Jesmyn Ward: Waiting for Katrina
Friday, October 28, 2011
Jesmyn Ward was at the tail end of her summer break when Hurricane Katrina struck her hometown of Delisle, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast. In the days leading up to the storm, she was supposed to return to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to start teaching. "But because I’m always so homesick,” she tells Kurt Andersen, “I thought, I’ll just stay here till the last moment. I’ll stay here through the hurricane, then I’ll drive up to Michigan. I totally underestimated the storm." She had to escape a house filling with water so quickly that her family feared they would drown in the attic.
That harrowing experience inspired Ward’s new novel, Salvage the Bones. It was just nominated for the National Book Award for fiction. It’s a rare depiction of contemporary African-American life in a rural setting, on the wooded outskirts of a small town.
Salvage the Bones centers on Esch, a 15-year-old girl in a house full of boys and men. Over ten days leading up to Katrina, Esch and her brothers are preoccupied with their own, serious dilemmas, while only their father — drunk and ineffectual — grasps the urgency of their peril.
But it was a more familiar tragedy that made Jesmyn Ward the writer she is: a car accident that claimed the life of her younger brother. "He taught me an important lesson, that — it’s so clichéd but — we’re not promised anything, and we can die at any time … What could I do with my life that if I did die in a month, or a year, or tomorrow, whenever, that I would feel that I’d lived a life worth living, and done something that makes me happy? ... And so I went against my better judgment, which told me that I should study for the LSAT and go to law school, and I decided to commit to writing.”
UPDATE: In November 2011, Jesmyn Ward's book received the National Book Award for fiction.
Bonus Track: Jesmyn Ward reads from Salvage the Bones