The Impractical Art: Interview With Ladee Hubbard

31 Oct

By Poet Wolfe

Photo by Poet Wolfe

Writer Ladee Hubbard’s career was built on discipline, education, and traveling. Before fiction, Hubbard’s first passion was writing poetry in high school. It wasn’t until her studies at Princeton University that she gained her love for writing fiction, which she credits to not only her literary hero, but college thesis advisor, Toni Morrison. During and after her time at Princeton, she produced mainly short stories. It wasn’t until 2017 that Hubbard published her first novel, The Talented Ribkins. Hubbard successfully reaches the goal every artist has: to challenge people’s perception of the world through their craft. She does so by observing the expansion of possibilities in today’s society, as seen in her short stories, articles, and her first novel. Ladee Hubbard proves herself to be a writer for both the past and future.

I met the author at CC’s Coffee house on Esplanade. She wore a casual outfit: a black sweater covering a white T-shirt underneath and jeans. Her hair fell in loose, natural curls, and her lips were coated with a dark red-violet lipstick. Hubbard approached me with a wide smile and handshake. I asked her if she wanted anything to drink, to which she replied kindly, “No, thank you,” an answer I never expected to hear from a writer when offered a cup of coffee. We sat down, and she began asking me a couple of general questions: what school I went to, what grade I was in. She then started asking me questions about my writing, and it felt as if I were the one being  interviewed. I eventually shifted the conversation to being about her. Through the rumbling of the espresso machine and loud conversations coming from surrounding tables, we talked about her life and career as a writer in New Orleans.

Wolfe: Looking at your writing, such as your novel The Talented Ribkins, along with other short stories you have written, you tend to approach history through a family narrative. Why do you think writing history through a family narrative powerfully approaches the effects of history? Why did you choose to approach history through a family narrative in your book?

Hubbard: I never consciously thought it came from a family narrative. It’s because I am innately distrustful of official narratives of history, so a lot of times I think the way I process things is that there is an official narrative. It’s certainly true in African-American culture, which is an oral history--it’s something someone told you. It’s not documented. There’s a lot of history of marginalized people that is not documented. You know what I mean? It’s always been interesting to me that a lot of my personal history seems anecdotal, like, “Oh, so this is the way things normally work.”  Then you have this little weird event, but you have no implications. The implications are excised from the official narrative of history. It’s not just African-American history. It’s true for a lot of marginalized people in general. I never thought about it in terms of family, but I do think a lot about it in terms of oral traditions not being considered as valid. 

Wolfe: Your book had a lot of similarities to Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Those stories use the family narrative. Were you inspired by these writers while writing The Talented Ribkins?

Hubbard: There are other books I thought of more, but specifically, I think my approach to realism heavily influenced the book. I am a really big fan of The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and I am a huge fan of Toni Morrison, particularly The Song of Solomon. 

Wolfe: In your interview with The Guardian, you stated, “So much is left out of the official narratives of history.” For TSL Magazine, you also wrote an article on the hit film Black Panther and the history it left out. How do you think pop culture today leaves out narratives of history? What narrative of history would you like to see presented?

Hubbard: That’s a hard question, you know? It’s complicated to me. It’s not so much about history as it is the historical narratives and the ways people perceive as what is possible. For me, as a writer, when I think about genre or form or structures of representation, they all become related in my mind. That’s why I am having a hard time answering it succinctly. I would like to see an expansion of what is possible in this world. There’s lots of implications about that in terms of race and gender and stuff like that. 

Wolfe: Like family, education plays a central role in your stories. How do you see education being taught in the next 20 years? As a past professor at Tulane University, how would you like to see it taught?

Hubbard: I think education plays a central role in defining someone in terms of class. Education is a huge deal, and my family, specifically my grandparents, fetishized education. It was really important to them. I don’t feel like that is represented enough when people talk about the traditional black middle class in the South. That’s part of why I focus on it. 

Wolfe: You’re originally from Massachusetts. How do you think New Orleans has affected your stories?

Hubbard: I don’t really write about New Orleans because it’s intimidating. It’s such a complicated place, but even though in my stories I am supposedly writing about some place else, New Orleans will somehow seep into it. I was suppose to write a noir story set in Saint Petersburg, where my grandparents are from. Then I went through the story and realized I made everything up, and it was really more New Orleans, which is really funny. The city is really inspiring because it’s so different from any other place I’ve ever been. My kids were born here, and I think it’s such a wonderful place to grow up. My daughter just moved somewhere else to college and was telling me over there it is so boring, and I told her there’s nowhere else in this country, or really in the world, that is like New Orleans. I appreciate the strength it has taken to sustain such a unique culture. I find that highly inspiring, just to think how New Orleans even manages to exist.

Wolfe: Also, there are so many clichés that surround the city. When you read stories with New Orleans as the setting, you usually see the clichés of Gothic elements like ghost stories and a false representation of Mardi Gras.

Hubbard: That’s another thing. It’s sort of overrepresented, and I don’t want to ever contribute to that. I’m trying to think of another city where it is true to the same extent. Not even New York carries that type of pressure. 

Wolfe: Especially after going through Katrina right after moving here, what do you think pushed you to stay in New Orleans?

Hubbard: Honestly, in a weird way, I think it was Katrina. I lived in New York, and I lived in L.A., and then I moved here. It was the first time I had ever lived in the deep South. In a lot of ways, it was very alienating for me when I first came here. As I was saying before, I really appreciate the beauty and strength of it. It’s an amazing culture that has managed to endure. I really thought about that after Katrina. Katrina made me think about all of those things in a different way. 

Wolfe: A lot of artists during this time were creating art that focused on the storm, and even approaching things through a different lense in their art because of the overall isolation and terror of the storm. During this time that you were going through Katrina, did you find your writing was changing?

Hubbard: Yeah, I never sent out work before Katrina. It made me want to publish my work. 

Wolfe: What does your writing process look like?

Hubbard: I try to write every day, and I wake up really early and I do that. I find a lot of times it starts off as just an idea or something I want to know more about. I was telling someone that sometimes I don’t really know what I think or feel about someone or something until I write it down. It doesn’t make sense until it becomes a character and a story.

Wolfe: Going from writing a short story from a novel is a very gruesome process. Clearly, writing a novel took longer, but mentally, what was it like going from only writing poetry then only writing short story, then delving into the novel category?

Hubbard: My short stories are very strange. I find it harder in general to write a short story because I get really obsessive with language and rhythm of words. I think that comes from poetry. The economy of those forms are so different. I get really neurotic when I write short stories. In a way, I find it easier and more liberating to write longer pieces because it’s exhausting to read books with that type of intricate language that goes on for so many pages. 

Wolfe: You’ve explored a lot of genres of writing. What do you enjoy most?

Hubbard: I really love writing fiction. I really enjoyed writing a novel. 

Wolfe: What is your advice for aspiring writers?

Hubbard: Oh, my gosh. You would think I would have something. In general,  you should do what you love and what you connect with. You should fight for what you love. It really isn’t easy being a writer. It’s a totally impractical thing. Being an artist is a totally impractical thing to want to be. You have to figure out if it’s important for you--for who you are. Art, in my opinion, is something definitely worth fighting for. 

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