WRBH’s David Benedetto sat down last November with Tulane professor and 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award-winning author Ladee Hubbard to talk about her new novel, The Talented Ribkins, in which an African-American family from Florida reckons with their superhero-esque talents and their history.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
WRBH’s David Benedetto: Being your debut novel, is it interesting for you to kind of gauge people’s reactions to the book in person?
Ladee Hubbard: Yeah, I think all reactions are interesting to me because it’s such a solitary undertaking to write it. So even just reading reviews of it is pretty interesting. I mean, it’s actually been very good so far. People have seemed to respond to it in a way that I’m comfortable with, I’ll say.
WRBH: That’s good! You know it’s out of your control all the time so all you can hope for is comfort in the reactions.
LH: Yeah! So far it’s really felt like people do appreciate what I was trying to do with the book.
WRBH: You started mainly looking at academic issues. What made you want to transition into writing and getting an MFA?
LH: Well, I always wrote fiction, and for pretty much the entire time when I was an “academic,” I wrote short stories and poems. Then at a certain point I realized that I really wanted to write this novel. So I think that going to get an MFA was a way for me to just take two years to really focus on trying to write a piece of long fiction, which was kind of an enormous undertaking for me. I realized I just needed to focus on that for a while, and I’m really glad I made that decision. It would have been much harder to complete the book and I’m sure it would have taken years longer if I hadn’t done that.
WRBH: I can imagine that a schedule and a professorship— so much of your time is already consumed there.
LH: Right. I also have three children.
WRBH: Yeah, they don’t help do they?
LH: Weirdly, in some ways they do help. Yeah, it’s a lot of motivation, and I always tell people that I probably procrastinated a lot more before I had children because I didn’t really appreciate how precious time is— just having a little time to myself to do something like this like work on a creative project during a day. It’s really a gift to me now. When I was younger, before I had children— I don’t think I really appreciated that.
WRBH: I can see that. Like it’s really setting the constraints and parameters?
WRBH: To kind of get into the book a little bit, it was partly inspired by W. E. B. DuBois’ famous “The Talented Tenth” essay. Can you talk about how that impacted you and how it brought about some of the ideas in this book?
LH: I was interested in the essay and also people’s reactions to it and how the reaction seemed to relate to—I don’t know—perceptions of the black middle class in the United States and sort of cultural identity. I was thinking about my grandfather as well. The essay, when taken out of context, people might think it’s very elitist, but it really is about education. Again, I said that a lot of the inspiration for the book is from my grandfather, and my grandfather really was not interested in money but did really fetishize education. I think I was trying to write a little bit about him and sort of different attitudes that I’ve heard expressed in my family about the value of education and how that relates to ideas about class in the United States. And identity issues in the United States. So it was really just thinking about the interplay of all these different ideas that that came together in my head and manifested themselves as this book.
WRBH: Like trying to work out these ideas in a fiction kind of format. It’s interesting about the essay and placing it in the context of dealing with education because with a regular reading it talks about a tenth of people that are above the rest.
LH: Yeah, I think it’s because in context it’s a pretty desperate plea. At the time it was written, there were very few educational opportunities for African-Americans in the south, and I think it was written for a specific audience. I know his attitudes towards it. He’s expressed different things about it, but I do really think about what the circumstances were when he wrote it. I think that it gets lost sometimes when people look back on it now. It’s a very different time period to look at the words on the page and not really think about the context for them.
WRBH: The nuances are lost a little bit.
LH: A lot of it, yeah. The circumstances, the consequences maybe, like what was really at stake at that time for him and for a lot of people. My grandfather included. So that’s part of where that comes back to.
WRBH: And speaking of your grandfather, he served as a major inspiration for one of your main characters, Johnny. Could you talk about that and how his person brought that out for you?
LH: It’s very interesting because in some ways they are nothing alike, but I think Johnny definitely shares speech patterns so the dialogue feels very much like my grandfather. He talks the way my grandfather talks and also certain elements of his personality— certainly the care that he tries to show his niece, Eloise. That feels very familiar to me. In other aspects, they are totally different people. My grandfather was actually a chemistry professor.
