As we follow Natalia on her journey through an unnamed war-ravaged Balkan state on the search for answers, we also delve deeply into the interstices between truth and fiction, sentiment and reason, superstition and fact. Could these stories be true or are they attempts to explain a harsh and brutal world? Obreht artfully draws these ambiguities across her novel, asking us to assess our own opinions of how storytelling impacts (and even shapes) history, and how we can think we understand a person until we realize, too late, that we know very little. This is a masterful achievement, at once a page-turner and a literary puzzler, that will haunt you long after you've turned the final page. The Tiger's Wife won the 2011 Orange Prize and was nominated for the National Book Award.
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World War II.
Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 National Book Award-winning novel Salvage the Bones is a tragic, beautifully executed narrative about a poor African-American family caught in the maelstrom of Hurricane Katrina.
In the distance, a hurricane is building in the Gulf of Mexico, but for Esch and her four brothers, the birth of China’s puppies and the hard-scrabble life they live with their bitter, drunken father in the depth of the Mississippi bayou are more pressing than any storm. As the story builds over twelve days, we watch a family, fragmented and loving, trying desperately to combat a multitude of challenges. As Katrina battles its way along the coast, destroying everything from lives to homes, it becomes clear that perhaps a hurricane is not the biggest fight these four children may have to wage. Without a mother, and virtually without a father, Esch and her brothers are lost children, desperate souls, wanting only to make sense of the disappointment and neglect around them. Esch views the world through her own yearning and pain, smartly drawing associations between her own experience and those of the characters she reads about in beloved books at school. This melding of literature and poverty permeates the entire book, as Ward’s gorgeous prose describes the grit and hopelessness of this destitute community.Artfully constructed and poignant in its detail of abject poverty, Salvage the Bones is an unlikely novel to love, but that’s exactly what happens over the course of its pages. As Ward folds us into the lives of Esch and her brothers, we want to fight for them, help them, find a way to stop the hurricane. This novel provides insight into a community that many will want to ignore, but Ward illustrates the beauty and humanity that can arise from the swamps – that, we hope, can arise from all of us.
What is your writing process and how do you create such real characters?
I’ve tried everything that other writers have recommended - getting up in the morning, work till noon – but none of that works for me. My process is to follow the voices. I’m very verbal. I’m not visual. I think most writers are probably visual, but I wait until voices come to me and then I pick up the dialogue. I write what I’m hearing. What helps me, too, is that I read a lot of history. I spend a lot of time in libraries looking at oral histories to find people who talked like the people in my head so that I can get the language right. If I can hear the voice, then I can write the book. It kind of dictates itself that way. I put in the pictures later. In fact, the first draft of the first book that I wrote was all dialogue. I was really disappointed when I found out that the characters were supposed to have bodies, that they were supposed to live in houses. I had to teach myself how to do the description stuff. That does not come second nature to me. To prime the pump, I start with the dialogue. I have people talk to each other, and I write that down and then that leads to a scene.
Whom did you hear first: Polly Shine or Grenada?
Polly’s voice was the first real voice. Granada came years ago, but I could never make her sound real. She felt artificial. I was talking to my partner, and I said: "I need to give Granada a bigger life. She feels so one-dimensional." He asked me to read some of what I’d written. I must have given him about 30 pages or so, and there was one paragraph where Granada was thinking back on an old woman who taught her the trade [midwifery]. And my partner said: “You know, most of that is pretty boring until you talk about that old woman in a memory. Why don’t you make her a character?” And I said, “Well, I’ll try.” And as soon as I wrote the first sentence about her [Polly], the whole book changed. It was like she took over.
Both of your novels investigate the theme of remembering. Why is this important to you?
I used to think that remembering was something that was unchangeable, that you had certain memories and that you carried those memories with you, but through some of the therapy work that I’ve done, I’ve come to believe that how we remember is more important that what we remember. We have choice over how we remember things and most of our lives are dictated by how we see the past. We have a moral responsibility to see the past as truthfully as we can. Sometimes that means changing our minds. Sometimes that means forgiveness. Sometimes that means learning other people’s stories rather than mine, and letting that story contradict my story. So, as a white man when I went back to Mississippi, and I started talking to all these black people who were outside my little white bubble that I lived in as I grew up, and started listening to their stories, I started remembering my own past differently. It was like “Oh, that’s who you were and that’s who I was. I was a little spoiled white supremacist kid and that’s why you reacted the way you did, and that was why you couldn’t stick up for yourselves." Remembering is so powerful. We don’t know who we are, what we’re doing, where we’re going in our lives, until we remember accurately who we were. I think Faulkner said it: “ The past is not dead. It’s not even past” The past isn’t dead, it’s still forming, and we work on it day by day. Memories are very malleable, and we are responsible as adults to take control of our memories, not to just take things down as law from our parents or history books or people we admire. Even though we admire them, they lie to us because they have a different interpretation.
Coming out of the 1960s South, I was raised where Martin Luther King, Jr. was called a communist, where “our black people are happy, it’s the outside ones who are agitators,' where white people were all good-natured, and all those Klan people were just exceptions to the rule. In doing this re-remembering, it’s painful because sometimes you have to go back and emotionally confront the people you love the most because it wasn’t just the evil people telling you this, it was my pastor at church, my parents. The racism that I learned, that was passed to me was toxic, and I had to go back and re-remember these things. And this is the root of Polly’s wisdom: you have to remember who you are. Don’t believe what they tell you about who you are and what your past as been. You have to take hold of your own memory.