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Writer Jesmyn Ward reflects on survival since Katrina

August 24, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
After writer and Tulane University professor Jesmyn Ward survived Hurricane Katrina while staying at her grandmother’s house, she wrote “Salvage the Bones,” an award-winning novel about a Mississippi family in the days leading up to the devastating storm. She joins Gwen Ifill to discuss how the storm affected the rural poor who could not escape, and now, who may not be able to return.
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GWEN IFILL: Survival is a running theme in every discussion of Katrina, whether in prose or poetry or music.

Tulane Professor Jesmyn Ward, who grew up along the coast in Mississippi and rode out the storm with her family there, used her experience to tell that story through the eyes of the rural poor who could not escape. Her subsequent novel, “Salvage the Bones,” won the National Book Award.

I met her this week on the Tulane campus.

Jesmyn Ward, thank you so much for talking to us.

When you wrote this book, “Salvage the Bones,” you chose to tell the story of Katrina by not telling the story of Katrina, by telling the story of people whose stories are not normally told. Why?

JESMYN WARD, Author, “Salvage the Bones”: Because those are the kind of people that I come from.

My family has been poor and working-class for generations. And we live — I live in this really small community in Southern Mississippi, where you don’t evacuate, and you have never evacuated because there are too many people in your family to evacuate.

GWEN IFILL: Tell me about your experience with Katrina.

JESMYN WARD: So, I was at my grandmother’s house, because my mother lives in a double-wide trailer. And, of course, in a hurricane, you can’t take shelter in any kind of manufactured homes.

I remember I was barefoot. We had made these pallets in the living room. And that’s where we were sleeping. And then I looked down at my feet. And the water was filling up my footprints, right, as I’m walking along on this carpet.

And water had never come into my grandmother’s house, right? We didn’t know how far the storm surge was going to rise. And so we actually went out into the middle of the storm. I mean, we didn’t swim. We were wading, but, I mean, the water was at least like up to my waist, and watching trees snap — snap in half.

And I’m thinking the entire time, we’re going to die. And so we watched, right, and the — until the water went down a little bit. And then my step-dad, who was driving, we were in his truck, he deemed that it was — had gotten low enough for us to try to get across.

GWEN IFILL: It seems to me that an experience that you just described is so scarring and so shaping that it gave you the language to write a book like this.

I’m going to ask you to read a portion of it, where you describe Katrina in words that it seems to me only a Katrina survivor, overcomer can do.

JESMYN WARD: “I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so they that will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered. Her chariot was a storm so great and black, the Greeks would say it was harnessed the dragons. She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone, but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.

“She left us a dark gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large merciless hands committed to blood comes.”

GWEN IFILL: Ten years later, are you optimistic or not about where this region has come from and to?

JESMYN WARD: That’s a really hard question to answer.

On one hand, I can say, you know, I had many family members — I had many people in my extended family who left right after Katrina, who relocated to different cities, right, Houston, Atlanta. Right? Most of them have come back.

So, like, when I think about my family specifically, right, and my community, it makes me optimistic, because I can — because I see that, you know — that, yes, we scattered a bit after the storm. And it was hard for us to rebuild, you know, to come back to sort of reclaim our lives.

But we did it. But then when I look at, like when I think about you know the [INAUDIBLE] when I think about what is has become and how it’s changed since Katrina, and how it’s still really difficult for people to get work, I think about how the economy on the coast has changed, how, you know the kind of industries that we had before a lot of them aren’t here anymore, how the casinos, right, have basically sort of taken over the economy and are, like, the only source of employment that a lot of people that I know, you know, have access to.

That makes me pessimistic, right, because I — I see how hard it is, you know, for the kind of people that I wrote about in “Salvage the Bones,” you know, for the poor, members of my family, for the people in my community to live here, make a living here, attempt to, you know, have some sort of future here, it’s — I think it’s become especially difficult after the storm.

And I’m not even, you know, talking about, like, housing costs, right? Those have skyrocketed, right? And I think that has displaced a lot of people. I think that some people want to come home, but then can’t because they won’t be able to afford a place to live here.

GWEN IFILL: And displacement became permanent for so many people.

JESMYN WARD: Yes. Yes. Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Jesmyn Ward, thank you for talking to us and sharing your story.

JESMYN WARD: Thank you for having me.

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