WRBH: So not a burglar?
LH: (Laughing) No, no. Not at all.
Yeah. You know it’s interesting because the characters in the book, they sort of have these powers, but they never refer to themselves as superheroes. That wasn’t exactly what I was trying to convey with that. But at the same time it’s true he was a larger-than-life figure to me because of what he meant to me, and I took a lot of inspiration from his life and the things he had gone through to achieve his goals. Sort of the tenacity. Also I must say the fact that it was definitely the vision of himself that he had was definitely his vision, and he really struggled to realize it. I don’t think a lot of people really understood or appreciated what he was trying to do. And that meant a lot to me as well that he kept going despite that and despite really great obstacles to achieve his goals.
WRBH: I think that’s important. You mentioned the idea that these people that you’re inspired by— they don’t actually have superpowers, but in writing about it when you put those kind of abnormal things into a book like that you were able to hone in more on the familial structures as well as more interesting topics in a little bit finer tuned point. How was that writing for you, trying to balance the realism with this kind of abstractness?
LH: It really felt very natural to me to give them these gifts. These are wonderful blessings in a sense, but part of their struggle as group is trying to figure out what to do with them. Like, why am I like this? What is this talent? What does that actually mean? And in a certain respect, I think that it is really who they are. It’s not just a gift they have that’s distinct from the rest of their personalities. It really has had a huge impact on how they negotiate the world. And also, it does again tie into “The Talented Tenth,” the natural endowment, and playing with that a little bit.
WRBH: I was wonder if you could describe some of these powers which are very interesting and innovative in a lot of ways?
LH: So they each have unique talents. For example, Johnny’s father can see in the dark. His brother can scale any wall. Johnny can make perfect maps of any landscape he passes through. And Eloise, her talent is described as [being able to] catch anything that’s thrown at her. And so that’s another thing too— the talents, the way in which they’re described, is really related to how [each character] understands them and how they see themselves.
So one that’s kind of more amorphous is Aunt Simone’s. The way Johnny describes her talent, because it’s mostly from his perspective, is that she has the power to at-will make herself appear to be the most beautiful woman anyone has ever seen, which is not necessarily an accurate description of the talent, but that’s sort of how he summarizes it because that’s how it appears to him. In the actual book, when she’s deploying her power, it has much more to do with persuasion and getting people to sort of trust her and do what she wants them to do. It’s more about a power of persuasion when you actually see how she interacts with other people. So the descriptions are not always totally accurate because they have to do with how other people perceive them and sometimes how people perceive themselves. And that’s very true of the niece, Eloise, as well.
WRBH: It reminds me, you had an article in The Guardian about the book that was published recently, and you were talking about history and the truth and the differences between. I think that kind of plays into that about people who are labeled a certain way, but is that really what they are? And how the perception modifies that. Could you talk about that?
LH: Right. Johnny, the main character, is 72 years old. He’s lived a really long life and had lots of experiences by the time he meets his niece and the actual book starts. So there’s a lot of backstory. And also there’s the fact that he is going to places from his past to dig up money that he’s buried there because he’s trying to pay off a debt, so the past comes up a lot.
A lot of it has to do with [his involvement] in a group called the Justice Committee in the 1960s and 70s; and at a certain point in the book, another member of the group has a scrapbook, and you realize that what they did. What they were trying to do has been largely excised from sort of recorded history, and it’s all there in their memories. So that’s probably one example of what that means because I think that’s a pretty common gesture. It also does pertain to the idea of realism more generally— the idea that if you relate it to a historic narrative that this is the way things went, and there was this progression.
Actually, there are all these other things that probably happened, but if they don’t relate to the primary narrative, they just become anecdotes that didn’t really have anything to do with the progress of history. I think that that becomes a very biased account, and there’s certainly a lot of African-American history that has been excised from official narratives or even just in general ideas about cultural identity in the United States. So this is like an oral history that Eloise is acquiring by being in the actual presence of her ancestors in a sense.
