Like Johnny Ribkin, the protagonist of her first novel, Ladee Hubbard knows how to draw a map.
While Johnny’s maps can lead to almost anywhere through the segregated South, Ladee’s map leads right to a reader’s heart. That’s the glory of “The Talented Ribkins,” a novel about an unusual family, in which each member possesses a kind of superpower.
“I guess my superpower is my desire to write,” Hubbard said.
Let’s hope it never fades. Hubbard’s first novel is a marvel, a riff on the idea of W.E.B. DuBois’ essay, “The Talented Tenth,” which explored the idea of an African-American leadership class, as well as a take on the idea that from those to whom much is given, much is to be expected.
The Ribkins have a history as part of the Justice Committee, which protected African-American civil rights leaders in their travels — “the Freedom of Movement movement” as Johnny calls it.
Johnny Ribkin is the cartographer, other Ribkins can spit firecrackers, scale walls, see colors no one else can see, and the Hammer, well, you can guess that one.
Johnny has fallen on hard times and is road-tripping around Florida, digging up stashes of cash to pay off a debt to a mob boss, accompanied by his newly discovered niece Eloise, who is learning the dimensions of her own Ribkin gift.
It is exceptionally funny, tender and heartbreaking, as this family of superheroes unravels its own complicated history and entanglements.
Florida is one of the landscapes of Hubbard’s childhood, where she spent summers with her grandparents. She was born in Massachusetts, and her mother was an attorney, a public defender on St. Thomas and St. Johns, in the American Virgin Islands. Her father is from New Orleans, and yes, Ladee is a family name.
Hubbard's studied everywhere from a Quaker boarding school in upstate New York to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for her master of fine arts and UCLA for her Ph.D., but she found her true mentor at Princeton: Toni Morrison.
“I was a huge fan, and that’s why I wanted to go to Princeton,” Hubbard said. “I was in such awe of her. She was my thesis adviser in college, and everything she said seemed like a small miracle. She’s my inspiration and my muse.”
Hubbard was able to take a year off from her duties at Tulane University, teaching in the Africana and African Diaspora Studies department, in order to finish the book, thanks to a 2016 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Foundation gift.
“It was such a validation,” she said. “To have someone say, ‘Your job is to sit and write.’ "
She recently returned from a two-month residency at the Instituto Sacatar on Itaparica, an island off the coast of Salvador Bahia, where she concentrated on her works-in-progress. Husband Christopher Dunn, a Tulane professor of Brazilian cultural and literary studies, held down the fort with their three kids.
“I haven’t really written about New Orleans,” Hubbard said, though she feels a real connection after moving here in 2003 and wrestling with the evacuation and post-Katrina return.
“Katrina had a huge impact on me,” she said. “It was a real catalyst. It made me feel protective of New Orleans, even though I hadn’t been there very long. So, yes, it’s home. I’m sitting here on my grandparents’ porch in Florida talking to you right now, but I think New Orleans is home.
“It’s such a complicated city, and it’s difficult to represent how beautiful it is in all its complications. I’m slightly intimidated by its complexities. It’s a good place to sit and think. I’m waiting for it to insinuate itself into my work.”
Whatever comes next, either a new novel or an interconnected story collection (both underway), “The Talented Ribkins” marks Hubbard as a writer to watch. This tale of self-revelation and recognizing one’s tribe is quite an arrival, filled with both a sense of discovery and hard-won wisdom.
As the Hammer says to her young niece, “How is anybody going to recognize you, Eloise, if you’re scared to show people who you really are? ... Everything beautiful in this world is strange.”
What: Ladee Hubbard talks about "The Talented Ribkins" with Jami Attenberg
When: Tuesday, Aug. 8, 6 p.m.
Where: Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St.