Take 5: Jesmyn Ward

jesmyn ward

A history-making novelist brings stories of disenfranchised Americans to Festival of the Arts

Jesmyn Ward is not an autobiographical novelist, but she nonetheless writes about what she knows: African-American families living on the margins in Mississippi.

Born in Berkeley, California, Ward moved with her family to DeLisle, Mississippi—the state where she still resides—at age 3, and was bullied as a child by both black and white students. She became the first in her family to graduate college when she earned a media studies and communications degree from Stanford, in 2000. It would take another 11 years, and the success of her sophomore novel Salvage the Bones, for the literary world to take notice of Ward’s writing, with its raw poetry, and its unsentimental and often brutal clarity of vision. The novel impressed critics for its evocations of Medea and William Faulkner, and it went on to win the National Book Award for Fiction.

Her next novel, 2017’s Sing, Unburied Sing would win the National Book Award, with Ward becoming the first woman in history to earn the honor twice.

One of the literary world’s bona fide rock stars, Ward is one of the most anticipated speakers at Festival of the Arts Boca, where she’ll address her writing process, her humble background and the stories that have always enriched her life.

Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing both open with actions happening to or by the animals in the lives of your characters. Do you see a mirroring between these opening chapters, and the shadow they cast over the rest of the novels?

Yes, because I think the beginning of a short story or a novel is important, because it focuses the reader’s attention on what is important about what’s to come. One of the thematic concerns in Sing, Unburied, Sing is death. So it makes sense to begin in this moment, where [a goat] is being slaughtered.

In Salvage the Bones, it begins with a birth [of a litter of puppies]. Much of Salvage the Bones is concerned with how people and animals fight to survive. I know some writers who wait to write the beginning until they’re done writing a rough draft, because beginnings are so difficult. I actually don’t do that. I write from the very beginning, because writing the correct beginning is almost my way of setting my intention for what comes next.

Do you feel your novels have been an education for white readers?

Maybe. … After Hurricane Katrina, I remember that there was a lot of conversation about poor people who were from this region, who did not evacuate. … They thought that a lack of intellect is what caused us not to evacuate. When I heard those conversations, I realized that people just didn’t realize what it means to be poor…to have limited bad choices. I think that’s part of what inspired me to write Salvage the Bones.

It’s still part of what inspired me to write Sing, Unburied, Sing—to write about a mom like Leonie, who is also poor, but who is dealing with the illness of addiction, and who is not a perfect person. She’s the kind of person who people have lots of conversations about, but… is never allowed to tell their own story. … I hope that my fiction is enabling white people…to feel some sort of empathy.

Are you working on anything new?

I’m working on a novel that’s very different from anything I’ve written before. It is a novel set in and around New Orleans during the height of the domestic slave trade.

You’re a two-time National Book Award winner and NYT best-selling author. How has your life changed with fame?

…Unless I’m at an event that is particularly dedicated to books, people don’t recognize me… In my everyday life, it’s something that I forget about, because people don’t know who I am… I don’t live in New York City, the literary center of America. I live in my hometown, around the people I grew up with, who I’ve known my entire life. To them, I’m still me—the little girl, the person they’ve known forever.

Why is it important to still live in your hometown?

Because I write about people who could be members of my family or my community, I want to remain honest about their lives. Either I have to maintain an emotional closeness to my family and my community, and/or a physical one. … I have young kids, too, and I wanted to give them that experience of growing up in a large extended family. … Sometimes I really struggle with living here in Mississippi. As a black woman, it can be tough. Now I’m here, and I feel like I’m making the right decision.

This story is from the March 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.