I don’t have to leave New Orleans, it’s leaving me: An interview with Maurice Carlos Ruffin

Maurice Carlos Ruffin has always been a writer, he says, but his writing speaks for itself on this account. Ruffin, a New Orleans native, earned his MFA in 2013 and has been taking the literary community by storm ever since. His work has been widely published, and he has received several accolades, including the 2014 Novel in Progress Award from the Faulkner Society. His story “The Anchor Song” won the 2014 So to Speak Short Fiction Contest. His writing is steeped in his experiences in this city and the changes he’s seen here. His work focuses on the issues he witnesses in the neighborhoods around him, expanding upon those issues through time and place, from Nigeria to Jonestown.

Ruffin will be reading at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 25 at 2448 North Villere St. along with Anya Groner as part of the Dogfish Reading Series. I spoke with Ruffin over coffee about his recent work and what drives him to write.

Room 220: You talk about yourself as a son of the country’s lowest city, and you write a lot about people who live here. What does New Orleans as a subject mean to you?

Maurice Carlos Ruffin: When I first started, I thought of the setting a lot. I thought of it too much. It really put me in a cage because often I’d have a story with Café du Monde, plus gumbo. What I’ve done more recently is focus on the characters and make sure that they drive the setting as much as the setting drives them. “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You” starts in the French Quarter, but it’s seen in a particular way. Nobody else could really see what he sees in that position.

Rm220: What inspired the book you’re working on now, All of the Lights?

MCR: Well, the city itself and my personal experiences. To some extent, what I’m writing about is not only race and identity but also the idea of art itself. It’s an idea about art that many writers have gone through over time. It’s always about chasing beauty, and it’s an ugly chase. It’ll drive you crazy, but you can only describe it. I just try and make sure it’s realistic and it has a decent structure. The book is also about my sense of what New Orleans is becoming. It’s set in the future, maybe fifty or one hundred years. I’m thinking about how the problems I see now will play out over time. Every city changes over time, often in unpredictable and nasty ways.

Rm220: The main character of All the Lights is a lawyer. How has your career as a lawyer informed your work as a writer?

MCR: Being a lawyer gave me access to another world. I grew up with all the opportunities of an average African American kid–going to second lines occasionally, having a huge family with all kinds of jobs–but being a lawyer meant I had that thing that people talk about in detective fiction. The protagonist can go both into the lower parts of society and into the upper parts of society. I’ve been in mansions on St. Charles. I’ve been in townhouses in the French Quarter. I’ve been in corporate boardrooms here in town, and frankly, for most African Americans in the city, you get those opportunities if you’re the guy handing out the hors-d’oeuvres and/or cleaning up after the reception’s over. Being a lawyer gives you access, and it gives you discipline.

Rm220: What pushed you into writing from that career?

MCR: I think that writers are writers from the day that they’re born. When I was young people said, “Oh, that guy’s a writer.” There’s a difference between somebody who thinks they’re a writer and somebody who is a writer, and the difference is that you make a choice about how you’re going to spend your spare time. At thirty, I was going to back to school and doing workshops and reading books about craft. The urge to go back was based on the understanding that I had the capacity to be a writer.

Rm220: How do the writers’ groups that you’re involved in influence your work?

MCR: I’m in two writing groups, the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance and the Melanated Writers of New Orleans. I’m one of the co-founders of both groups. The PWA started in October 2007, and Melanated started in August 2010. Melanated is pretty much all people of color, and it offers a very unique perspective. New Orleans is very strange in that it has this great tradition of writers, and yet minorities have very little representation. The idea of Melanated right now is we’re here, we can write each other’s stories, let’s just do it.

Rm220: You once said, “I think story is basically voice times danger squared.” How do those two factors inform each other? Do you think the intensity of your stories pulls the voice into the forefront?

MCR: I think in lot of my stories the characters are in physical danger. It’s life and limb. If they make the wrong decision within the context of the story, it’s going to be a bad end for them. I have one story, “The Anchor Song,” in which the protagonist is running the whole time. I think much of the energy and the voice come from the same thing, that she is in true danger. So much of the vibrancy in New Orleans comes from this danger. There’s the hurricane danger, which can destroy the entire city. It has. There are the fires that have destroyed the city a few times. We’ve had plagues, yellow fever, and then there’s this sort of existential dilemma. This city has a great Mardi Gras and a great party spirit because we’re constantly dying. I don’t know if we can actually fix it because I think there’s a spirit in the ground, like every town has. New Orleans is New Orleans for a reason, and I think danger is that reason. So whether there’s a mortal danger or an existential danger, there’s always something at risk in this city, constantly. That’s why people flock here.

