Jesmyn Ward: 2011 National Book Award for Fiction Recipient

[By Dr. Maryemma Graham]

Jesmyn Ward was born in 1977 in DeLisle, Mississippi. Ward, a Hurricane Katrina survivor, is a southern writer, admitting to a love-hate relationship with the region she calls home. Her mother’s white employer helped to provide for her education. Racial bullying was part of her childhood experience; at one point, students threatened to lynch her.

Speaking about her second novel, Salvage the Bones, Ward told CNN: “There are three things that I draw from my life that are included in this book. One is that the book is set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in a small, rural black community, which is the kind of community I come from. Two, the characters experienced Hurricane Katrina. I was home for Hurricane Katrina, so I had some of my experience to draw from. It was like firsthand research. But the characters’ experience in the storm is totally different from mine. And the third thing is actually the dogfighting. When I was younger, I actually witnessed some dogfights. The other things the characters experienced throughout the book [are] purely fictional.”

Ward attributes her writing career to the death of her 19-year-old brother, killed by a drunk driver when she was still in college. A first book, Where the Line Bleeds, was published in 2008. She began writing “to make life worth living again.” She acknowledges that her books show a commitment to writing “about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South . . about us as human beings trying to survive and make the best of what we have right here, right now.”

Salvage the Bones, which took her three years to write , is in large part personal testimony. She and her family were in Mississippi when Katrina hit and were forced to flee, thus making Ward privy to shared life-and-death experiences.

“We went out into the storm, sheltered in our cars for hours, were denied shelter by a white family who told us we could sit outside in their field but couldn’t shelter in their house, and then made our way to an intersection where another family, again white, took us in,” she said. “To say the least, it was traumatic.”

One critic notes, “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.” Salvage the Bones is considered to have the “aura of a classic.”

Bloomsbury will soon publish Ward’s memoir, tentatively titled “Men We Reaped,” which explored an epidemic of deaths of young black men in her community. Ward is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Alabama.

Ward received the National Book Award for fiction. Follow the link here and watch her acceptance is at the 35:37 minute mark.