Maxine Thompson

Maxine Thompson
No Pockets In A Shroud

Interviewed by: Lauretta Pierce
October 3, 2004

Q. How did you come about the idea to write No Pockets In A Shroud?

A. This was a story idea that had been waiting for me to write all my life. I wrote this novel from 1995 to 1997 and published the first edition in 1997. The story is about the separation of black mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and family members in general from the time of the middle passage. I also look at how this pattern has found its way down through African American history. I wrote it to break the cycle.

Q. How did you come about the title?

A. After I completed my novel, I had no title. On January 1, 1996, I found the poem, "No Pockets in a Shroud," on the obituary of my great-aunt, who was 108 ˝ years old when she passed. I take it that this was an old-fashioned saying for, "You can't take it with you." Many times authors do not know why God gives them a title, but in the past 4 years, I came up with this interpretation of my title. In one connotation, pockets means "to gain." To shroud denotes "to hide." Thus, my title means, "There is no gain in hiding the truth." As the story is about family secrets and lies, the title fits. Also, the cemetery figures as a metaphor throughout the book. One character is looking for her family tree, her roots. In the end, her answers are all to be found in the cemetery where, ironically, her physical life started. Like life, too much history winds up in the grave.

Q. Did your great-aunt Elsie have some influence in your writing this book?

A. I feel all the ancestors in my life going back to Africa influenced this book. I had no idea where this writing gene came from. I knew my father was a great raconteur, and my mother a spoken word poet around the house, (that's before they called it that,) but to find out my great-Aunt Elsie was a poet! Then it made sense. It's as if my ancestors cried out from their graves for me to write this story down. I probably came from a line of griots or scribes back in Africa, but they had stories which were not written down after slavery. NPIS is about family coming apart and coming back together. It is about the call of blood. This, for me, is my favorite novel. It was so inspired in the spirit, it bought miracles about in my personal life.

Q. How did you come about the names: Nefertiti, Pharaoh, Isaac, Nigel and Joshua.

A. Nefertiti, as the lead character, was named after a Black queen who was the queen of Egypt and wife of Ikhnation. I wanted her to be perceived as a Black Scarlett O'Hara that men fought over. Pharaoh was the title of the kings in ancient Egypt. In NPIS, Pharaoh was Nefertiti's first love and perhaps her soul mate. Sadly, their love was never fulfilled due to the circumstances and timing. I took Isaac's name from the Bible. His name means "laughter" in Hebrew. When Sarah found out she was pregnant with Isaac at the age of 90, she laughed. Later, in a bitter state of mind, Isaac feels like life has played a mean trick on him, since he was the butt of other children's jokes while growing up. Although he became a famous playwright, he never finds happiness until he returns to the mother. In a Chinese book, the Tao te Ching, the word for freedom in the first written language, meant "return to mother." Nigel's name just came to me and it hinted at arrogance, old money. In the Bible, Joshua led the battle of Jericho, so I think that's why I chose that name. I saw Rev, whose real name was Joshua, as a warrior just like his biblical namesake. I grew to love him later when I looked at the situation he found himself in as a proud Black minister, but writing the book, I didn't like Rev. Ironically, Little Josh, Rev's namesake, was not near the man his father was. He was shallow and only a shadow of whom he could've been-had he followed his own heart.

Q. Why did you choose to not let Nefertiti know the secret Miss Magg was keeping?

A. I chose this ambiguous ending, because in real life everything is not always resolved. Often we carry secrets to the grave. I believe that many times, we will not understand why this or that happened until after we die.

Q. What message would you like readers to receive from Calissa's situation?

Throughout history, women have been victims of society, of their sexuality, and of their time period that they were born in. There was a time when women lost their children if they did not get married (through being unwed mothers) or if they divorced their husbands. This sounds archaic now. In NPIS,Calissa's marriage was so unbearable, she did the unthinkable-she walked off for a man she loved and left her child. This was unheard of in the 1950's and particularly in the small fictional town, Shallow's Corner.

Q. What message would you like readers to receive from Nefertiti having to give up her child?

A. Given the African-American history of children being sold from mothers and fathers, in the black community, adoption has always been a somewhat taboo subject. I hope readers take away a message of healing. For birth mothers who give up their child for a better life, there may be a time of reunion. For adult adoptees, many will find out the truth about their background for them to heal. The truth sets everyone free. As an epigram to Part II of NPIS, I used the West African proverb, "A people without knowledge of their history, is like a tree without roots." On one level, I was speaking of the broken family tie going back to slavery when the great-grandfather escaped and started a new family line. As for the main character, Nefertititi's daughter had been given up in a closed adoption so she did not know her family history. On a universal level, I'm speaking of the African Diaspora and how the families and tribes were separated from one another.

Q. What message would you like readers to receive from Miss Magg's situation?

A. Miss Magg was also a victim of her time in history and her upbringing. Her and Calissa's situation mirror one another, but Miss Magg took a different route. That's all I'm going to say. Please read the book to find out what happened…

Q. Will there be a sequel to No Pockets In A Shroud?

A. At this time, I don't think so, but I'll consider it.

Q. Do your readers want to know more about Nefertiti and Desiree's relationship?

A. I may develop the post-reunion relationship in a future book. You're putting ideas in my head.

Thank you for this thought-provoking interview.