Honoring Street-Level New Orleans: A Conversation with Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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New Orleans is one of those mythical American cities that plays muse to countless artists. But when Maurice Carlos Ruffin was writing his New Orleans-based story collection, The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, released this past August, he realized that many of these artists have been outsiders, viewing the city with an external white gaze and rarely depicting or even conscious of the African American neighborhoods filled with public music where Ruffin grew up. Ruffin’s stories are thus both celebration and corrective, honoring those who adapt and survive, as the city itself has weathered hardship, including 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and last August’s Hurricane Ida. Ruffin’s characters always seem to be scurrying to outrun privation. A girl who sleeps under a highway overpass dodges a police raid. A homeowner struggles to prevent foreclosure while monied gentrifiers steadily buy up surrounding properties. Two queer teens stealthily post a Black Trans Lives Matter sign at night—an equally urgent act of spiritual survival. Racism pervades this landscape, woven into the city’s everyday fabric. Faceless police prowl the streets intently. White employers obliviously denigrate their Black service employees.

Ruffin identifies as an activist writer, but he’s a storyteller first. Characters embody injustices; they don’t declare messages about them. He ranges freely across genre in these nineteen pieces. “Ghetto University” is farcical. A laid-off English professor who once lectured at the Sorbonne takes to mugging French Quarter tourists while wearing a black Covid-mask. “Caesara Pittman, or a Negress of God” is a historical courtroom drama, played lightly as the narrator employs razor-sharp folk imagery, calling spectators “piglets on a mama pig’s teats.”

In our Zoom conversation earlier this month, held while Ruffin continues to recover from temporary post-Ida displacement, he also made a point to express gratitude for a growing community of New Orleanian and other regional writers who are voicing new Black narratives and remapping America’s Southern literary geographies.

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The Rumpus: I want to ask first about what might be the true central character binding the story collection: New Orleans itself. You capture one side of the city’s personality nicely in “Rhinoceros” with the line, “New Orleans was a city where people were always out and watching other people, even during a pandemic.” This is definitely a street-level book. Can you talk about how you approached this city of yours as a character?

Maurice Carlos Ruffin: We’re such a storied city, but there haven’t been many people who’ve published short stories about it on a national level, so subconsciously, I was thinking about representing the city and the different ways it manifests itself. In Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex and Toni Morrison’s Sula the community is a character. In Middlesex, it’s Detroit and in Morrison’s work, her fictional county, like Faulkner’s, makes its people. I wanted to give as much breadth to the city as possible and in ways not stereotypical or clichéd. I know the neighborhoods and the people, but I asked myself, Who am I not seeing? I’m trying to draw those characters and give them the leads.

Rumpus: When you say you’re trying to represent the city, it sounds like you might be feeling a responsibility to present a New Orleans whose voices have been underrepresented. Did you construct the stories with the conscious idea of centering the marginalized? They are the dominant voices—poor folks driven to hustle, people facing eviction, queer youth, ex-cons, the homeless, all dealing with the looming presence of roving police and tourists hunting for a pleasure fix.

Ruffin: It can be difficult to accept a responsibility like that because you don’t want to sound hackneyed. Writers of this time period writing out of New Orleans are doing that service. We’re showing aspects of the city for the first time. In a New York book, that’s probably an angle we’ve seen a thousand times. In a book like Sarah Broom’s memoir, The Yellow House, she’s showing people I never imagined I’d see talked about in such an epic and respectful way. As a fiction writer, I’m not all these people in their variety of identities, but I know them. They’re in my family. I went to high school with them. And I know outsiders would not be able to describe them. These characters appear on their own behalf. It’s not me trying to create them.

Rumpus: I was particularly moved by the voices of children forced to grow up too fast, like the unnamed narrator of the title story who must pay his foster mother a cut of what he makes selling his body on the street. They have wits and clever minds, like the homeless girl in “Fast Hands, Fast Feet,” who says one of my favorite lines: “Jesus was a badass child, flipping tables at the mall.” That’s some original Biblical exegesis. What was it like to write from the child’s point of view?

Ruffin: The kids came first. I’m a former corporate lawyer. I didn’t want to start writing stories about corporate lawyers. I was seeing young people around town. I’d go to schools and volunteer. I represented young people in foster care. On the one hand, they have all that joy and energy of being young. But on a larger scale the system is failing them. A reason why so many talented people leave the city is that it can be voracious at times. I kept thinking about all the young people under the age of sixteen or so who have hopes and dreams, but if they’re in foster care or have bad parents or are just in a bad situation, they don’t have solutions. But people from New Orleans are not saying, Woe is me. It’s just what life is like. If I have a little sister and I have to watch out for her because nobody else is bringing food into the house, then I’ll do that. There’s an independence and a resilience. The book is dedicated to the children of New Orleans. They have been unseen for many generations. I want to be a small part of rectifying that and maybe inspiring these young people to make their own creative works.

