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.
You preface both your novels with epigraphs from Southern rappers and the Bible. How have these two disparate traditions informed your work?
Biblical myth is as integral to the spirit of the South as the heat and humidity. The epigraphs acknowledge that history. Hip-hop, which is my generation’s blues, is important to the characters that I write about. They use hip-hop to understand the world through language.
There is also an epigraph from the poet Gloria Fuertes. How important is poetry to you?
I’m a failed poet. Reading poetry helps me to see the world differently, and I try to infuse my prose with figurative language, which goes against the trend in fiction. While I admire writers who are able to write with a vitality based on order and action, I work in a different vein. I often feel that if I can get the language just right, the language hypnotizes the reader.
As a writer from the South, you are fated to be compared with Faulkner. How do you contend with his legacy?
The first time I read As I Lay Dying, I was so awed I wanted to give up. I thought, “He’s done it, perfectly. Why the hell am I trying?” But the failures of some of his black characters—the lack of imaginative vision regarding them, the way they don’t display the full range of human emotion, how they fail to live fully on the page—work against that awe and goad me to write.
How did you come up with the title Salvage the Bones?
The word salvage is phonetically close to savage. At home, among the young, there is honor in that term. It says that come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope. When you stand on a beach after a hurricane, the asphalt ripped from the earth, gas stations and homes and grocery stores disappeared, oak trees uprooted, without any of the comforts of civilization—no electricity, no running water, no government safety net—and all you have are your hands, your feet, your head, and your resolve to fight, you do the only thing you can: you survive. You are a savage. Bones is meant to remind readers what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy strikes.
Your protagonist Esch obsesses over the myth of Medea, the Greek sorceress who slaughters her children to punish her husband for taking a new bride. Where do you see Medea in the book?
Medea is in China most directly. China is brutal and magical and loyal. Madea is in Hurricane Katrina because her power to unmake worlds, to manipulate the elements, closely aligns with the storm. And she’s in Esch, too, because Esch understands her vulnerability, Medea’s tender heart, and responds to it.
It infuriates me that the work of white American writers can be universal and lay claim to classic texts, while black and female authors are ghetto-ized as “other.” I wanted to align Esch with that classic text, with the universal figure of Medea, the antihero, to claim that tradition as part of my Western literary heritage. The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one.
We are at this weird moment with teen moms. They are vilified and yet made into reality stars.
We are at a weird moment. Their popularity as reality stars rests on an assumption of morality and repugnance by the viewer. These young women are still spectacle. It’s interesting that few of the girls on 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom are black. The figure of the black teen mother continues to loom large in our public consciousness, and we’re not willing to speak about the ethnic and class stereotypes associated with it because they’re still too useful to some.
Dog fighting has also been demonized, particularly in the wake of the Michael Vick scandal. At the heart of your book is this incredible relationship between Skeetah and China. Where did China come from?
My father owned pit bulls when I was young. He sometimes fought them. My brother and a lot of the men in my community owned pit bulls as well: sometimes they fought them for honor, never for money. My father’s favorite and sole pit bull was so dear to us that sometimes it was my babysitter; I remember sitting in our dirt driveway as a six-year-old crying because I was alone while that dog licked me. But then I also remember the dog fighting, and being incredible fierce. After my brother died, his pit bull was a living link to him.
Do you think of your writing as political?
After I finished my first draft of Salvage the Bones, I felt that I wasn’t political enough. I had to be more honest about the realities of the community I was writing about. After my brother died in the fall of 2000, four young black men from my community died in the next four years—from suicide, drug overdose, murder, and auto accidents. My family and I survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005; we left my grandmother’s flooding house, were refused shelter by a white family, and took refuge in trucks in an open field during a Category Five hurricane. I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive. I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.