Interview: Jesmyn Ward

By Catherine Masters

When Hurricane Katrina was at its fiercest, a white family refused to let Jesmyn Ward's family take refuge in their house. Photo / Steven McNicholl
When Hurricane Katrina was at its fiercest, a white family refused to let Jesmyn Ward's family take refuge in their house. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Joshua was the first. Jesmyn Ward was 23 when her 19-year-old brother was killed by a drunk driver.

The loss was profound. That was in 2000 and over the next four years, four more young male friends from Mississippi would die; a suicide, a murder, a car hit by a train, a drug-induced heart attack.

In 2001, Ward was working in New York when the World Trade Centre was attacked and the Twin Towers collapsed. She walked the 40 blocks home through the dust and smoke on pavements crowded with the shocked.

In 2005, she was at home with her family in small-town DeLisle, Mississippi, in America's deep south, when Hurricane Katrina struck.

When the storm was at its craziest, she was in a truck in a field, terrified, while a white family refused to let her black family inside their house to shelter.

Growing up, Ward knew poverty and struggle, along with immense family love and loyalties and all the contradictions therein.

Her dad taught her kung fu and used to fight the family pitbull and her mum was a maid for white people.

A sister got pregnant at 12, her parents broke up and she was bullied at school. And, of course, there was always racism to be faced. The young Creole woman is a novelist whose life reads like a novel.

She is in Auckland for the Writers & Readers Festival and when you meet her, you find she is not all sadness and anger, though you might expect that she is - she did once blog: "Writing, at least for me, is often about exploring the f******-up life, the wretched family, the estranged reality.

"It's about crawling into the mud. It's about exploring people whose lives walk the thin edge separating happiness from despair. This place, this history, cages them."

Her blog also reveals she loves drinking moonshine with her family, walking pitbulls, voodoo, swamps, cranes (the birds), cupcakes, crawfish and swimming in rivers.

She also loves Harry Potter (sometimes she just wants something fun to read) and Xena Warrior Princess, admitting to looking at Lucy Lawless' fan page from time to time because "I'm such a dork".

She thinks she likes the show because she felt powerless as a kid - bullied by black kids because she was small and white kids because she was black and small.

She loved this world where girls could be protagonists and heroes, where, in her blog language, they were kick-ass girls.

An intensity hovers behind Ward's direct eye contact, though at heart, she says, she is quiet and shy, an introvert.

But she is also the equivalent of an Oscar-winner in the writing world.

Last year, her second novel, Salvage the Bones, won the US National Book Award for fiction. That's big.

She surprised herself by winning, she says, and also surprised herself at what emerged in the book as she wrote it.

The story is fiction but there are elements of herself in there, and definitely of where she comes from, and the story is informed by her experience of Hurricane Katrina.

But Hurricane Katrina is not really what the book is about.

The hurricane forms a backdrop and climax but really the book is about a girl among boys, a family of siblings whose mother has died and who love each other the best they can.

The young pregnant Esch, her brother Skeetah and his pitbull dog China are the main characters.

You can live and breathe them and sometimes smell their lives, I say.

Ward replies with a warm "thank you." She seems modest still, though she must be getting used to praise.

Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles wrote that Salvage the Bones had the aura of a classic about it.

High praise and high pressure, Ward says.

It was her brother's death that "committed" her to becoming a writer and at 35 she is also an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. Her current work-in-progress is not a novel but a memoir about all those young men who died, as she tries to figure out how that could be.

In Salvage the Bones there are 12 chapters representing 12 days, 10 before Hurricane Katrina, one during and one after.

There are dog fights that are shocking, and she is used to this reaction. But this was also part of her world. Her dad's dog, Homeboy, was the family pet, which he fought not for money but for honour.

Despite the savagery of the fights, the pitbulls she knew were loyal and affectionate. She remembers Homeboy babysitting her once, or so she thought at the time.

She didn't know her mother was home and, thinking she was alone, she cried on the dirt driveway. Homeboy came and licked away her tears.

There's another entry in her blog from 2007 describing a conversation with an ex-boyfriend about all the "bad s***" that had happened to her family ... "the infighting, my brother dying at 19, one sister pregnant at 12, the other at 20, the constant financial struggle, the drug addiction, all the absent men ... (the ex said) 'it's because of where you're from. It's because everyone's poor and black.'

