Jesmyn Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction, has been called “fearless and toughly lyrical” by Library Journal. Betsy Burton of the American Booksellers Association has called her “the new Toni Morrison.” Ward’s 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” by The Boston Globe and for their “hugeness of heart” by 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). 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 what Publishers Weekly calls “a world full of despair but not devoid of hope.”
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. 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 American Library Association.
Ward’s follow-up to Salvage was Men We Reaped, 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 follows people who live in poverty, particularly black men. 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 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 Reviews, New York Magazine, and Time.
Ward is the also the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which NPR listed as 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 Ward’s generation and our time—from Edwidge Danticat, Natasha Trethewey, and Isabel Wilkerson, to Mitchell S. Jackson, Kiese Laymon, and Claudia Rankine.
In the forthcoming Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward will return to Mississippi and the grand themes of her earlier work. Confronting the realities of life in the rural South, Ward gives us a road novel through Mississippi’s past and present that explores the bonds of family as tested by racism and poverty.
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.”
In 2016, Ward won the Strauss Living award, given every five years by the American Academy of Arts & Letters for literary excellence. The prize of $200,000 will allow Ward to devote two years to writing in lieu of her work as a teacher at Tulane.