MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sometimes, the stories of life's biggest triumphs and tragedies are best told, not in the headlines or in a cable news crawl, but in literature. In her novel, "Salvage the Bones," Jesmyn Ward tells the story of how one family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast endured Hurricane Katrina.
But it also tells the story of what they were enduring before the storm. Extreme poverty, sexual abuse, routine violence and survival. It's all seen through the eyes of the 15 year old narrator named Esch. "Salvage the Bones" recently won the National Book Award for fiction and Jesmyn Ward joins us now.
Welcome, and congratulations on this really significant honor.
JESMYN WARD: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: What about the award? I'm told that you were very surprised. You were so surprised that you almost couldn't talk.
WARD: I was. You know, I just did not think that I was going to win. I'm very hesitant to assume that good things are going to come to me, so beforehand, I kept preparing myself for losing, you know, and I thought, well, I will prepare myself to be happy for whoever wins and clap.
MARTIN: But did you think that you were a - God, I hate the term, dark horse, but I'll use it just for now.
MARTIN: Underdog. Thank you. Because of the subject matter? Do you think that the subject matter, you thought, was just too gritty?
WARD: I thought that the subject matter was too gritty and I thought that the people that I write about and the place that I write about, you know, where they come from. These aren't popular, I guess, with a lot of, you know, readers. Because of that, I just didn't expect to win and then, also, because I wasn't that well known and the book was out there, but it wasn't out there.
MARTIN: I hear what you're saying. But let's talk about the book. It is beautifully written, but it's also a tough read. I don't think that there's any question about that. It deals with subjects that, as you said, are often not dealt with in literature. One of them is dog fighting. It opens with a very graphic scene of a Pit Bull giving birth. Why did you start that way?
WARD: Well, I'd had Esch's character in my head for a while and I knew that I wanted to write a novel about her, about a girl that grows up in a world full of men. I'd also had Skeetah, who's her brother. I'd had his character in my head for a while, but the relationship between Skeetah and his dog fascinated me so. It's like that's where a lot of the heat was for me and then...
MARTIN: Let me stop you there. You know what's fascinating to me? I don't know if you mind my drawing this analogy. In a way, China, who is the dog, and Esch have parallel lives because they are both loved in their way, but they are used each in their own way. And that's one of the things that I think many people might find puzzling.
I mean, Skeetah loves the dog, but he doesn't mind using her to fight. But Esch - one of the very disturbing aspects of the novel is that she is used sexually by many of the young men around her and she describes this in this very detached way. Do you mind if I ask? Where did this come from? And I hope you don't mind if I ask whether this was part of your own experience.
WARD: No, it wasn't. But I think, when I was growing up, I knew girls like Esch, who approached sex in that way. When I thought about her character, in a way, it's almost like she's mirroring the attitudes of the young men around her in the way that she thinks about it. Right? And in the way that she sort of separates it from herself and it's something that she does and it's not connected to who she is or she doesn't think that it is.
I thought I thought a lot when I was growing up. You know, sex was just something that you did and, from a very young age, you know, for Esch, something that you're sort of not that informed about, or not that sort of lucid throughout, I guess, which is, in a way, why I think that she - at the beginning of the book, she finds that she's pregnant because, you know, she is so detached from what's happening that I don't think she's thinking about, like, the ramifications, you know, of what could happen.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Jesmyn Ward. She is the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for fiction for her novel, "Salvage the Bones." It describes one family's journey on the Mississippi coast and how they endured Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it describes the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.
Do you mind if I ask you to read just a piece, a little passage so people can hear your beautiful words?
WARD: OK. So I'll read a very short passage from the beginning of the 12th chapter,
(Reading) The 12th day: alive. We sat in the open attic until the wind quieted from jet fighter planes to coughing puffs. We sat in the open attic until the sky brightened from a sick orange to a clean white-gray. We sat in the open attic until the water, which had milled like a boiling soup beneath us, receded inch by inch back into the woods. We sat in the open attic until the rain eased to drips. We sat in the open attic until we got cold and the light wind that blew chilled us. We huddled together in motherless Beth's attic and tried to rub heat from each other, but couldn't. We were a pile of wet, cold branches, human debris in the middle of all the rest of it.
MARTIN: As I think anybody can hear, even just from that very brief excerpt, the writing is lovely. But I have to ask the question that artists are asked when they take on subjects like this and, in fact, you said in your remarks after winning the award. You said that you wanted to write about the poor black rural people of the south who so often have been marginalized, who kind of live in this parallel universe nobody else knows anything about.
But now, people say, OK. That's on the one hand. On the other hand, could one argue that this is kind of some poverty porn? You know, it's like you're exposing people's lives in a way that perpetuates the stereotypes that people are just ignorant passive observers in their own lives, you know, just living, really, in just a litany of sorrows. How do you react to that?
WARD: I get angry because this is the truth. You know, like this is the reality for so many people where I come from and it was the reality for me for a portion of my life. At one time, when I was eight years old, my mother and father, my brother and my sisters - we had to move back in with my grandmother and there were 13 of us living in one house. Like, some of the aspects of this, of the poverty that these characters experience, like, that's real. And I can't deny telling that truth.
I think, when I write, one of the things that I'm really attempting to do is I'm attempting to humanize my characters. I feel a lot of pressure when I'm writing because I know, you know, if they looked at a synopsis of the book, what they read could only confirm all the stereotypes that they have about us and about people like us.
But I want to make us so human and make our stories so powerful and so touching so that the reader will empathize with those characters. That larger story in "Salvage the Bones" is just about survival and I think that, in the end, there are things about this novel and about these characters' experiences that make their stories universal stories.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations once again on...
WARD: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...this great honor and recognition for this work. So what's next for you?
WARD: I just handed in a memoire about a very specific time in my life when five young black men that I know died and the first was my brother, who was hit by a drunk driver.
MARTIN: Oh, I'm so sorry.
WARD: Well, thank you. But did I think that, when people hear about epidemics like that of young black men dying, that they think about urban areas and they don't think about places like the place that I'm from, the small, you know, rural areas in the South.
And so, in the book, I'm writing about the five young men and I'm writing about their lives. Right? And so I'm asking the question of, like, why an epidemic like that would happen.
MARTIN: Well, hopefully, you'll come back and tell us more about that one. I hope you will.
WARD: I'd love to.
MARTIN: Jesmyn Ward is the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for fiction. She won for her latest novel, "Salvage the Bones." She joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Jesmyn, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WARD: Thank you very much.
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MARTIN: Next on the program, we'll tell you about a man who jumped over the fence between Mexico and the U.S. because he wanted a way out of poverty. He worked the fields under the table until one day he decided there had to be more to life.
ALFREDO QUINONES-HINOJOSA: The critical portion that got me out of the fields was my own cousin telling me that I was going to spend the rest of my life working as a migrant farm worker.
MARTIN: Dr. Alfred Quinones-Hinojosa and his journey from farm worker to brain surgeon and what was between. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: For many employees, December means open enrollment. That's the time of year when you can add or update your insurance. But what if you don't know an HMO from a PPO or the difference between POS and SSA? Our money coach can help. We'll demystify open enrollment. That's next time on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.