Rebecca Keith speaks with author Jesmyn Ward about her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, her second novel, is a tense build up to Hurricane Katrina on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as experienced by the family of fifteen year-old Esch, her three brothers, their father, and her brother Skeetah’s prize-fighting pit-bull, China. Ward takes readers through the training, posturing, and blood as Skeetah preps China, who is “one great tooth,” for a big fight. Early on, you find out that Esch is pregnant by her brother’s friend Manny, who won’t even look her in the eye. All the while, the family slowly gathers itself for Katrina. A static-choked weather report says “preparation . . . key.” Esch’s father tears down their chicken coop for wood to board up the windows, but the dimensions are off; a sliver of each window remains exposed. When the storm finally arrives, Ward drags you through twenty-four hours of utter terror. As much as you’ve read about Katrina, Ward’s account, through the eyes of Esch, leaves you absolutely wrecked. Esch thinks, “I wonder where the world where that day happened has gone, because we are not in it.”
Ward won the 2011 National Book Award in fiction for Salvage the Bones. She has been a Stegner fellow and is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. She answered a few questions about Salvage the Bones via email.
Rebecca Keith There are so many mother archetypes in the book: Medea, Esch’s mom, Esch, China to her puppies and to Skeetah, even Skeetah to China, and Katrina, the killer mother who’s compared to Medea (as is China). Esch’s father is ineffectual and beaten down, not absent but nearly so. Were these roles of strong mother figure and weak father figure necessary? Were they the only options for these characters? Did you draw the father this way to make Esch’s strength stand out more? On the other hand, Esch vacillates between strength and weakness, demonstrating the reality of teenage crushes, the power of a glance, or lack of a glance, to destroy a girl, the way one can focus all one’s energy on staring at someone, clocking his every move, without actually looking at him.
Jesmyn Ward I was nurturing the idea of writing a book about a girl who grows up in a world full of men for around two years before I began writing Salvage the Bones. Esch’s character was the seed for the book, really, and in order for her to exist in that lonely place without women, her mother had to be dead. The fact that she was such a strong presence, in life as well as death, was actually a surprise for me. As was the father’s weakness. I didn’t set out to make him a weak character; he walked on the page, and he was one, mostly, until he began surprising me, in small ways, with his strength. I do think the lack of a strong paternal presence allows Esch some freedom to flounder and find her way that she would not have if her father were more together and authoritative.
RK Salvage the Bones speaks to the metaphor of invisibility. Esch is unseen by Manny, both in his refusal to look at her and his not really seeing her when he does. She thinks, “I could be Eurydice walking through the underworld to dissolve, unseen.” There’s also the fetus growing unseen inside of her and her comparison of human “inside eggs” to searching for a hen’s eggs hidden outside, and lastly, the people suffering from Katrina unseen, unacknowledged by the government. Can you talk about this a little?
JW I think that Esch is very conscious of who she is and how that makes her invisible. She’s black, she’s poor, and she’s a girl growing into a woman, and she’s intuitively aware of how these identities marginalize her. This is why she thinks about invisibility in other areas so much; she’s trying to understand her place in the world, and this is where her thoughts lead her. When I decided to throw Katrina at the characters, part of the reason I did so was that I wanted people who are ignorant of the types of folks who didn’t evacuate to see these people as human, as intelligent and resilient as the watchers, but operating from a different history, a different perspective. And I wanted that perspective to be so real for readers that it hurt to read.
RK Esch’s pregnancy naturally brings up the economic realities of choice and access to birth control and abortion. For a good portion of the book she tries to ignore her swelling belly, much like the kids try to ignore the approaching storm. When she finally admits to herself she’s pregnant, she thinks, “These are my options, and they narrow to none,” having heard girls at school talk about non-medical ways to get rid of a pregnancy. She seems pretty set on having the child by the end of the novel even though she finally stands up to Manny. Is it just pure economics? Or that she feels motherhood is the role meant for her, like her mother, like Medea, like China the pit-bull mother? Why does she make that choice?
