Born and raised in DeLisle, Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast, Jesmyn Ward has become a leading American writer on issues of race, struggle, and survival. She attended Stanford University and earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan in 2005, shortly before Hurricane Katrina flooded her family’s home. She had a Stegner Fellowship, a writer’s residency program at Stanford University, from 2008 to 2010, and taught and wrote as the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi the following year. In 2014 she joined the English department at Tulane University. She has published two novels, Where the Line Bleeds (2008) and Salvage the Bones (2011), and a memoir, Men We Reaped (2013). In 2016 she published an important edited collection, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, with work by Jericho Brown, Kima Jones, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, Wendy S. Walters, Isabel Wilkerson, Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, Carol Andersen, Clint Smith, Kevin Young, Kiese Laymon, Garnette Cadogan, Claudia Rankine, Emily Raboteau, Mitchell S. Jackson, Natasha Trethewey, Daniel Jose Older, and Edwidge Danticat.
Where the Line Bleeds follows two teenagers, Joshua and Christopher DeLisle, dealing with difficult realities on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Salvage the Bones, explores the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath from the perspective of pregnant, fifteen-year-old Esch. She struggles to hide her pregnancy from her brothers and father as the family battles poverty, injury, and disaster. Ward focuses on the physical changes her characters undergo and how scars, wounds, and a burgeoning baby bump can reveal hidden internal realities. This emphasis on physical changes extends to the landscape as Katrina engulfs Esch’s home. Despite the family’s triumphant survival, it comes with heavy losses.
Men We Reaped alternates between Ward’s personal and family history and the stories of five male friends and relatives, all of whom died in their early twenties—two in car crashes (including her brother, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2000), one by gunshot, one by suicide, one from a heart attack. Ward described telling the stories in Men We Reaped as “the hardest things I’ve ever done” and said she wrote in part to “understand a bit better why this epidemic happened.” More broadly, she says she wrote to make clear that the lives of her brother and her friends matter in an economic, educational, and political system that expects little of young black men except trouble.
Ward received considerable attention when Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award as the best work of fiction published in 2011. When a CNN interviewer asked how growing up on the Gulf Coast influenced her work, Ward replied, “I have a love-hate relationship with home. There’s so much I love about home, but then there’s a lot that I can acknowledge that I dislike about home. And acknowledging that to myself helps me see that place more clearly and to bring readers to that place. I just think these stories are worth being told and these people are worth being written about. I think our stories are universal stories. In the end, it’s about us as human beings trying to survive and make the best of what we have right here, right now.”
In 2017 Ward was named a MacArthur Fellow and her new work, Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel, won the National Book Award and other major prizes, and placed on lists of best books of the year. Telling the story of a trip from the Gulf Coast to Parchman to pick up a man being released from prison, Sing, Unburied, Sing uses multiple voices to raise questions about family and belonging, race, incarceration, drugs, youth, memory, and maturing.
- Ed Lavandera, CNN in America website, http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com
- Richard Torres, National Public Radio website, www.npr.org
- Jesmyn Ward, “No Mercy in Motion” (3 September 2013), www.guernicamag.com/features/no-mercy-in-motion/