It’s so easy after a long day to head on back to the barn and stay in for the evening; happily, the allure of a brilliant literary voice won out over “The Voice” last night for me when I went to the Festival of the Arts’ lecture by Jesmyn Ward, literary phenom and winner of two back-to-back National Book Awards. Ward, who won the awards for Salvage The Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, is an African American woman from Mississippi who shared her deeply personal story of becoming a writer—and what her writing is about—with a packed house of admirers on a breezy evening in the more intimate “lecture” tent to the east of the Amphitheater. It was the kind of evening that made me remember why the Festival is so important to us in Boca, how it can open windows in us all to art, ideas, brilliance.
Ward spoke to the larger history and sensibility that informs her work—hundreds of years of racial injustice in America, starting from the early slave days to now, 2020, when things have changed, and not changed, quoting Faulkner’s famous line: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Despite this chilling context, Ward’s work—and her talk last night—never resounds with bitterness or a heavy-handed accusatory outrage. I looked at the sea of white faces listening to her, and wondered what she might be thinking as she stated matter-of-factly how every generation of her family had struggled to gain even a toehold of respect and equality throughout their lives in the deep south. You could have heard a pin drop.
Ward’s books may spring from this haunting backdrop, but they also are rich with their own vibrant stories and characters—rendered in language that is poetic and powerful. Real. Moving. She brought that sensibility to life last night at The Festival with honesty, recounting the roadblocks she has seen and worked through personally since childhood to tell her stories, to tell the truth. As one of her characters says in Sing, Unburied, Sing:
“Ain’t no good in using anger just to lash. You pray for it to blow up a storm that’s going to flush out the truth.”