Read the Resistance, October 2017: Salvage the Bones
For this month of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked writers Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to them. Their pick? Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. Join Jason and Brendan for a discussion, moderated by Hafizah Geter on October 31.
“When members of our government machinate to assault women and people of color by denying them their basic rights and everyday dignity, when poor people are stripped and robbed of their healthcare and the social systems established to protect the most vulnerable in all our communities, and when natural disasters loom on the horizon and special interest groups collude to invest in campaigns denying the impact of global warming, Salvage the Bones is a resistance novel of mythic proportions,” said Reynolds and Kiely. “Esch and China, though battered and embattled, stand steady and brace themselves against the magnitude of brutal and unjust forces against them. This is a novel of survival, the bedrock of resistance.”
Creation and Destruction
“See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god with me; I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, neither is there any can deliver out of my hand.” –Deuteronomy 32:39
“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” –Pablo Picasso
That a book chronicling a young, pregnant woman’s experience through one of the deadliest hurricanes of our time is a tale of creation and destruction might seem obvious. But as Ward suggests in the book’s biblical epigraph, the idea that creation necessitates destruction is a common thread in religion, in art, in literature, and in revolution. But that is not to suggest that destruction is not painful: For Esch and her family, coming to terms with the new life she’ll bear forth comes only after loss of limb, loss of home, and loss of life under the cruel winds and beating rain of Hurricane Katrina.
Many have compared the 2005 hurricane to perhaps the most famous example of creation and destruction: the story of Noah and his ark, God’s recreation of earth chronicled in the Old Testament. A Florida man inspired by the deadly hurricane built a Noah’s ark replica to house a petting zoo in honor of the animals—chickens and cats and dogs, like China and her puppies—that perished in the storm. The artist Mark Bradford constructed a 22-foot high, 64-foot long ark plastered in tattered event posters to display in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward in 2008. A local church erected an ark-themed playground for its community’s children.
And what of other contemporary references to destruction? “Destroy the patriarchy” has become a common refrain of the Women’s March and ongoing feminist movements. Why? Because entrenched institutions can be hard to “fix,” especially when those in power think minor progress should pacify the oppressed. Destruction can create new space for creation. Dismantling these institutions would allow for the equitable creation of new societal structures and a more just redistribution of power.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- How does the destruction brought by the storm create space for new familial and community structures for Esch and the Batistes?
- How have the religious implications of destruction and creation been weaponized against movements working for progress and equality? How do the belief systems of a movement impact their goals, strategies, and tactics?
Loss and Learning
“The house is a drying animal skeleton, everything inside that was living salvaged over the years. Papa Joseph had helped Daddy build our house before he died, but once he and Mother Lizbeth were gone, we took couch by chair by picture by dish until there was nothing left.” —Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
The ever-present past haunts the Batiste family with constant reminders of what has been lost: an extended family on the pit; weekends at the beach; a warm and gentle matriarch; a severed finger; a stillborn puppy. These losses profoundly shape how Esch and her brothers—and even their father, worn down by the years and losses—encounter their present. Mama’s egg-hunting tricks offer an alternative to bare shelves at the supermarket; Papa Joseph and Mother Lizbeth’s tattered home provides shelter from the floods; a wife’s memory provides hope to carry on.
2015 marked 50 years since “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama, when police teargassed and brutalized black men and women marching for the right to vote. The day marked an opportunity to reflect on the ways that the messages, tactics, and successes of the 1960s Civil Rights movement have transformed in the ongoing struggle for equality today. Sit-ins marking commercial discrimination against black Americans became die-ins marking deaths by police; planning meetings in church basements became e-newsletters and groups on social media. But a commitment to nonviolence and a strong sense of urgency inherited from Civil Rights leaders of the past have remained central to contemporary movements that are only possible because of the progress that these former leaders achieved.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- “At the heart of any revolution is a well-told story, right?” said DeRay Mckesson, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, in 2015. As observers of history, writers—like those featured in this book club—often document history-in-the making through literature. What is the role of the writer in telling stories of resistance and passing down lessons from the past?
- Consider the phrase, “History repeats itself.” Do you agree? What role do resistance movements play—or not—in this cycle?
Resilience and Survival
“And just as the houses clustered, there were people in the street, barefoot, half naked, walking around felled trees, crumpled trampolines, talking with each other, shaking their heads, repeating one word over and over again: alive alive alive alive.” –Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
“We on our backs staring at the stars above, talking about what we going to be when we grow up, I said what you wanna be? She said, ‘Alive.'” -Outkast, “Da Art of Storytellin” (Part 1)
The odds are stacked against the Batiste children: a decrepit house, a dead mother, a drunk dad, a segregated community, an injured knee, a deadly virus, an unexpected pregnancy, a violent living. And yet, their story is not one of pity and regret, but one of resistance. Their struggle for survival does not begin with the storm but, as we see with Junior—born “purple and blue as a hydrangea” after hours of Mama’s squatting and screaming sacrifice—from the start of their lives. “What China is doing is fighting, like she was born to do,” writes Ward in the earliest pages of the book; like the children, their pit bull finds her strength, defends her honor, swallows her pain, and manages on her own. With all they are up against, their very survival is an act of resistance against the forces that would silence them, push them aside, and forget them.
In a Q&A published at the end of her book, Ward writes, “I was angry at the people who blamed survivors for staying and for choosing to return to the Mississippi Gulf Coast after the storm.” Her words take on new meaning in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, savaging the Texas Gulf Coast, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (among dozens of other Caribbean states). These storms disproportionately affected people of color, just weeks after the President of the United States refused to forcefully denounce white supremacy. The demands of those affected by the hurricanes—often unpredictable in their paths—to be seen, to be heard, and to have respectful access to necessary aid is a stark and important reminder: We’re still here.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- Our hosts for October, authors Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, called survival “the bedrock of resistance.” In what other ongoing acts of resistance is survival itself a powerful response?
About Jason Reynolds
Jason Reynolds is crazy. About stories. He is a The New York Times bestselling author, a National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors. His debut novel was When I Was the Greatest and was followed by Boy in the Black Suit and All American Boys (cowritten with Brendan Kiely); As Brave As You; Jump Anyway; and the first two books in the Track series, Ghost and Patina.
About Brendan Kiely
Brendan Kiely is a The New York Times bestselling author of All American Boys (with Jason Reynolds), The Last True Love Story, and The Gospel of Winter. His work has been published in 10 languages; received a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, the Walter Dean Myers Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award; and was selected as one of the American Library Association’s Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults. Originally from the Boston area, he now lives with his wife in Greenwich Village.
About Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward received her M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the editor of the anthology The Fire This Time and the author of the novels Sing, Unburied, Sing; Where the Line Bleeds; and Salvage the Bones, the latter of which won the 2011 National Book Award and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Ward lives in DeLisle, Mississippi. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters selected Ward for the Strauss Living Award, a prize given every five years to enable authors to take time off from teaching and focus exclusively on writing.
About Hafizah Geter
Born in Zaria, Nigeria, Hafizah Geter serves on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ricardo Maldonado. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and West Branch, among others. She is on the poetry committee and book ends committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival and is currently an editor for Little A and Day One from Amazon Publishing.