Jeanine DeHoney is an accomplished author. She is a regular contributor to WOW: Women On Writing blog The Muffin, has an extensive portfolio as a freelance writer, and has published several short stories and essays as well. Our conversation covered much ground from writing, creativity, building strong communities, ending systemic inequity and racism, the healing power of music and the written word, and implementing positive changes.
Kathryn Schleich: Where did you grow up?
Jeanine DeHoney: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York in a neighborhood called Brownsville. Brownsville, which was predominately Jewish during the late 1800’s through 1950’s, had a major demographic change in the 1950s. Although Brownsville is known for its poverty and high incidence of crime, growing up as a child I saw flowers growing in a concrete jungle. We had neighbors who were like family, a jazz mobile that came on the weekend to entertain us, a bookmobile that came during the week, two libraries close by, women and men who registered residents to vote and held community meetings with political representatives to get better housing, schools and resources for the community, and who organized family events. They imprinted in my mind the goodness, creativity, power and love in Brownsville, outside of the love I had in my home with my parents and sister.
KS: Did you always have the desire to be a writer?
JD: I knew at the young age of seven I wanted to write, maybe because at that age I also loved to read.
KS: The love of reading often goes hand-in-hand with the love of writing. Do you recall the first piece you had published?
JD: My first piece of writing was published in a magazine entitled Black Romance. It was a nonfiction article that offered relationship advice. One of my proudest publications early on in my career though was an essay published in Essence Magazine. It’s such an esteemed magazine for Black women, and not only was I paid my first big fee I had a professional photographer come to my apartment to take a photo of me for the article. What was equally awesome was in that same issue, Winnie Mandela, South African anti-apartheid activist and politician who was the wife of the great anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was interviewed. To think she may have read my essay brought appreciative tears to my eyes … even to this day it does.
KS: What is your educational background?
JD: I always joke that I’ll be a lifelong college student. I attended Burlington County College in New Jersey when my husband was in the Army and majored in art but left when I became pregnant with my third child. After my husband left the service, we moved back to Brooklyn and I attended Brooklyn College for a semester while I worked fulltime. Though I’ve taken mini courses and workshops, like one through Cornell University School of Continuing Education to earn a Family Development Credential, working and raising children and having time and space to write as much as possible became more of a priority for me, but going back to college is on my “dream” list.
KS: Nothing wrong with that! We’re lifelong learners. As a former early childhood teacher and family Services Coordinator, how have those career paths influenced your writing?
JD: I worked in the neighborhood where I grew up in for over 20 years. Many of the parents I worked with were single head of household women and they shared so much of their life stories with me. I’ve always been impressed by their strength, determination, faith and confidence. No matter what they were going through personally, they shielded their children as best they could. These women, and yes, many awesome fathers, and of course my young students, definitely influenced my writing.
KS: Your haunting short story, “One August Morning,” was published earlier this year. How did you develop the idea for this piece?
JD: “One August Morning” was a story that flowed easily from my heart to my mind to my fingers when I sat down at my computer. I thought about an incident many years ago that happened while leaving my mother’s apartment, my childhood home, for a family weekend getaway. A young man in the building had lost his mind after his wife and child left him and had threatened to jump from the roof previously but had been talked down. That day, a Saturday, he jumped to his death. Before we left my mother’s apartment his body had been removed and the walkway washed down but I was so anxious I broke out in hives. The story is told from a little girl’s perspective. As for the jazz elements in the story, my father who was an inspiring jazz musician, in some ways figuratively lost a part of his spirit when he stopped playing his saxophone, as the character in my story did, who was a jazz musician.
KS: Both of your parents loved music and it seems a key component of your upbringing. Several of your stories revolve around music, particularly jazz. Are you paying homage to your parents when you write a story with a musical background?
JD: Yes, and also my maternal grandmother. She played a lot of gospel music in her home. Whenever I write about matriarchs in the family, they embrace many of her traits and are gospel lovers. My mother used to sing around the house all the time. As a young girl she once sang, “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and “Ave Maria” on a white radio station. My father played the saxophone and he even played at their wedding. He also introduced me to other musical legends besides jazz legends, such as Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and B.B. King.
KS: Shortly after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, you wrote a very poignant piece for WOW, “My Heart Hurts, My Pen Heals.” This was the first essay I saw written from an African American women’s perspective. You ended by asking others to join you to make change truly happen. In the months since, how are you as a writer being an instrument of change?