Ward wrote: "Living in Mississippi, again makes me realise that what (the ex) said is mostly true. That this place shapes us." Reading Ward's blog can feel a little nosy, even if it is online. Some of her entries seem very personal, and she agrees that perhaps when she wrote them she wasn't expecting the level of attention she is now getting.

She recalls the conversation with the ex, which took place during her time at Stanford University.

She felt an outsider and alienated and this made her angry - "that they had those kinds of lives and I didn't, and the people I knew didn't, and I couldn't understand why that was the case. I remember having this discussion with him, 'why do these things happen, it's like one thing after another,' and that's where he said, 'it's because of where you are from."'

Place is very important in her work. All those factors shaped her experience, "history and socio-economic inequality and all those things had, like, borne down upon my family and my community and really sort of narrowed our choices."

She pours all this into her books, wanting readers to make the connections, but through the characters and their stories.

Most important to her is that the characters live on the page and take on a life of their own. They are alive for her but she's not sure exactly where they come from.

The idea for Salvage the Bones came from the idea of a girl growing up in a world full of men. That girl became Esch.

But even with Esch, she couldn't begin the book because she didn't know what the story was going to be, and she didn't know who Esch's family was.

Then she discovered that Skeetah - who she had found during a writing class some years ago - was Esch's brother and China was his dog, and then she could begin.

It was a nice surprise for her, she says, to realise Skeetah was one of Esch's brothers.

She had a vague idea that at the end of the book the family would face the hurricane together and so she began at the beginning and worked her way through the middle "always a surprise for me" to the hurricane at the end.

Ward is from a place where people are on intimate terms with hurricanes so as we talk Hurricane Katrina is often just called Katrina.

She says she wanted to write about Katrina because after the storm she encountered people who had "really awful ideas" about those who did not leave and those who returned. This bothered her greatly.

Her family did not evacuate and they never have, she says. Hurricane season is six months long and in a bad summer there are many different storm systems to be watched.

It's not financially feasible to evacuate every time a storm is coming, "so you just sort of hope that either they won't be as strong as the meteorologist is saying they'll be, or you hope they'll veer off and either hit Florida or veer off and dissipate in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere."

And you prepare; hammering wood across windows and getting in canned food and water.

"We survived like that for generations, that's what we do, we don't evacuate ..."

When Katrina hit, Ward and family had gone to her grandmother's house but the water rose so fast they didn't want to drown in the attic.

So they "sort of swam out" getting into trucks which hadn't blown away or been taken by the water, and they drove as far as they could.

The wind was uprooting trees and it was flooding, powerlines were down, and they ended up in a field of tractors.

The white owners came out to check on their tractors and knocked on the door to the truck, seeing Ward and her mother and stepfather, her elderly grandparents and her eight-months pregnant 20-year-old sister, and told them there was no room in the house.

She remembers thinking, they wouldn't even offer a corner of the house for her family to stand in.

The truck was shaking back and forth and she thought they would die.

Being out in the middle of a category five hurricane in a field, is terrifying: "You're able to see all around you and you see the hurricane ripping the world apart, because that's what it does."

She didn't write for 2 years after Katrina so is thoughtful about whether writing could help people in Christchurch with their experiences.

Though she has insights into disaster, says she can't imagine living through aftershock after aftershock.

But part of the reason she wrote Salvage the Bones, and called it that, she says, is not just because of the universal stories of family, of love and loyalty, of motherhood and womanhood. There is another universal theme, which is the human capacity to survive.

Maybe this is what she can offer Christchurch, she says, as someone who has been through a couple of disasters.

When Esch in the book tells the father of her baby she is pregnant he rejects her and she sits in a ditch.

As she cries her brother Randall comes and asks for help as Hurricane Katrina brews, and Ward says the girl says to herself 'if this is strength, or if this is weakness, this is what I do, I get up because I have to, what else is there to do.'

"And I think that human beings are like that," says Ward. "I mean, I think we fight every day. You know, we salvage the bones of our lives every day, through small tragedies and big tragedies."

Weekend talks
Jesmyn Ward at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival
Today: 11.30am-12.30pm, Fisher & Paykel auditorium, University of Auckland.
Tomorrow: 2.30-3.30pm. ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre.

- NZ Herald

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