MacArthur Genius and two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward has been hailed as the standout writer of her generation, proving her “fearless and toughly lyrical” voice in novels, memoir, and nonfiction. Betsy Burton of the American Booksellers Association has called her “the new Toni Morrison.” In November 2017, she became the first woman and the first person of color to win two National Book Awards for Fiction—joining the ranks of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
Ward’s stories are largely set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where she grew up and still lives. Shortly after Ward received her MFA, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and she was forced to evacuate her rapidly flooding home. Ward’s writing is deeply informed by the trauma of Katrina, not to mention its unimaginable social and economic repercussions. Her novel Salvage the Bones, winner of the 2011 National Book Award, is a troubling but ultimately empowering tale of familial bonds set amid the chaos of Katrina. Likewise, Ward’s debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, depicts what Publishers Weekly calls “a world full of despair but not devoid of hope” in the aftermath of natural disaster.
Ward’s 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, delves into the five years of Ward’s life in which she lost five young men—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that follows poor people and people of color. Lauded by Kirkus Reviews as a “modern rejoinder to Black Like Me [and] Beloved,” Men We Reaped is a beautiful and painful homage to Ward’s ghosts and the haunted yet hopeful place she calls home. Men We Reaped won the Heartland Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Ward is the also the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which NPR named one of the Best Books of 2016. Taking James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, The Fire Next Time, as a jumping-off point, this groundbreaking collection features essays and poems about race from the most important voices of our time—from Edwidge Danticat, Natasha Trethewey, and Isabel Wilkerson to Mitchell S. Jackson, Kiese Laymon, and Claudia Rankine.
With Sing, Unburied, Sing, which earned her a second National Book Award in November 2017, Ward gives us a road novel through Mississippi’s past and present that explores the bonds of a family tested by racism and poverty. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a singular Southern odyssey that strikes at the heart of life in the rural South. Margaret Atwood called it a “wrenching new novel…[that] digs deep into the not-buried heart of the American nightmare. A must!” Sing was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times and Time. The Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly also called Sing one of the year’s best books.
“Ward’s [Sing, Unburied, Sing] is a true triple threat, expert in prose, human observation, and social commentary.”
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 she said in her acceptance speech at the 2011 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.”
Jesmyn Ward teaches creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2016, she won the Strauss Living award, given every five years by the American Academy of Arts & Letters for literary excellence. In 2017, she was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work “exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African-Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential.”
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 the following year.