Jesmyn Ward’s 2008 debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, is a slow and viscous meditation on climate change and race in the Mississippi Delta. Midway through, twin brothers Joshua and Christophe DeLisle drive back home to the fictional parish of Bois Sauvage from neighboring New Orleans:
The whole city seemed on the verge of collapsing, of coming apart and spewing into the streets to slide and submerge into the river. Joshua imagined it all gone: the levees, the sea of white aboveground tombs, the French Quarter, the flickering sparkle of the knot of shiny skyscrapers called downtown, and the huddling rows of high-windowed, wooden-sided houses warped soft by the salty, sulfurous air and the rain.
Set in the summer before Hurricane Katrina, this passage is at once prescient and surprisingly ordinary. Ward narrates Hurricane Katrina through the lens of “crisis ordinariness,” to borrow a phrase from Lauren Berlant.1 The result is that readers accustomed to deploying an era-marking post (post-9/11, post-Trump, posthuman) will find reasons to stop imagining every event as epoch shifting. Joshua’s frieze of apocalypse isn’t attached to any sense of urgency: it is merely a passing observation he makes before thinking about where he is going to take his girlfriend to eat.
This unobtrusive, sneaky ordinariness has left Where the Line Bleeds under the critical and commercial shadow of Ward’s subsequent National Book Award winners: Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017). Those novels catapulted Ward to the center of conversations about the relationship between race, climate, and history. And rightly so. Salvage the Bones is climatic theatre structured around Katrina and draped, with historical grandiosity, over the scaffolding of classical mythology. Sing, Unburied, Sing is centered on ghost stories that explore how the antebellum plantation is reborn, or transmogrified, in the labor camps of the Mississippi State Penitentiary.
Where the Line Bleeds moves to a different cadence. Ward’s subtler shadings in this novel make it easy to see how the book was lost in the literary slipstream: it lacks the diegetic excitement and the formal experimentation of the later works. Both Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones trade in the spectacular to bring light to the hardships and plights of Black life in the rural South; they are packed with metaphors that teeter with the delicate wonder of artisanal mille-feuille. Where the Line Bleeds, on the other hand, reimagines the ongoing nature of anti-Blackness as uncomfortably banal. The violence of the text is both diffuse and cancerous, like the lethargic crawl of weed smoke in the summer sun, enveloping the characters.
Christophe and Joshua are standing on the precipice of adulthood, managing their responsibilities to a blind grandmother, fending off their drug-addicted father, and looking for work in a depressed rural economy. The book largely takes place between gas stations, as the DeLisle brothers and their friends drive around looking for places to swim, hollow out Swisher Sweet cigars, and drop off job applications. As the twins’ grandmother puts it, this seems a life lived “perpetually waiting for something astounding to happen: a tornado, a flood, an earthquake.”
Ward is searching out ways to alert readers to the preexisting infrastructures of crisis. We can trace this through the oil that seeps into the book, everywhere and nowhere. In an offhanded remark early on, for example, the DeLisle twins speak to a classmate about postgraduation plans. The friend tells them, “I’m going offshore. My uncle already got my application in.” Oil doesn’t need to be named in this scene—offshore becomes a metonym for the extractive enterprise that defines the Gulf’s economy, both bolstering and destroying it. Petroleum trickles into the margins of the book, from the “gray” water in Bois Sauvage’s Wolf River to the boy’s backyard that smells “like rust and earth and oil.”
These contaminated margins are a perfect summary of Ward’s project in Where the Line Bleeds, elucidating what Christina Sharpe describes as “climates of antiblackness” that have become invisible precisely because of their omnipresence. Anti-Black violence underpins every interaction and relation in the novel—from the twins’ continual fear of the cops to the economic realities they face. They can either start selling drugs or toil under the watchful eye of a series of identical white bosses at “a dull litany” of interchangeable fast-food restaurants and big-box retailers for minimum wage. But Ward also examines this at the molecular scale, looking at the material ways that anti-Black violence has seeped into the soil like spilled BP oil.
Our very first picture of Bois Sauvage is filtered through a racialized account of the environment. We read about how land “had been cheaper along the Mississippi gulf, and black Creoles had spread along the coastline.” The linkage of race and environment reaches an apex later, during the brothers’ road trip to New Orleans. Passing a blunt back to his brother, Joshua daydreams about the people in the grand houses in the countryside:
If it weren’t for the bright paint and the neatly shelled driveways and the cut grass, he would’ve sworn that no one worked or lived there, that the place existed as a mirage, as an idea, as a foreboding relic to black people to remind them that outside their own communities, there existed enmity and history and dread hidden in the pines and the marsh that was based on the color of their skin.
Joshua sees in crystalline relief the legacy of the linked histories of environmental and racial violence. Moving with the novel’s trademark languor, Ward makes the case that what seems to be a momentary cataclysm is in fact a larger quantitative and qualitative shift of a perennial crisis, only gradually increasing in amplitude and frequency.
Ward’s later novels also highlight the yoked histories of environmental degradation and racial oppression. They do so, however, in more predictable ways: Salvage the Bones showcases the dramatic theatricality of apocalypse, while Sing, Unburied, Sing turns away from realism into the realm of generic strangeness.
I cast my vote for the stoned and sluggish Where the Line Bleeds. Here, there is an understated vibrancy about the apparently haphazard way even Hurricane Katrina veers into view. “Got a storm out in the gulf. On the other side of Cuba. They say it’s coming right for us,” Joshua says. Christophe shrugs this off, reminding his twin, “It’s the third one we done had this summer—ain’t no reason for you to be so nervous.” This is Katrina seen as an exacerbation of pre-existing conditions, rather than as an unforeseen, epochal event.
The storms on the horizon are important, but just as important is the oil leaking from large swaths of pipeline, which will coat the Gulf in perpetuity. Ward’s slowed formal pacing asks us to read our surroundings differently, paying attention to both the sky and the ground, to effect a change in the (im)perceptibility of anti-Black violence and climate change.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.
- Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Duke University Press, 2011). ↩