6. Jesmyn Ward Tells Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary People
By Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna
Jesmyn Ward, 40, broke through a literary glass ceiling on Nov. 15, 2017, when her novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, won the National Book Award for Fiction. It marked the second time that she’d won an NBA for fiction, making her the first woman to achieve a feat that other women writers had neared but never accomplished.
But in case there was any doubt about the fierceness of this literary lioness, Ward also received a 2017 “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for “exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential.”
Ward was relatively unknown when she was awarded her first NBA for Salvage the Bones, her second novel. Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles wrote:
“On one level, ‘Salvage the Bones’ is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy.
But if Salvage put Ward on the literary map, then Sing, the 2017 NBA winner, assures readers that she belongs there. Wrote Adrienne Green in The Atlantic
“Sing is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional and struggling Mississippi coastal town, where Jojo lives with his maternal grandparents. His mother, Leonie, is a black woman who struggles with drug use, especially ever since Jojo’s father Michael, who is white, was sent to the notoriously brutal Parchman penitentiary. Michael’s absence and Leonie’s general inattention to her children has left Jojo largely responsible for his 3-year-old sister, Kayla, of whom he is fiercely protective.
This is Ward’s “most ambitious [novel] yet. Her lyrical prose takes on, alternately, the tones of a road novel and a ghost story. . . . Told mostly from the point of view of Jojo and Leonie, who narrate by turn, the novel explores both the deep effects of racism and injustice on this fractured family, and the ways its members punish themselves for how they’ve chosen to cope.”
All of Ward’s novels to date take place in fictional Bois Sauvage, similar to DeLisle, Miss., where Ward grew up and lives today.
Ward has been called the heir to fellow Mississippi writer William Faulkner, who won four NBAs for Fiction during his lifetime as well as a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. Her “world building,” for example, has been compared to his Yoknapatawpha County — a stand-in for Faulkner’s native Lafayette County, Miss. — where many of his novels are set.
“So much of his work was centered in this place that he made up in Mississippi, with this revolving set of characters that popped up in his work again and again,” said Ward in a Time profile. “I understand that in some ways I’m attempting to do the same thing, to create this world and render it real on the page.”
Writer Alice Walker, from rural Putnam County, Ga., is another literary influence.
“When I read ‘The Color Purple,’ I saw that a black woman from the South could write about black women from the South and make a universal story,” Ward said in a 2011 article in The Times-Picayune.
The first member of her immediate family to attend college, Ward received both a B.A. in English (1999) and M.A. in media studies and communication (2000) from Stanford University. She also earned an M.F.A (2005) from the University of Michigan.
Ward, an associate professor of English at Tulane University, also wrote the critically acclaimed memoir, Men We Reaped. She was the editor of and a contributor to The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which became a surprise New York Times bestseller.
In one of the many interviews she did during this breakout year, Ward was asked if she minded being part of an “emancipatory black tradition.” Her reply:
“I celebrate my blackness. I love the artistic vibrancy of the culture I was born to. I’m proud of the fact that the people of the African diaspora fight to survive, to thrive, all over the world, so of course my work reflects this pride, this investment in telling our stories. And I don’t find that problematic. . . .”
Nicole Crawford-Tichawonna is a writer/editor based in Washington, D.C.