JD: I think all women and men felt wounded, like someone stuck a knife inside of us and turned it around inside. Even children who heard news bytes or eavesdropped on our conversations found this difficult to process. People of color have been so injured because of systematic racism and police brutality but even in our rage and grief, we have no choice but to press on, that is our nature, and the nature of our ancestors and civil rights leaders and activists. I continue to do what I’ve always done when there’s been the murder or maiming of a person of color due to racism. I write about it in the hopes of awakening people, I sign petitions, I donate money to the victims’ families and to those behind movements that support racial justice and equality such as Black Lives Matter. I donate money to food banks and shelters and support even more Black-owned businesses than I once did. I encourage family and friends to donate also and specifically to vote to invoke change. And at every chance I lift people of color up, so they’ll know their worth in a world that is too often tone death to their voices and strike them down because of the color of their skin. You have to choose what works for you when it comes to activism, just never choose silence or complacency.
KS: You have children and grandchildren. Have any of them caught the writing bug?
JD: From the time my three children could hold a pencil in their hand I encouraged them to write, the same with my grandchildren. All of them have a gift when it comes to writing, my oldest son has written urban fiction, my middle son film pitches, and my daughter poetry, but haven’t pursued it as a career yet. My grandson who is in his twenties had a fiction story published in Greystone Youth Literary & Visual Arts Journal when he was thirteen years old, writes rap lyrics and performs. My youngest granddaughter had a story published in Guardian Angel Magazine. And my other granddaughter writes plays that she and my youngest granddaughter perform in front of family.
KS: A very talented group! What about your own writing process.
JD: I just sit down at my computer and write. Plain and simple. I try to shut out all the noises around me and just focus on writing for as many hours as I can.
KS: What is writing advice you have ever received?
JD: Once I went to a conference in Brooklyn where inspirational speaker and life coach Iyanla Vanzant was a speaker. Afterwards I stood in line to get her autograph excited to tell her I was a published writer. She looked up at me after signing her autograph after I told her and sweetly said, “But what are you doing now?” That question and the intended message she wanted to convey has stuck with me. It reminds me to be proud of my accomplishments as a writer, but don’t stay in that lane for too long. If I do, I’ll be reminiscing more instead of writing and creating more opportunities to get published.
KS: Great advice. On the other side, what advice would you give aspiring writers?
JD: I would tell aspiring writers to believe in their ability to tell a story in their own unique way, no matter their level of education, where they come from, or what they may still be in the midst of overcoming. Also, I would say to encircle themselves with supportive family and friends or other writers who will cover them and send them positive vibes and offer wisdom and even cupcakes for those doubting days when they feel as if they’re not cut from a writer’s cloth. They are cut from that cloth if they have a passion for writing even if no one else thinks so.
KS: What would you like your legacy as a writer to be?
JD: I would like it to be that my words had the power to heal, inform, inspire, order someone’s steps, challenge someone’s thoughts, tauten someone’s faith, save someone’s life, and that they planted seeds of love and joy in someone’s heart.
KS: You are currently working on two books, a collection of essays and a novel. Wow! Can you talk a bit about each project?
JD: The novel is the one I am really trying to get submission ready, especially after getting a positive response from an agent about it a few years back. It’s about a matriarch named Alberta who has a dream in which she sees a vision of her late mother dressed in the color pink. The color pink is significant because as a young girl, her mother told her about a tragic incident in the South during Jim Crow, that caused her to have a disdain for the color pink because she thought it stood for death. Alberta takes that dream as a sign she will die soon and begins getting her house and family in order. As for the essays they are musings about life, some which were previously published in anthologies and on blogs.
KS: Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat!
JD: It’s been a pleasure doing this interview, Kathryn. I hope I encourage writers, young and old, to continue letting their writing soul leap out on as many blank pages as possible until the world is full of their stories.
Jeanine has had her writing published on numerous blogs and in magazines and anthologies. Her work has been featured in Essence, The Children’s Ark, Metro Fiction, My Brown Baby, The Write Place At the Write Time, Literary Mama, Mutha Magazine, True Stories Well Told, Parent Co., Brain Child Magazine, Jerry Jazz Magazine, Today’s Caregiver Magazine and Rigorous Literary Magazine. She is an essayist in the anthologies “Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul,” “Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between,” “Theories of HER,” “In Celebration of Sisters,” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Yes.”