Jesmyn Ward
Author Novelist Memoirist

Jesmyn Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, has been called “fearless and toughly lyrical” (The Library Journal). Her unflinching portrayals of young black men and women struggling to thrive in a South ravaged by poverty and natural disaster have been praised for their “graphic clarity” (The Boston Globe) and “hugeness of heart” (O: The Oprah Magazine). Ward's precise and graceful narratives make her a fitting heir to the rich literary tradition of the American South.

For Ward, her prose is personal. All three of her books—two novels and a memoir—are set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where Ward grew up and still makes her home. Shortly after Ward received her MFA, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and Ward and her family were forced to evacuate their rapidly-flooding home. Later, as a professor at the University of New Orleans, Ward drove to and from work through neighborhoods leveled by the storm. Her experiences in the communities most egregiously affected by the hurricane come through in her novels, which subtly blend the creative and the personal, the imagined and the remembered. 

In Salvage the Bones, Ward gives us the Batiste family: Esch, a pregnant fourteen-year-old, her teenage brothers, and their alcoholic father, who are watching Hurricane Katrina brew over the Gulf. Set in the twelve days immediately surrounding the arrival of the hurricane, Salvage the Bones is at its heart the story of four motherless children, trying to protect their home and one another against unimaginable disruption. Drawing on her own experiences as a survivor of Katrina, Ward offers a troubling but ultimately empowering tale of familial bonds in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Where the Line Bleeds, the novel that introduced Ward’s powerful poetic voice, is the story of twins Joshua and Christophe DeLisle (their surname is also the name of Ward’s hometown), recent high school graduates who have elected to stay in their tiny Gulf Coast town. Raised by their adoring grandmother, Joshua and Christophe have just graduated from high school and have elected to stay in their tiny Gulf Coast town. In the wake of Katrina, however, jobs are few and far between; Joshua finds work on the docks, but Christophe begins selling drugs. Ward inhabits this world—Creole, desperately poor, riddled with frustrations and the drugs used to drown them—without a trace of irony or discomfort. Like Salvage the Bones, Where the Line Bleeds depicts “a world full of despair but not devoid of hope” (Publishers Weekly).

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood Awards for her fiction, essays, and drama. She held a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University from 2008-2010, and served as the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi during the following year. Ward currently teaches creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. In addition to the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones was honored with the American Library Association's Alex Award. Ward received the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award for Where the Line Bleeds, which was also a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Where the Line Bleeds was also an Essence magazine Book Club Selection, and was honored by the Black Caucus of the National Book Award. 

Ward’s latest book, Men We Reaped, is a memoir that confronts the five years of Ward’s life in which she lost five young men—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Lauded as a “modern rejoinder to Black Like Me [and] Beloved,” (Kirkus Reviews) Men We Reaped is a beautiful and painful homage to Ward’s past, her ghosts, and the haunted yet hopeful place she still calls home. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, it has been named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, NPR, Kirkus Review, New York Magazine and Time Magazine.

In her talks, Ward shares her writing process and how her experiences growing up poor and black in the South continue to influence her work. As Ward said in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, “I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South, so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.”

She is currently at work on a new novel.


Selected Writings
  • Men We Reaped (Bloomsbury USA, 2013)
  • Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury USA, 2011)
  • Where the Line Bleeds (Agate Bolden, 2008)
Awards

2014  Heartland Prize, Nonfiction, Men We Reaped
2014  Finalist, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Men We Reaped
2013  Finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, Autobiography, Men We Reaped
2012  ALA Young Adult Library Services Association Alex Award for Young Adult Readers, Salvage the Bones
2011  National Book Award, Salvage the Bones
2009  Black Caucus of the National Book Awards, Where the Line Bleeds
2009  Essence Book Club Selection, Where the Line Bleeds
2009  Finalist, Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award, Where the Line Bleeds
2009  Finalist, Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Where the Line Bleeds

Media


Facing an 'Epidemic' of Death, Jesmyn Ward Writes Memoir of Loss, Larger Forces (PBS Newshour, Sept. 20, 2013):




Onstage Conversation at the New York Public Library's LIVE from NYPL Series:



Jesmyn Ward reads from her novel, Salvage the Bones at the 2011 NBA Finalists Reading from National Book Foundation:








In Men We Reaped, Jesmyn unburies her dead, that they may live again. And through this emotional excavation, she forces us to see the problems of place and race that led these men to their early graves. Full of beauty, love, and dignity, Men We Reaped is a haunting and essential read." 

–Natasha Trethewey, US Poet Laureate



"An important contemporary voice: a sensitive, lyrical narrator of difficult stories from the land of Faulkner and Welty." 

The New York Times



"[Ward] chronicles our American story in language that is raw, beautiful and dangerous… [Her] singular voice and her full embrace of her anger and sorrow set this work apart from those that have trodden similar ground… With loving and vivid recollection, she returns flesh to the bones of statistics and slows her ghosts to live again… [It’s a] complicated and courageous testimony."

—Tayari Jones, The New York Times Book Review



Masterful...Salvage the Bones has the aura of a classic about it.
 
Ron Charles, Washington Post



The novel's hugeness of heart and fierceness of family grip hold on like Skeetah's pitbull.

O, The Oprah Magazine



Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward’s second novel is a pitch-perfect account of struggle and community in the rural South…. Though the characters in Salvage the Bones face down Hurricane Katrina, the story isn’t really about the storm. It’s about people facing challenges, and how they band together to overcome adversity.

BookPage



This book is impossibly beautiful.

Oxford American



A taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale.

Parul Sehgal, The New York Times



A fresh new voice in American literature, Ward unflinchingly describes a world full of despair but not devoid of hope.

Publishers Weekly



"Ward uses fearless, toughly lyrical language to convey this family’s close-knit tenderness [and] the sheer bloody-minded difficulty of rural African American life... It’s an eye-opening heartbreaker that ends in hope… You owe it to yourself to read this book."

Library Journal



The narrator's voice sparks with beauty as it urges the reader through this moving story set in the shadow of Katrina.

Huffington Post



Salvage the Bones…is uncompromising and frank, showing both beauty and violence, poverty and resilience, in a powerful and poetic voice.

Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS)



Ward gives voice to the forgotten families of the Gulf Coast through lyrical imagery and the type of uncensored authenticity that can only be delivered through the eyes of a child … it is a true testament to the realities of rural poverty.

BUST