Rumpus: I’m wondering if you saw getting out and talking to people as field research, going to communities that are not yours to get a vibe on how people are living.

Ruffin: I don’t have children, so I wasn’t hanging out in schools with my own kids and their friends. But there wasn’t any two-month period when I didn’t visit a school and give a presentation and talk to the kids afterwards or go to an independent organization like a literacy program or even some place as simple as a Popeyes Chicken, overhearing kids talking and then chiming in to the conversation. I had my eyes and ears open. I wasn’t afraid to reach out. I remember talking to a girl at a youth writing program who said about an early story I wrote, “I don’t think we really sound like that when we talk around here.” I love to hear that, her stating her case. I took it as a sign of respect. The voices in this city are full of multiplicity. None of us can do it by ourselves.

Rumpus: I saw the city’s long history of racism and racial disparities that have worsened since Katrina reflected particularly in how the white characters seem invasive—tourists out for sex, transplanted gentrifiers, or locals spewing crude racist talk. Is this a New Orleans where interracial connection is even possible?

Ruffin: This city is structured heavily as a service economy. Something like eighty percent of the work is service-related. A lot of the natives in this city, which is majority African American, work in hotels and restaurants, drive streetcars, do tourist-related things and you have to present that Louis Armstrong grin. Then there is the intra-city economics. If you are white, there’s a pretty good chance you are from the top one percent of the economy. So, you live in a pretty nice house and send your kids to schools that have high tuition and are hard to get into because of structural choices the schools make. Those things create a division. If I’m looking at a room full of locals, like a restaurant, the local Blacks are the servers and dishwashers, while the white folks are often with friends from out of town. Does that make racial connection impossible? No, but people are resigned to it. It’s like a statis, an armistice when the war is over. There was a battle fought a very long time ago and it’s never quite ended.

Rumpus: Do you see yourself as an activist writer, intentionally addressing social issues such as the impact of mass incarceration, housing injustice, and racism or are these issues just organically woven into the everyday reality of your New Orleans?

Ruffin: One hundred percent I am an activist writer in the same way Baldwin was. Baldwin said he saw his contemporaries out on the streets putting their bodies on the line and felt sadness that he wasn’t doing the same thing. But he recognized that someone had to record the stories and pass them along. My books are made to show the complexity of my community. I’m making my claim to show our stories in the truest light possible. I’m trying to make the point that if my people read these books, they’ll say, “Wow! I’ve never seen my gay auntie as a lead character.” The activist is saying we really exist. In a better world we’d have many more opportunities in support of New Orleans-based artists and writers to tell their stories.

Rumpus: Perhaps the biggest social issue that runs through the collection is housing, which is deeply connected to race. You build many stories around the loss of home, not just literal houses by eviction or flood, but also the collective home of neighborhood. This is the focus of the longest story, “Before I Let Go,” where incoming gentrifiers call a lone trumpet player’s music “noise pollution.” This is one of the most resonant images in the book for me, how the binding energy of public music is lost. After Katrina I interviewed local bassist Michael Harris, and he said neighborhood music was the way kids were baptized, playing and hearing it in the street, receiving the musical transmission of the spirit. In the story, all that is gone. How did you approach this theme of home, yearning, community, and loss?

Ruffin: Because we’re a city that has had many major catastrophes, because of racism and white supremacy, because of economics, we have been in transition for centuries. I tried to describe the caesura between Katrina and the book’s publication in as much detail as possible. Gentrification, for example, has accelerated so much. I don’t have an answer, but I can record these facts in real time.

Rumpus: I was really struck by the police presence on the outskirts of a lot of these stories. Police are not in the stories as characters, but I look to the right and to the left and there is a police car parked with headlights on. What was your approach to the police as a character?

Ruffin: There is a police presence in almost all the full-size stories. In “Pie Man,” Baby, the main character, has an ankle bracelet, but there are no cops in the story. In “Beg Borrow Steal,” the blueberry lights show up, but we never quite get police characters. “Mercury Forges” is told in the voice of a police character, but it’s not his story. He’s just telling you what’s going on. In “Rhinoceros,” Freddie and Shaquann are going to the George Floyd protest, and the police are all over the setting. When they break into the horse stables, the police get called. Our police are actually not as egregious as the worst of what you hear about around the country because the police are largely from the community and African American. But the flip side is there’s something about plantations and Black overseers. They’ll give you just enough looseness on the rope that you can get the job done. We are overpoliced and we are overprisoned. That’s in the background constantly. It’s almost like the characters are in a board game and if they hit the wrong square, they go to prison or they get shot. That’s an American story, not just a New Orleans story.

