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Maurice Carlos Ruffin on place, identity, and gentrification in his hometown of New Orleans

Ruffin’s debut novel is “one of the most anticipated debut novels” of 2019, according to the Los Angeles Times

Photo by Clare Welsh

In his debut novel, We Cast A Shadow (Penguin Random House), Maurice Carlos Ruffin paints a picture of a Southern city that feels surreal and familiar all at once. Its black denizens drive streetcars and make gumbo, but they also undergo costly, painful demelanization procedures in order to pass as white. The unnamed main character “wants to do the best for his son who he loves,” Ruffin says—and that desire drives him to make tough decisions. Below, Ruffin shares his thoughts on place, identity, and gentrification.

Would you share a quick autobiography?

I’m from New Orleans. I’ve lived here my whole entire life. I grew up in New Orleans East and now live in Uptown. I’m a product of public schools. I have a law degree from Loyola University as well as a writing degree from the University of New Orleans.

Will you talk about your decision to set We Cast A Shadow in an unnamed “City” that resembles but is not New Orleans?

The idea is that New Orleans is a tourist city. We have people coming in and out all the time, and they come because they have their own vision of what New Orleans is. In a strange way, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve been here or not. You keep that vision in your head. … I created an imaginary space where I had more control over time and place.

I wanted a cover that’s a work of art, and ... the cover is inspired by antiques culture here in New Orleans. If you look at the cover, you see cameo heads, and it makes me think of antique brooches.

Is the narrator a villain in your mind?

It’s clear he does some bad things in the book, but I think it’s open to the readers’ interpretation as to whether he is a villain.

Do you identify as a New Orleans writer, or do you feel that this identity limits you when you’re reaching a national audience?

I am 100 percent a New Orleanian, and I am a New Orleans writer as well. People want to read about New Orleans and read the works that inspired my book, and I claim this place as home.

I want people to come to New Orleans and experience our city. I want them to ask deeper questions about what they see and hear. This is a city where you can learn a lot about yourself and America, especially if you keep your eyes and your mind open.

What’s your take on gentrification from the vantage point of a native, black New Orleanian?

Gentrification in New Orleans is very complex. There are many things that upset me, like some of the ways our old traditions or cultural institutions have gone away, as well as businesses. There are also upsides: experiences we get to have that weren’t possible before. A lot of my friends are from the Northeast. I have worked with them as a writer and learned things from them, and that would not have been possible before Katrina, for example.

What do you like best about your neighborhood?

It’s centrally located, and the things I really like to do, such as jog on St, Charles Avenue or go to coffee shops, are all close to here. Our house is lovely; you can’t find a home like this anywhere else in the city.

How has this week of your book launch been?

I’ve joked that 2018 was the best year of my life, but I think this week is the best year of my life. This past week has been wonderful.

Do you ever think you’ll leave New Orleans?

Perhaps for a short time, but this will always be home.