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  • "Where Everything Else Is Starving, Fighting, Struggling":Food and the Politics of Hurricane Katrina in Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones
  • Cameron Williams Crawford (bio)

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones was published nearly six years after Hurricane Katrina battered the central Gulf Coast, leaving a path of almost unparalleled destruction and a devastating loss of life in her wake. Katrina was "one of the deadliest and most costly hurricanes in U.S. history" (Levitt and Whitaker 1). The storm displaced over a million residents of the region, the overwhelming majority of whom were low-income and African American. Notoriously, in the days following the storm, Katrina's "floodwater exposed as much as it covered," revealing the ugly racism and systemic inequalities that persisted—and continue to persist over ten years after the storm—not only in the South, but throughout the country (1-2). At the center of Salvage the Bones is fifteen-year-old Esch, newly and unexpectedly pregnant, still reeling from the untimely death of her mother. By focusing on the struggles of the Batiste family as they brace for Katrina's impact, Ward's novel puts into the maelstrom of the storm history's victims—primarily rural, black, and poor—"the kind of people that I come from," Ward said in an interview with Gwen Ifill on PBS NewsHour ("Writer Jesmyn Ward"). In writing Salvage the Bones, Ward has explained that she "wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South, so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs" (Bosman).

Given the novel's focus on pregnancy, most scholars have understandably explored its representation of maternity, notably as relates to race and class and often within the historical or cultural context of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly, issues of race, gender, and pregnancy are at the forefront of Salvage [End Page 73] the Bones and necessary to any critical discussion of the work. Less attention, however, has been paid to how Ward's novel is also (pardon the pun) "pregnant" with descriptions of food. Not only do descriptions of food, talk of eating, and food metaphors abound, the many and varied references to food are highly politicized. The rich vein of Southern and African American foodways provide a useful method for exploring the intersections that exist between food, race, class, gender, and the politics surrounding Hurricane Katrina in Ward's novel.

In the South, one does not need a hurricane to make the question of food one of vital cultural import. In "Reading Southern Food," David A. Davis and Tara Powell describe the South's "long history of food as a social problem"; for many people living in the region, "food security has been and continues to be a serious issue" (8). They explain that, despite the South's "primarily agricultural economy through the second half of the twentieth century, it imported a significant percentage of its food, and serious issues of food inequality continue to reflect the region's troubling history of race and class divisions," disparities which can of course be traced back to the plantation system (8). As Andrew Warnes writes in Hunger Overcome?: Food and Resistance in Twentieth-Century African American Literature, "The narratives of former slaves refer repeatedly to slave traders' and slaveholders' attempts to monitor, regulate, and circumscribe … the diet of their human property" (2). Notably, however, slave narratives refer just as often "to acts of resistance," including "food theft and foraging" and "other individual rebellions that challenged such circumscription" (2). By using food to underscore the racial and class inequalities that persist in the South, Salvage the Bones draws on this history of "how black hunger has helped maintain American racial hierarchies" (4). In demonstrating the ways in which food and food access disparities in Esch's rural, black community are tied to the lingering effects of the nineteenth-century slave economy, Salvage the Bones aligns with a tradition of African American literature that treats food as a "cultural process" through which, writes Warnes, "inequalities resulting from racial injustice can be...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2377-2050
Print ISSN
0038-4496
Pages
pp. 73-84
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-16
Open Access
No
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