Julie Dash discusses Daughters of the Dust on banresandnoble.com
by Julie Dash
Published: Friday, December 19, 1997

Moderator: Welcome, Ms. Dash! We are so pleased you can join us this evening! Do you have any opening comments?

Julie Dash: I’m glad to be here. I’m always on the site, so this is really a pleasure!

Moderator: Well then, let’s dive into the questions.


Alexis from Hartford, CT: For those of us who don’t know, can you tell us about the inspiration for your film "Daughters of the Dust"?

JD: OK. The movie takes place in 1902, and it’s about a family of women, the Peazant family — about women who are carrying their culture and traditions into the future. [It’s] set on a small Sea Island, among the coastal islands off South Carolina and Georgia. The book takes up 24 years later, in New York, in Harlem. The granddaughter of one of those women who migrated from that island, who is an anthropology student from Brooklyn College, goes back to that island to learn more about her family.

George from LA: Kirkus said that DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST chronicles a now-vanished way of life. Do you think that’s true?

JD: I don’t think that’s true at all. That way of life still exists. The Geechee people live and thrive on the Sea Islands.

Nicolas from Denver: Do you have a writing mentor?

JD: I wish. I try to read, and I work with my editor.

Jeannie from Clifton, NJ: Are there plans to make this novel into a film?

JD: When I began this project there were no plans to make this novel into a film, but I’ve been getting a lot of questions about it, and I’m beginning to think about it. I’d like to. At the same time, I’m anxious to move away from historical drama. I have some contemporary stories I’d like to do as movies, and one that’s futuristic.

Brigitta from New York, NY: I was really surprised to learn that Miss Evangeline had been married to Trent, and that they had ever parted ways. What prompted you to include this subplot? How do you think it contributed to the whole? P.S. I really enjoyed the book!

JD: Well, I wanted to talk about intermarriages. I wanted to talk about mixed marriages in the ’20s, when it was really illegal. And I wanted to look at African Americans who have passed for white. And I thought it would make a great plot twist!!!

Lisa from Berkeley: A recent New York Times article mentioned that you had been unable to sell Hollywood a movie about a black female computer genius. When do you think movie moguls will be ready for a film like this?

JD: They’ll be ready when I do that as an independent film. It’s hard for Hollywood to do something new, but they’ll definitely copy someting new from the independents. So I’ll probably do it myself first. I have plans to do it. I’m seeking independent financing, and I’m also doing a CD-ROM with my partner Floyd Webb. All this is independent of big-budget financing.

Larry from Boston, MA: How important do you think getting an M.F.A. or other postgraduate degrees is for writing?

JD: If a publisher approaches you and you have an M.F.A. in veterinary studies, I’ll bet you write that book anyway. So no, it doesn’t really matter. It was a challenge, and I’m always up for a challenge. And moving from screenplays to novel form was humbling because I became a student again suddenly. I began reading [about] novel and structure. I just had no idea what I could do. The structure and internal dialogue is so different from a screenplay form.

Aisha from Blue Point, LI: You’re from Long Island City, right? What prompted you to base your stories in the South Carolina Sea Islands?

JD: Because of the connection I have with my father’s family there, and my grandmother who still lives there. It’s a wonderful, magical place. I made my first trip down there when I was five.

Jane from La Jolla: Is your work at all autobiographical? I realize that the time period in which your work takes place can’t be, but are any of the characters modeled after you?

JD: No, none of the characters are modeled after myself, and most of my characters are usually compilation figures. I combine several people I know, or I just make them up, or sometimes they just walk in the door asking questions. I think of the old Trent character — I didn’t know that he was going to be married to Evangeline; they were two separate subplots that seemed to fit. I thought, "Well…" and it just happened. It’s organic, it grows itself. If Miss Evangeline and Trent hadn’t been married, I would have had to shorten the story about Misses Genevieve and Evangeline. It would have been too heavy, so that subplot really became a structural device.

Moses from Brooklyn: Did you learn Gullah in the process of making the movie and writing the book? If yes, was it difficult to learn?

JD: Gullah is difficult. I know the sound of Gullah from listening to my father and grandmother. I was not a speaker. Gullah expert Verta Mae Grovesner went through all of my dialogue and made sure it was correct. Gullah is English spoken with a West African syntax. So where the verb and the subject is placed is different, but the words used are English. For instance, the phrase "when the sun go down for red" means "sunset" or "I’ll meet you at sunset." That’s the time of day they’re referring to. I always liked that phrase. A lot of code-switching goes on between Gullah and English. Children were not allowed to speak Gullah in school. I think they’re still not allowed. It may make the book difficult to read, but I did it to preserve the dialogue somewhat before it’s lost.

Maia from Germantown, PA: What’s your next project?

