A Gulf Coast town encrusted with generations of poverty and racism. A pregnant, motherless girl on the brink of womanhood feasting on dinners of crunchy Top Ramen noodles and warm sugar water. Meanwhile, Hurricane Katrina muscles its way along the coastline, slinkily pooling rolls of water across the landscape.
University MFA graduate Jesmyn Ward knows how to write about natural disasters because she lived through one. Many of the events described in her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” were colored by her own experiences during Katrina’s ravages in August 2005. Ward was recognized last month when the book was nominated for a National Book Award — one of the most prestigious awards in literature (Jonathan Franzen, Cormac McCarthy and Eudora Welty count themselves among the select coterie). Winners will be announced at an awards ceremony tomorrow.
Ward currently serves as an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama and is already working on a third book — a memoir. Though she has enjoyed a considerable amount of success as a writer — her thesis for the MFA program turned into her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds,” and she was chosen by Essence magazine as a Book Club Selection — she is not immune to the hardships of the profession.
“(Writing) can be really demoralizing; it can make you want to quit,” Ward said. “I wanted to quit before my first novel was published, definitely.”
Not to mention that the experience of Hurricane Katrina was so emotionally draining, Ward wasn’t able to get started on “Salvage the Bones” for several years.
Ward narrated that summer of Katrina: She had been staying with her family, enjoying a well-earned vacation in her hometown of DeIsle, Miss. following her graduation from the University — when the house began to flood.
“We had to leave out of the house in the middle of the storm because we didn’t want to crawl up to the attic and drown, which was a possibility because the water was rising so quickly,” she said.
Their original goal was to drive to a local church in pursuit of shelter. But with the water rushing in and fallen trees blocking the path, Ward’s family had no choice but to sit in an empty field full of tractors and watch the sheets of rainwater cascading down outside. When the family that owned the field came out in the middle of the storm to check on their possessions, Ward was struck by how unwilling the family was to invite them inside. She suspected racism.
“They told us to stay in the field until the storm passed, since they had too many people in the house to let us come in the house,” she said. “I thought they were probably lying … because they were white and we were black.”
And so the family sat. When the water level finally receded enough for them to progress farther down the road, Ward found another family at the next intersection that took them in for the remainder of the hurricane.
It wasn’t until three years after Katrina that Ward was able to reflect on her experiences in writing.
“It took me a while to commit to doing it,” she said. “I think it silenced me for a while. And I couldn’t deal with everything that had happened.”
The young writer spoke about the motivations involved in composing the novel. Nonfiction had never seemed like the right genre for her, because the themes exposed by Hurricane Katrina had more universal implications than mere personal account. And so she chose fiction to communicate these subjects of sacrifice, loss and poverty braided into the tragedy.
But Ward also wanted to write “Salvage the Bones” because she was fed up with uneducated questions from people who were not from the area.
“(They) would say stuff like, ‘I don’t understand why everyone didn’t evacuate’ and, ‘The reason that the storm hit the coast and did what it did … is because everyone’s soulless and godless,’ ” she said.
“They didn’t understand,” she added. “They didn’t understand the people; they didn’t understand the culture here; they didn’t understand the real impact the storm had.”