If you grew up going to church, you already know Psalm 139. Even if you didn’t, parts of it are floating around your brain. It is a favorite of pro-life people, because it talks about God recognizing us in the womb, taking care of us, and knowing how we’ll turn out. (It is also—I’d bet money on this—the source of our hundred-year-old American expression “search me.”)
Psalm 139 gets my vote for being the most beautiful of the psalms in the King James version. The other day I happened to read it in French and it left me cold—it conjured up surveillance—whereas the high-low diction of the King James translators sings and is intimate, because you would only sing this way to a God you loved: “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me.” It’s like an advertisement for the English language. Read More
My apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is of the standard prewar varietal, with the faint chicken-soup-in-the-stairwell smell familiar to any New Yorker and an elevator that goes up to fourteen. And by fourteen, I mean, of course, thirteen. In this respect it is standard too; the elevator, made by Otis (I paused to double-check as I was writing this), indulges our collective superstition and forces those on the top floor to live a peculiar quotidian fiction.
In taller buildings, of course, everyone above twelve is technically living a lie, albeit of the white sort. This is a bit of magical thinking that never fails to delight me on even the darkest day. Read More
You will likely have noticed by now the writerly fashion of building an essay by numbered sections. These sections can vary from just a single sentence to many pages. Sometimes a section will bear one or more indentations or line breaks and will stretch into a mini-essay. Sometimes there will be as few as three sections and sometimes there will be more than a hundred.
Writers, such as God, have been numbering sections for a very long time indeed, and I do not wish to suggest that this technique is new, rather that it is increasingly used. My proof is a general sense that this is happening, nursed into conviction by a robust confirmation bias.
Quite often these sections comprise a series of declarative sentences, near aphorisms, sayings that, breathed from the lips of drunks, would by most of us be taken in, swished around and then spat out.
These sections comprise wild declarative sentences, aphorisms, sayings that, belched from the throats of drunks, would be swished around and then spat out.
To take one example, “The only picture that it seems appropriate to paint in 2012 is a painting of people having their picture taken by famous paintings.”
Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in the fictional Mississippi Gulf town of Bios Sauvage in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. It centers on Esch—fourteen years old and pregnant—and Esch’s family in the aftermath of her mother’s death in childbirth. Her alcoholic and abusive father readies the house for the storm; her brother Randal dreams of a basketball scholarship; her brother Skeetah obsesses over China, his prize pit bull; and Junior, the youngest, clamors for attention. Bois Sauvage, also the setting of her first novel Where the Line Bleeds, was modeled on Ward’s hometown of De Lisle, Mississippi. Ward, the first person in her family to attend college, received her MFA from the University of Michigan and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She teaches at the University of South Alabama.
Why did you want to write about Hurricane Katrina?
I lived through it. It was terrifying and I needed to write about that. I was also angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the storm. Finally, I wrote about the storm because I was dissatisfied with the way it had receded from public consciousness. Read More