Rumpus: How do you decide which genre fits a story? Or does the genre choose you? Your debut novel We Cast a Shadow (One World, 2019) uses dark satire. These new stories range from farce to sobering drama, with some historical fiction and even a fragmented poem that plays with white space. They also vary greatly in length, including some flash fiction, and you use first, second, and third-person points of view.

Ruffin: It chooses me. I always go to character first, asking, Who wants to speak up now? And there is a chorus of voices out there in the universe. Someone like a Caesara Pittman pops up and says, “It’s me from 1866. You want to hear my story?” And I say, “Okay, what’s going on?” From that I get the setting, genre, and tone. Certain characters are more farcical or satirical. I rarely think of the premise or the high concept first.

Rumpus: Your mention of Ms. Pittman points to your literary influences. You drop some explicit clues. She’s named after the title character of Ernest Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. And “Token” seems like a straight-up New Orleans retake on Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” Zora Neale Hurston shows up, too. Characters are also reading texts by these authors. You seem to be having fun invoking some literary forebears.

Ruffin: Those writers deserve so much respect. I’ve also read about their process and who they read when they were coming up. Toni Morrison talked about reading Faulkner. She would take his tricks and upgrade them. There’s a whole subgenre of people who have written “Girl” stories. When an author does something special with their structure, that’s a gift to all of us. Almost all my stories are based on some prior story, or in some cases, songs.

Rumpus: As a Californian by way of a Midwestern youth, I’m basically illiterate in Nola-speak. Could you share how you play with New Orleanian speech? Is it a Nola-style simile when Miss Pittman says, “He ugly as a pot of chitlings. His outside match his insides.”

Ruffin: That’s not a specifically New Orleanians statement, but it’s Black southern. If she’d said that in Mississippi or West Florida people would get it. The way New Orleanians talk can be tracked in public figures over time—Louis Armstrong in the early part of the century, Irma Thomas in the ’60s, and then Lil Wayne from 2004. There’s a flavor to the New Orleans accent that is so specific. My question is do I lean into that accent so much that it sounds like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, creating the kind of recording she did as an ethnographer, or do I dial it back? In these nineteen stories, I wanted to give a sampler of what people sound like. The kids in “Beg Borrow Steal” and “The Pie Man” have a wise-cracking, Lil Wayne-type voice. The professor and his wife in “Ghetto University” have a more educated voice. Gailya in “Before I Let Go” is probably the character who most represents what people sound like in the city.

Rumpus: Now that it’s out in the world, do you think your book is in dialogue with any other books in the literary sphere, whether intended or not?

Ruffin: You can say that for about eighty years New Orleans literature has been dominated by white writers and outsiders, people like Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Truman Capote, Faulkner, Walker Percy, and John Kennedy Toole. In many ways they built a mythology of New Orleans, seeing in it a kind of magical quality. This book is in conversation with them. My characters are talking back to them. And I think many current genius Black writers like Robert Jones, Sarah Broom, and Deesha Philyaw are showing you that these American stories told in the past are missing so much.

Rumpus: You bring some stories into the present moment, referencing the pandemic. How has the pandemic affected your writing both in terms of composing storylines and in terms of your writing process?

Ruffin: “Ghetto University” and “Rhinoceros” are set in the pandemic. “Ghetto University” was an older story I brought into the pandemic to make it contemporary. I wasn’t close to finishing “Rhinoceros.” I’d put it down for a long time. I could not have finished it without the pandemic. Freddie and Shaquann go to the protest where there is a feeling of isolation the pandemic has created and a paranoia in the background about who is safe and unsafe. The police say they are going to lay back and then they throw tear gas canisters, though that’s not explicitly in the story. In terms of my writing process, I was in Oxford, Mississippi, throughout 2020. It was wonderful to have that time and space because if I’d been in New Orleans and unable to meet people, go to events or go to house parties, it would have been a sad and mournful time. But to be in Mississippi, I was able to look back at what New Orleans is like in my own mind and have an outsider’s view of my own experience. Being homesick while being in the pandemic gave me a lot of ideas.

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Photograph of Maurice Carlos Ruffin by Vaughn D. Taylor.


Erik Gleibermann is a San Francisco social justice journalist, literary critic, memoirist and poet. He is a contributing editor for World Literature Todayand teaches writing in the Stanford University Continuing Studies program. He has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Florida Review, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares and other literary magazines. He recently completed Jewfro American: An Interracial Memoir. Follow him on Twitter @erikgleibermann and read more of his writings at erikgleibermann.com/writings More from this author →