Best-selling novelist Jesmyn Ward addressed a packed Johnson Chapel Saturday afternoon, Feb. 29. The event, moderated by Editor-in-Chief of The Common Jennifer Acker ’00, was the headline event for this year’s LitFest, the college’s annual celebration of literature across various genres.
Ward, who is currently an associate professor of English at Tulane University, has published six books, including a memoir, an anthology and multiple novels. Two of Ward’s books — “Salvage the Bones” and her most recent novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” — won National Book Awards in Fiction, making her the first woman to win two National Book Awards.
The event began with Ward reading an excerpt from “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” The book follows the life of a Black family living in the fictional Gulf Coast town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi — which Ward noted as an “idealized version of my hometown in the 80s” — as they navigate through drug addiction, cancer and grief, culminating in a road trip to the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, widely known as Parchman Prison.
After reading the first few pages of her book, Ward and Acker discussed the ideas that motivated Ward’s writing. Ward highlighted that the questions that drive her stories revolve around “the idea of community” like the one where she grew up, as well as “trying to convey [its] beauty.” With these goals in mind, Ward has crafted three novels set in Bois Sauvage. She did not mask the fact that Bois Sauvage is based on her own hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, though “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is the only novel that she has actually written while at home. For her other novels, she wrote about her hometown from afar, which she remarked “was a relief ” that helped her through homesickness.
The conversation then moved to discuss Ward’s love for literature, which started from a young age. “Back then, books were magical … I didn’t think I was capable of that magic,” she said. At first, however, she admitted she wasn’t, joking that “I was a terrible poet for many of my formative years.” She continued with poetry until college, when she realized that her talents might be more suited for fiction.
According to Ward, an element of “Sing, Unburied, Sing” that distinguishes it from her other novels is the character of Richie, a young boy who appears in the book as a ghost that haunts the protagonist. “When I started writing ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’, I knew I wanted to include an element of magic,” she said.
She added that she had not always been so open to that idea, noting that the literary community can sometimes look down on using “magic” as a subject matter. However, she asserted that “with this book, I just decided to commit.” How she was going to explore the supernatural was not immediately clear, until she began researching Parchman Prison, where Richie was imprisoned. As she learned more about the prison, Ward came to believe that it served as a mechanism of reenslavement and decided that she wanted to give a voice to kids like Richie who had been sent to prison for minor offenses. That led Ward to fictionalize Richie as a ghost, a decision that she admitted scared her. The element of the afterlife meant that she would have to develop a new world and find a way to give it “texture.”
A sentiment among authors is that sometimes the hardest part of writing is finding a good title, Ward said, confessing that “I’m really bad at titles.” Per the advice of one of her professors at the University of Michigan, where she received her M.F.A., she keeps a working title for the novel from the very beginning, though she expects it to change as the narrative develops. For “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” she ended up with about 30 different titles by the book’s sixteenth draft. As she put it, “I would try them on.” And if the title didn’t fit, she would trash it. She started with “Sing, Unburied” as the title and laughingly said that she typed it into Amazon to see if the name was taken. Ward then decided that it needed a better rhythm, or “musicality.” That is when she decided to repeat the word sing, creating the final title of “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” She found that it spoke to the “divine order expressed through music that underlies everything,” and she “wanted it to apply to everyone, living and dead.”
Ward was candid about what she has learned from each of her novels. With her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds,” she has realized that she “loved her characters too much.” In many ways, Ward noted that her characters are reflections of her family “When I look for inspiration for characters, I try to look for voices that could be a part of my family or community,” she said.
A couple of years after publishing that first novel, Ward realized that though the narrative probably could have dealt with darker topics, her emotional attachment to the characters prevented her from taking the story to those tragedies. That is when she recognized that if she was going to write about characters who could theoretically be real, she would “have to be honest” and explore topics of adversity because in reality, “nobody protects us.”
Like many authors, nested within Ward’s work is the influence of other writers. Specifically, she divulged that her appreciation for William Faulkner taught her a lot. But she said it had not always been that way. Through high school, college and her early twenties, she admitted that she “didn’t have any visceral response” to Faulkner’s work. It was when she was around 26 years old that she read “As I Lay Dying” and finally, she got it. Faulkner has taught her that characters do not need to be highly educated or enlightened to have incredibly “rich and complex interior lives.” Still, Ward acknowledged that while she loves his work, she feels like Faulkner “fails his characters of color” by oversimplifying them. Her other influences include Toni Morrison and poets in general because they “remind me what language is capable of,” she said.
When asked what she would want young people to take away from her writing, Ward responded that much of her work seeks an answer to the question, “how do children who have to bear adult burdens survive and thrive?” In exploring this, she has found and wants young people to know, “You can thrive in spite of having to bear adult burdens before you should [have to].”
Ward is currently working on a new book set in New Orleans during the 18th century at the height of the slave trade. When asked about the research process, she joked, “it’s killing me.” She elaborated that typically for her other books “the story led to the research,” but that “this is the first book where the research has led me to the story.”
After the talk, Aniah Washington ’22 said that listening to the story of a successful writer like Jesmyn Ward helps her with her own work.
“Having her answer questions, questions that I asked, is just like ‘Oh wow, this is someone who’s doing exactly what I want to be doing and is giving me answers to questions that some people just don’t have answers to because not everyone is doing that same thing,’” Washington said.
For Kalidas Shanti ’22, he unpacked how Ward’s talk might leave the audience thinking long after they leave their seat on the Johnson Chapel bench. “There’s an interesting way that I feel like when she speaks, she’s always imagining something very vividly while she’s talking about it. I feel like there’s so much more to what she’s expressing than just what she’s saying when she’s saying it,” he said.