I have more than when I was raising four children and writing. Nowadays I teach and write. In some ways I have more. It's hard to measure that kind of time. It's not always about quantity. Sometimes it's about sitting at the right window at the right time.
MK: So, don't let anyone talk you out of that desire to write, or that sense of purpose.
JCT: A gift received is to be given back. You write a book of poems, hopefully someone picks it up and feels gifted. That's important too. Not to diminish the place of children. They are central to many women. But to say that you have to do one or the other is cruel to someone who wants to write and who has children.
MK: You mentioned a new book of poems...
JCT: Gingerbread Days. Food again! It's a tribute to the love of my father. [And my brother.] I thought I would write a book as a tribute to all fathers, to the warmness of father [all males]. I go deeply into that.
MK: When will that come out?
JCT: This year, 1995.
MK: Are there other things you are working on now that you would feel comfortable talking about?
JCT: The book after Gingerbread Days is I Have Heard of a Land, which is also poetry.
MK: For young adults?
JCT: Yes, and for "all ages." I Have Heard of a Land remembers my own family's westward journey and focuses on the pioneer women who helped settle Oklahoma.
MK: I know that some writers have a hard time writing again after they have received major awards. Having received the National Book Award and the American Book Award, among other honors, have you had this kind of experience?
JCT: For me, there is no negative part in receiving an award. I'm always surprised by it. The writing itself is gift enough, reward enough, and award enough. Then here comes this other accolade. I view those awards as meaning that the work is connecting with people, with the readers. That's what they mean to me.
Interview copyright ©1997 by Joyce Carol Thomas
I HAVE HEARD OF A LAND LETTER FROM THE AUTHOR
Early one autumn morning I sat down at my desk to write. In my mind's eye, I began a journey back a century in time to the land of my birth, where I met my Great-grandmother Judy Graham. There in the golden light of an Oklahoma sunrise, I knelt down on the porch steps beside her where she revealed to me her remarkable story. By the time she had finished, fireflies danced around our heads and night had fallen. It is with her strong and gentle spirit that I now pass along to you the poetry of that story which I call I Have Heard of a Land. That land is and was an Oklahoma Where the earth is red with promises Where the redbud trees catch the light And throw it in a game of sunbeam and shadow Back and forth to the cottonwood trees
As Great-grandma Judy told me of the fascinating and valiant role that she played in the great Oklahoma Land Runs of the late 1800s, I penned Oklahoma rhythms, Oklahoma rituals.
The illustrator Floyd Cooper, also born in Oklahoma, must have harvested similar memories, for his ancestors, like mine, ran for the land. Look, see how he strokes red-clay Oklahoma hues, earth-rich colors in each compelling painting.
Our great-grandparents, newly freed from slavery, were not alone in escaping the continuing perils of the post-slavery South. Through Great-grandma Judy, I discovered that other African-Americans journeyed to Oklahoma during this little known, yet important period of American history.
When my Great-grandma Judy reached Oklahoma she helped build a robust new society, a place of democracy in which all people - African-Americans, Native Americans, and White Americans - were treated equally.
As I sit here at my desk and finish this letter to you this morning, it is my hope that all Americans will know for themselves the freedom, independence, and mutual cooperation that Judy Graham described during my enchanted Oklahoma visit. I believe that it is within the power of each and every one of us to create a land...
Where the (spirit of the) pioneer woman still lives
(Where) Her possibilities reach as far
As her eyes can see And as far as our imaginations can carry us
Joyce Carol Thomas
MARKED BY FIRE: DISCUSSIONS AND QUESTIONS
1. Marked by Fire is structured so that there are quotes at the beginning of each time period. How do they add to the novel? Ask the class to pick one and explain how it applies to the novel. For example, the quote on page 1 reads,
"How did you get here?" I asked. "Through fire!" Abby whispered.
Aside from the fact that Abby is branded by an ember from the fire at birth, how does this quote tell the story of her life? What role does fire play in the story?
2. "I am the daughter of patience and strength." Explain how this has allegorical as well as literal meaning. How do Abby's parents, Patience and Strong, influencer her? How do your parents influence you?
3. Lily Norene is Abby's best friend. How are the two girls different? How are you different from your best friend, and what is it that makes you friends?
4. Mother Barker plays an important role in Abby's life. How does she influence Abby's behavior as a child and as an adult? Who is the most influential person in your life? How does that person influence you? In positive ways? Negative ways? Both?
5. Abby is a special girl to almost everyone in Ponca City. But at an early age she also experiences a great deal of pain. One quote reads, "What did you taste in the kitchens of life?" "Sometimes the wonderful red juice of the berry...and sometimes the hull and peel of a bitter fruit." How does this quote describe Abby's experiences? What is her first embittering experience? Have you had experiences that have made you feel bitter?
6. How is Trembling Sally important to Abby? Why do you think she pursues Abby? What do you think Trembling Sally symbolizes?
7. When the Better Way Barber Shop is destroyed in the tornado, it seems to destroy Abby's father Strong as well. How does Strong's desertion affect Abby? How does it affect Patience? Why do you think Strong leaves the family he loves so much? How would you feel if he were your father?
8. Abby is raped by Brother Jacobs. "Soon she heard thunder, but there was o storm...she heard the raw cry of birds and felt the sky rain down mud." Here, and other significant points in the story, the author uses nature metaphorically. How does she do this? How does this give additional power to these scenes? Acts of nature or God are beyond human control. Do you think Brother Jacobs had control over what he did? Do you think Abby had any control in the situation? How does the rape affect her life and change her? What are the things in your life that you can control? What are the things that are beyond your control?
9. Abby says about the rape, "I felt like I was being spit on by God." What does she mean by this? Has she lost faith? And why does she give God back His gift-her singing voice? What does she think this will accomplish? Have you ever been so angry that you wanted revenge?
10. What does music mean to Abby? To the community of Ponca City? What does music mean in your life? Is there a specific song that is important to you? Why?
11. The county welfare women visits the Jackson household. How does her behavior offend Abby? Why does the county woman feel that she can act the way she does? Do you think that you are racially prejudiced? How do you treat a person whose race is different from your own?
12. Throughout the novel the people of Ponca City often speak as one voice, like a Greek chorus. Why? What purpose does this serve?
13. Patience advises, Fire is warmth and fire can burn...The holy water of women can mock the fires of hell." What does Patience mean? How are women important to Abby in the story?
14. At the end of the novel, how is Abby similar and yet very different from the other people in Ponca City? Abby is the new generation, as are you. How are you different from your parents? And what do you share with them?