JW Esch doesn’t really have a choice. It’s damn near impossible to get access to an abortion in Mississippi. Jackson, the state capitol, might have a clinic that offers them. Women who choose abortion on the Mississippi coast have to travel to Mobile, AL or New Orleans. It takes five hours to drive from the north of the state to the south of the state; this is a big state: imagine being fifteen, with no access to a car or the money to have an abortion. Your choices, like Esch’s, narrow to one. You have the baby because choice doesn’t exist for you. So given this, Esch does the only thing she can; she figures out what it means to be a mother.
[Note: Should you need a refresher on state laws governing access to abortion— from parental consent to late term abortion, this site breaks it down, state by state: http://www.guttmacher.org/statecenter. Things like this: In 2008, 99% of Mississippi counties had no abortion provider. 91% of Mississippi women lived in these counties. Mississippi is one of four states which could easily ban abortion if Roe v. Wade were overturned.]
RK Other interviews have asked you why you choose to stay in Mississippi. It’s your home, so it seems like, of course you would stay there, no? Has much, or anything, changed in the area since Katrina?
JW It is my home; that’s why I stay. What’s funny is that except for a two year stint directly after Katrina, I’ve been living in other places since I was 18: California, New York, and Michigan. I’ve chosen to return now because I miss my people, and I miss the beauty of this place. I miss the feel of the air on my skin, that sense of familiarity, the weight of the humidity in the air. The smells. Everyone knows that there’s much that I hate about Mississippi, about the South. The only way that I can reconcile my hatred with my love is to fight; this is why I write my books and rail against Haley Barbour and the backward politics of this state any time I get a chance to do so. The Gulf Coast has changed since Katrina. There’s a lot of rebuilding, and people seem to be moving farther upcountry, trying to escape the water. It makes this place seem a little less wild, and that saddens me. But I do what I can with what I’m given. Sometimes I think that I might leave again, but today is not that day.
RK Why does Esch’s family choose to stay? It seems like they don’t really weigh the costs of staying versus going; they just shore up the house to stay. Evacuation isn’t even mentioned until the storm is well on its way and then only by the news. Is it their only option, to stay and try to defend the Pit, their home? Rather than attempting to fix his truck to escape, Esch’s father hopes to use it for salvage after the storm.
JW Something that I was trying to make clearer in the book is that many people down here never evacuate for any storms. Generations of families have never evacuated. In my extended family, which consists of over 100 people, nobody ever evacuates. Some of it has to do with tradition, and of course that tradition is influenced by economics. Who has the money to pack up everything we hope to save and all family members, transport them four hours away from the coast, and pay for hotel rooms? Few people realize that hurricane season is six months long, and that the Gulf Coast is menaced by storms all the time. Evacuating is a costly proposition. Most people stay upcountry with relatives when they can, and depend on the preparations Esch details in Chapter 10: this has enabled us to survive here for generations.
RK Esch and her family, in the Pit, are their own little island through most of the novel, visited by her brother Skeetah’s crew, but other than that, fairly isolated and doing their best to take care of themselves to survive. At the end, as Katrina is clearing, you see them walk to join the rest of the community, and their neighbors take them in, offering food and shelter. It’s a moment that can break you. In your Paris Review interview, you said that you saw people fighting over water after Katrina, which is the kind of picture that was painted in the news, given the lack of resources. Did your family experience any of the banding together, community support that occurred in the novel, or did you write that scene as more wishful thinking? Was it more every man out for himself after the disaster?
JW Every man wasn’t out for himself in this disaster, but my family and I did encounter ruthlessness during and after the hurricane. Hell, during the hurricane, we were denied shelter by a white family who told us they didn’t have enough room for us in their house to ride out the storm, since we’d fled our house when it flooded. We suffered through most of Hurricane Katrina in our trucks in that family’s field, terrified, watching the flood waters surge, the wind rip trees from the earth, and break power lines in two. But then near the end of the storm, we left that field, and we were taken in by another white family who’d been rescuing people who lived closest to the DeLisle bayou in a boat. After the storm, people banded together. My mother sent food down to our local park where a group of boys were living after Katrina destroyed their families’ houses in Pass Christian. But then again, when I received my first jug of water a few days after the storm from volunteers at the local fire station, on my walk home, a rude man yelled at me asking where I’d taken the water from, as if I’d stolen it. It was a difficult time. I know it’s cliché, but that disaster definitely brought out the best and worst of humanity.
