Today, The Paris Review Daily features a brief interview with Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward about her second novel, Salvage the Bones, set in a fictional Mississippi town in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. The novel 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.
Here’s an excerpt from the interview, which you can read in full at The Paris Review Daily.
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.