oprah and cynthia bond
Photo: Ben Baker
Believe me, it's not easy finding words to describe Ruby, because nothing comes close to the experience of reading it. It's a love story, a ghost story, a story about the legacy of racial injustice and sexual abuse. The title character, when we first encounter her, is a once beautiful, now ravaged woman—filthy and barefoot—who wanders the streets of all-black Liberty Township, Texas. It's a place of paradoxes where drunken, cheating men chew tobacco outside juke joints, then stumble home to churchgoing wives who disapprove of their behavior yet never say so. But no one is disapproved of more than Ruby. The rumors that she's crazy are fueled by her actions, as when, in an early scene, she stands still outside and urinates, in full view of everyone. What made her that way? Layer by layer, all is revealed.

As with Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye and Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ruby's pain is born of her own experience—her very existence is the result of a white man's rape of her mother; she was sexually abused as a child; she worked as a prostitute—but it's also the embodiment of slavery's legacy. As one character in the novel observes, "Hell, ain't nothing strange when Colored go crazy. Strange is when we don't."

Ruby's torment is compounded by her ability to see and feel ghosts and haints—among them the souls of lost and murdered children—and by the memory of an aunt who was shot 27 times and hanged from a tree.

This is difficult stuff, but Cynthia Bond is a writer whose gritty realism is made magic by glittering language that entices you to stop and read whole sentences aloud.

And as dark as the book is, it's also suffused with moments of light. Ephram Jennings, who's known and adored Ruby since they were children, still sees through to her beauty and is determined to nurture her back to wholeness. His heart and constancy are what make the book a love story. Will he and Ruby get together? Will they stay together? Will he in fact save her? Since this book is the first in a trilogy, you may have to wait to find out.

I was in bed with the flu when I started Ruby, but I kept going all day. Only when I got to an especially haunting part involving what Bond refers to as the Dyboù—an evil force out of the conjure world—did I stop. I had to. I couldn't read about the Dyboù at night. First thing the next day, I picked up the book again. One of my deepest pleasures in life is knowing there's more great reading to come. So when I got to the last 100 pages, I slowed down, taking a break every 20 pages or so to savor, lingering over sentences like "The sky rolled thunder like a pair of dice." By midafternoon I was done. Too soon.

When I found out that Bond is 53 and hadn't written a book before, I thought, Wow. This woman was born to write. There's no other explanation for such a vivid, searing first-time novel that penetrates through the page to the reader's heart. Writing is Bond's calling. No question about it. And when I found out that she's spent more than 15 years teaching writing to homeless and at-risk youth, I knew she must be truly special. I couldn't wait to call and tell her that Ruby is our new OBC 2.0 pick. After we got past her surprise, we got down to talking.

Oprah: Did you always know you were going to write this book?

Cynthia Bond: I didn't plan to write a novel at all. My father taught literature and theater, so I grew up hearing him quote Shakespeare. When he taught and directed plays, my sister and I used to sit in the back of the theater and do our homework. I wanted to be an actor, but my mother wouldn't pay for acting school, so I studied journalism at Northwestern. I did act, though. After college, I went to New York for about ten years. I worked with amazing actors and playwrights—Samuel L. Jackson, Charles Fuller. I acted in the Negro Ensemble Company. Then I moved to L.A., only to discover that I just wasn't able to do it anymore. So I began working with young people, teaching them storytelling and writing.

See their full conversation in the March issue of O, The Oprah Magazine

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