RK Given the novel’s trajectory of the days leading up to Katrina, you probably didn’t have all that many options for sequencing of scenes. But how did you write the book? Did you go from A to B or jump around? Did you know how the storm scenes would play out from the beginning? Or did you write them first to take off the pressure of building up to them? Reading those last forty pages or so was so frantic and suspenseful—did a draft of that come out at once or did you have to labor over it?
JW I had no idea what would happen. When I began the book, I knew who the characters were, and around halfway through chapter one, I knew that these characters would face Hurricane Katrina at the end of the book, in chapter 11. But I had no idea what would happen in the middle. I find that I begin all of my fiction projects like that: I vaguely know the characters and the end, but I have no idea how they get there, and often it takes me a long time to find the entry point to the story, the beginning. But I wrote Salvage the Bones like I write everything: straight through, chapter by chapter. Two chapters took substantial revision: the dogfight chapter and the hurricane chapter. There were general problems of development and clarity there, so once I was done with the first draft, I had to do a substantial rewrite in those two places. The hurricane chapter was really hard to write because I felt as I were reliving that awful storm, and I had to keep reminding myself that this was about the characters’ experience of Katrina, and not my own.
RK One of your epigraphs is from an OutKast song (yay). Do you write to music? If so, what?
JW I love OutKast. Love them! Actually, I can’t write to music. It muddles the rhythm of the prose for me, so I need quiet when I write. But I listen to a lot of music when I’m mulling over the germ of a novel. When I was developing the ideas for my first book, Where the Line Bleeds, I was listening to a lot of Pastor Troy (thus, the epigraph). I was listening to a lot of OutKast when I was feeling out Salvage the Bones (thus, the epigraph). I’m a big champion of rap music, and I’m not ashamed to say that I love the smutty, thumping southern stuff as well as more conscious rap. But I like plenty of other music, too: old blues, indie rock, pop, opera, and classical. However, I choose to use quotes from rap in my books because I think people forget that rap is very much a lyrical art form, and there’s power in those words.
RK You’ve written a new novel, yes? What are you working on now, or are you giving yourself a break?
JW Well, I haven’t begun my next novel yet. I’m still mulling, and listening to a lot of music while I do so. I’m planning to begin soon. I am currently revising my third book, which is a memoir about a very specific time in my life, from 2000-2004, when five young black men from my community died. The first was my brother, who was hit by a drunk driver in October of 2000. The memoir is attempting to figure out why an epidemic like that would happen in a place like this: small, rural, working class, and southern.
RK On your blog when Salvage the Bones came out, you wrote, “I always imagined that I’d do an interview for the novel, and a special picture would accompany it: me, hair wild, wearing a tank top and cut off jean shorts, barefoot, Mississippi green wild all around me, holding a leash while a dog, big and red, stands at my feet, mouth open, teeth white. Both of us, grinning. I’m getting generous reviews and given several good interviews, but this hasn’t happened yet. I’m still hoping.” If you have such a picture, I’m sure BOMB would be happy to run it next to this interview.
JW It’s actually been chilly and foggy and rainy here in Mississippi, which means I was not able to take this picture. This makes me very sad, since it seems that I’m missing my chance to have this daydream come true. But I plan to take this picture this summer, and then I’m sending you a copy.
Rebecca Keith’s poems and other writing have appeared in Best New Poets, The Laurel Review, The Rumpus, The Awl, Dossier, The Millions, and elsewhere. A native of downtown New York, Rebecca is a founder, curator, and host of Mixer Reading and Music series. She also sings and plays guitar and keyboards in Butchers & Bakers and the Roulettes.