Rm220: A lot of people come here to write about New Orleans. Have you ever written about New Orleans from outside the city, from a distance?

MCR: I have written about the city from afar, but it’s been sort of intermittent, like when I’m on vacation. I think for me, for my perspective, Katrina’s my distance. I don’t think I was able to see what New Orleans really is and was until Katrina happened. I recognized what could be lost and what has been lost since then. New Orleans is like so many communities throughout history where you can see what it was through what is missed. People look around and say, “Oh, this is New Orleans.” It is New Orleans, but it’s not New Orleans as it was five years, ten years ago. I don’t have to leave it; it’s leaving me.

I just wonder how it’s going to affect the literary community. One positive thing I’ve seen is there’s this real renaissance of spoken word poetry and slam poetry. The flipside is I wonder if we’re going to experience what these other so-called meccas, Brooklyn and Austin, experienced, where people sort of flood in from out of town. If you come down from Chicago and live in New Orleans and you write about New Orleans, make sure you experience New Orleans. Don’t have this sort of E.M Forester, A Passage to India, looking from the outside portrayal. Really engage with the city, instead of strip-mining the experience. A lot of people come in really specifically for the New Orleans experience, even as they stomp it out. Saying bands shouldn’t be able to march down the street at 9 o’clock at night without a permit, for example. That’s not really New Orleans.

Rm220: Art is such a central part of why people want to come here, but coming here can change that literary and musical scene.

MCR:  Within the past couple of years, things have changed so fast. There’s a real tension and frustration. It’s almost like this anger that America has is being played out here in a very special way. New Orleans is not like most cities that get gentrified, like San Francisco. Even before people started moving here, there were actual choices made about who could be here. For example, they shut down a lot of public housing following Katrina. There was red lining where they said, “If you live here, we won’t give you any utilities, no lights, no water.” Those sort of things really did play out, and nobody really came into this part of town where we are right now, the Marigny, because they thought it was “too dangerous.” Now people are coming in droves to do AirBnB and to flip properties. The city didn’t become as attractive to those visitors until a lot of people couldn’t come back following Katrina.

In a country where we pride ourselves on being free and brave and respecting property rights, there are people that wanted to come back to their own homes where they had lived for decades who literally could not do it. They were forced out at gunpoint, and once they left, they couldn’t come back. I do feel whatever’s happening here in New Orleans is a microcosm of whatever’s happening in this entire country. To the extent that it’s a battle for the soul of the America, I get to watch it firsthand.

Rm220: Can you talk a little more about how New Orleans reflects nationwide conflicts?

MCR: Every problem that America’s experiencing in the 21st century, mass incarceration, income inequality, poor health services, a lack of opportunities up whatever ladder you want to get on, is happening in New Orleans. New Orleans is more segregated in its schools right now than it was in 1968. Why is that happening? I think people have forgotten their history. This city can be very paternalistic and parochial.

Being African American in this city, you don’t want to call the cops for help because instead of having one guy trying to kill you, you’ll have two guys trying to kill you. That experience is so ridiculous. It’s so un-American, and it’s so hard to create empathy for the people in those positions. It’s kind of like, “Oh, they had it coming.” Sometimes even I react that way. I know many criminal lawyers, and when they arrested someone, I would refer to them as a criminal. But no, they’re not criminals, they’re suspects. Maybe they’re innocent. We have the highest incarceration rate in the country and in the world for a reason. Either you’re saying there’s an entire part of our population that’s just more criminal, or there’s a problem in the system and in the society.

Rm220: How do you see your writing building the empathy that’s so lacking for those groups?

MR: Fiction writing is an empathy generator. I’ve read so many books about experiences that are so alien to me, from literal aliens to Jane Austen. If I do my job well, people will read it, and they’ll understand they’re fellow women and boys and girls. At any given time, you have a duty to push for human rights, whatever those rights are. My skill set is as a writer, and writers, particularly fiction writers, can present our communities as nobody else can. I’m from here; I’ve been here my entire life. I’ve seen things that people from Wisconsin or Canada probably won’t understand. That’s why I make it a point to present these voices. Our job as writers is to hold up a mirror to society and say, maybe you can’t see it, but have a look.