We can think of many reasons why you should join SAL on Wednesday, January 17 to see Jesmyn Ward, the lyrical Southern author gracing all of 2017’s best-of book lists, but here are our top five:
By: Emmy Newman, SAL Intern
1. She writes close to home. Jesmyn Ward’s two National Book Award-winning novels, Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) are set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Modeled after Ward’s hometown of DeLisle, Ward has written herself into the tradition of authors like William Faulkner and his fictionalized world of Yoknapatawpha County. “I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs,” Ward told the audience at the ceremony for her latest National Book Award win. While her writing pays homage to Ward’s hometown, her books hit home for thousands of readers with their themes of fragility and strength, and beauty standing shoulder-to-shoulder with death.
2. She has a genre for every reader. In addition to literary gold stars for her prodigious fiction skill, Ward has proven her prowess as a nonfiction writer and editor. In Men We Reaped (2013), Ward remembers the deaths of five young black DeLisle men in her life over a four-year period. While the men were killed by seemingly disparate causes, including car accidents, suicide, and murder, Ward’s storytelling weaves their lost lives together into a larger narrative of systemic racism and rural poverty in Southern black communities. “Ward capably, sensitively covers many important subjects—from the fragility of African-American manhood, to the expectations of familial responsibility, to the difficulties of living in both the white and black worlds,” writes Richard Torres for NPR. Ward also served as the editor for the collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2016). Inspired by James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, the collected essays and poems explore black experiences in America—Kirkus Reviews calls its pieces “timely contributions to an urgent national conversation.”
3. She has the skill to infuse poetry into her prose. In an interview with the Paris Review, Ward said, “I’m a failed poet. Reading poetry helps me to see the world differently, and I try to infuse my prose with figurative language.” Her lyrical flexibility coupled with prosaic strength have not gone unnoticed in her work. Entertainment Weekly writes, “Ward has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Absorbing the harsh beauty of her writing isn’t easy; reading Sing sometimes feels like staring into the sun. But she also makes it impossible to turn away.” Or, as a review in The New Yorker sums, the effect of Ward’s carefully crafted sentences “can be hypnotic. Some chapters sound like fairy tales.”
4. She has lived through disaster and knows what it takes to rebuild. Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in the final days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, an event she lived through with her family. “I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive,” Ward recalls. After being refused shelter by a white family, Ward and her family managed to survive the storm after hunkering down in trucks in an open field. When Ward says, “I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us,” she is speaking honestly of the ruins. The strength of Ward’s work continues in her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, as it follows another fractured family living in the ashes of the storm. As The New Yorker notes, Sing has “the haunted quality of an afterlife; its characters seem stranded in an epilogue,” reminding us of the rippling effects of systemic racism and ineffective aid that has allowed this storm to remain long past its first wind.
5. She will be remembered. As the first woman to win two National Book Awards for Fiction, Ward has already made her undeniable mark on history. Eight men have won the esteemed award multiple times, including William Faulkner, John Cheever, and John Updike, but Ward’s repeat lands her on the historical notables list. In addition to her N.B.A. wins, Ward has also been awarded a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, a Strauss Livings Prize, and a MacArthur “Genius” grant in her career. At the N.B.A. awards ceremony this November, she spoke about the prejudice she has faced as a female writer of color: “Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories… [But] you looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my back, my Southern children, women, and men—and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope.”
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