WRBH: I think that’s fascinating honestly because I remember being in school and studying history; and you’d get to the 1700s and 1800s, and there’d be one little paragraph of “this is what women did during this entire period.” And they were throughout that more, but you have this collective memory or this narrative that doesn’t allow for that sometimes. Or a lot of times actually.
LH: Yes, that’s true. A lot does get left out, and sometimes it’s very difficult when things don’t jive with the official narrative of history or even like of the present. It’s kind of a bit jarring.
And then you’re like oh my gosh, where did that come from? And well, it’s always been there!
WRBH: In the book, you get to basically take a road trip with these characters through Florida to a bunch of different locations, and you grew up in Florida partly.
LH: Well, yes. My grandparents did live there, so I would go there every summer.
WRBH: And did you take a lot of trips yourself down across the state?
LH: I did. I traveled with my grandfather. Actually, [we] did quite a bit.
WRBH: How was revisiting these locales on this very personal level as well as having to write about them?
LH: A lot of them are still very familiar and very present in my in my life. I was telling someone there is—I didn’t mean to do it quite so accurately— but there actually are driving directions that lead directly to one of my uncle’s houses in the book. Isn’t that funny? So yeah, they’re there. They’re still very present in my life. I have an uncle that I’m very close with that lives in Florida as well, and my mother lives in my grandparents’ house now. So, I still go there quite a bit.
WRBH: Who are some of the writers that have influenced you the most?
LH: I’ve been influenced by a great many writers. I would say the writer that influenced me the most was definitely Toni Morrison, though, and I actually do still remember when I first read her novels because I read one and I was like oh my gosh. And then, I read all of them that had been published at the time, and I was just really amazed. It was the language that really struck me and also the way in which she dealt with her subject matter. It was so striking to me at the time, and I think that was when I first really thought oh, I want to write. Maybe I didn’t think that clearly actually at the time. I was really moved by it though. So, she was definitely the biggest influence.
WRBH: Do you have a favorite novel of hers?
LH: Well, they change. I really like Song of Solomon.
WRBH: I think that’s a great book. I’m preferential towards Sula myself.
LH: I was thinking about that too! Yeah, she definitely was a huge influence on me.
WRBH: To get into a little bit of your work outside of writing. What exactly do you teach at Tulane University?
LH: Right now I’m teaching a class on Afrofuturism. So, we’re reading a lot of African-American Science Fiction and also Surrealist novels and then also talking about music and film as well. So it’s been great.
WRBH: Is there any part of the syllabus that you’re super excited to get to?
LH: This week we’re talking about a book by Ishmael Reed called Mumbo Jumbo. Really, it’s a great book. It’s a very unique book, and I’m pretty happy to be talking about that.
WRBH: Well Ladee, I have two more questions for you before we go. What are you reading right now? And also, are you working on any projects that are going to be coming out soon?
LH: Well, my reading at the moment is pretty much confined to the books I’ve been reading for this class. It’s been a pretty busy past few months, and I’m also trying to work on another novel and a collection of short stories.
WRBH: Anything you can tell us about them, or are they still in the keep-quiet stages?
LH: No. I mean the novel is actually about [Johnny’s] grandfather. It’s weird to call it a prequel because it’s so very different. It’s about his life and he winds up—he becomes the face on this label, for this sauce. It’s like a meat sauce. And he travels the country giving cooking demonstrations as the Rib King. It’s been very fun to work on it when I can. I really love working on it. But it’s a really different book so I’m excited for that.
This interview was transcribed from an episode of The Writer’s Forum, a weekly program on WRBH Reading Radio for the Blind and Print Impaired focused on showcasing local and national authors, poets, historians, journalists and historians. You can find the full archive of programs here: www.soundcloud.com/wrbhreadingradio/sets/the-writers-forum
WRBH Reading Radio is a New Orleans station whose mission is to turn the printed word into the spoken word so that the blind and print handicapped can receive the same ease of access to current information as their sighted peers. You can listen to your favorite books, magazines, and interviews locally at 88.3 FM or stream on WRBH’s website www.wrbh.org.