JD: My next book or film? The next book is a love story called VETIVER, JASMINE AND ZEN. I’m calling it my Perfume trilogy. It’s a story about a young woman’s life, which was influenced by these fragrances. I’m writing it right now. The next film project is DIGITAL DIVA: a computer encryption thriller, where the woman is not a victim, and her life is not being taken over by technology. That movie THE NET was totally ridiculous! I laughed all the way through it. Hollywood just likes to see women in peril, women in distress. And a piece called THE COLORED CONJURERS. I did a screenplay which I optioned for that. It’s about a family of traveling magicians. The idea was presented to me by two Atlantic filmmakers, Eric Mofford and Michael Catalano. I though it was great the moment I read it. We’re trying to get Hollywood interested in it, but they balk at "African American magicians"!!! We’re pitching it everywhere we can.

Jenna from Arlington,VA: Amelia’s premise for returning to the Sea Islands, her education, is a means by which many African Americans, including myself, have rediscovered their heritage. Please comment…. Thank you!

JD: Ya, it’s a universal metaphor — using your schoolwork for finding out about the heritage of your family. It’s very much about the soul and spirit of Zora Neale Hurston (who was an anthropologist and a fiction writer). She did her writing in the dialects of the region in which she worked. That’s why I always include recipes, to give people more knowledge about a culture they know nothing about. That sort of texture is really helpful and, I think, necessary to include. I find people make a lot of assumptions about the South — the drawl, for instance. The Geechee dialect has no drawl! And the food is very different. They eat a lot of seafood, they’re island people!

Bea from Alexandria, VA: I noticed on your Web site a recipe for "Mummy Dash’s Gumbo." Do you have any other favorite dishes?

JD: Yes, in fact there’s another book out called THROUGH THE KITCHEN WINDOW, by Arlene Avarkian, in which I have a recipe, "Aunt Gertie’s Red Rice." It’s really quite interesting, check it out! There’s a shrimp loaf, but I couldn’t tell anyone how to make it! Geechees can do anything with shrimp!

Georgia from Charleston, SC: I love the strong, maternal figures in your book. Have there been figures like that in your own life?

JD: Yes, absolutely. Most of the characters are compilation figures of several women together. I like to see strong women, but I like to see strong, interesting women. I like to see strong, interesting women who are at a pivotal moment in their lives. But no, these figures are not based on single people.

Katrin from Haverford, PA: After reading your book, I read Paule Marshall’s PRAISESONG FOR THE WIDOW. She incorporates Africanisms into her work, like the Ring Shout, which I think I noticed in your work. Am I right? Please comment…

JD: Ya, PRAISESONG FOR THE WIDOW, that’s a favorite book of mine. The ring shout is very common. In fact, I purchased some dialogue from Paule Marshall for the film. It’s about the Ibo Landing. I had written dialogue for the Ibo Landing, but when I read her book, I was greatly impressed and decided to contact her instead. There’s a lot of that sort of tradition in the Sea Islands. And if you didn’t know what to look for, you wouldn’t know what you were seeing. I try to bring details to the book that people who are not informed about the culture may not notice.

Megan from Seattle: Do you know where the legend of the Ibo Landing began? It’s mentioned in a lot of works…

JD: That’s interesting. What drew my attention to Ibo Landing is that it is mentioned among the people in so many different areas of the island. They lay claim to it all over the place — "It happpened right here." It’s amazing. Because it’s about Africans, after having been unloaded from the ships. And they wanted so desperately to go back home, so that whole families just walked into the water, chains and all. The chains pulled them down. It’s been retold so many different ways and mythologized, the Ibo Landing is such a great part of African American culture. In Paule Marshall’s book, she places the Landing on Edisto Island. But there is also a place on St. Simon Island, which is supported by many scholars. And there are also some reports of the Landing happening off of Beaufort Island in Georgia. So I think Ibo Landing is basically in the hearts of the people, both black and white. There’s also a Nigerian filmmaker living in London (maker of TERRA DOME) who has talked about the Ibo Landing. So the story made it back to Africa and is in the lore there. It’s an amazing circularity. TERRA DOME starts with the drownings of the Ibo Landing, and then the captives wake up after the year 2000 to an entirely new world. So this is an established mythology of the Sea Island region, and they don’t even teach it in school. It’s a marvelous wealth of ideas down there, a gold mine. There’s a lot more to do.

Neal from Bakersfield, CA: What is your favorite book? You know, the one you’ve read over and over again. Why?

JD: It’s Toni Morrison’s SULA and Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD. SULA I read over and over because she is such a complex African-American woman. She is a black female we have never seen in mass-market America. She has never been on the big screen. I guess you could say it’s desire attraction! Hurston’s book: I love the magnificent, epic scope. She is a very strong, powerful, complex women. You’ve never seen her in mass media, either, and how long ago was that written? Yet you’ve never seen that Janie character on the big screen for a white woman or black woman. Like in LEGENDS OF THE FALL, it’s so common to see male characters who are doing so much, never the women. So women have to imagine that you are the male character, you have to keep [translating]. It would be nice to just watch, you know?

Moderator: Thanks for indulging our curiosities here tonight, Ms. Dash! Best of luck with future projects — which we hope you’ll discuss with us as well. Good night and Happy Holidays!

JD: Thank you, and have a safe, wonderful, and happy holiday!