Jesmyn Ward

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Date: 2018
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,997 words

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About this Person
Born: 1977 in DeLisle, Mississippi, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Updated:Apr. 13, 2018
 
PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Born c. 1977, in MS. Education: Stanford University, B.A., 1999, M.A., 2000; University of Michigan, M.F.A., 2005. Addresses: Home: DeLisle, MS.

 
CAREER:

Writer, editor, memoirist, and educator. Previously worked for Random House (publisher), New York, NY; University of New Orleans, New Orleans, LA, former faculty member; University of South Alabama, Mobile, former assistant professor; Tulane University, associate professor of creative writing. University of Mississippi, John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence, 2010-11.

 
AWARDS:

National Book Award for fiction, 2011, and Alex Award, American Library Association, 2012, both for Salvage the Bones; Wallace Stegner Fellowship, Stanford University, 2008-10; MacArthur Fellowship (MacArthur Genius Grant), 2017; Strauss Living Prize; Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and Media for a Just Society Award, both for Men We Reaped; National Book Award for fiction, 2017, Fiction Prize, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, 2018, both for Sing, Unburied, Sing.

 
WORKS:

WRITINGS:

  • Men We Reaped, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2013.
  • (Editor)The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, Scribner (New York, NY), 2016.

NOVELS

  • Where the Line Bleeds, Bolden (Chicago, IL), 2008.
  • Salvage the Bones, Bloomsbury USA (New York, NY), 2011.
  • Sing, Unburied, Sing, Scribner (New York, NY), 2017.

Author of a blog.

 

Sidelights

Mississippi native Jesmyn Ward is a graduate of Stanford University. After earning her undergraduate degree, she worked in publishing for a time, taking a job at Random House in New York City before she continued her education at the University of Michigan with a master of fine arts degree. Her writing later earned her a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ward's debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was released in 2008.

Ward began to write Where the Line Bleeds after the death of her brother. She had always intended to write a novel, but the story was still coalescing in her mind, and her brother's death somehow served as the impetus she needed to start. At the time she was working in New York in the publishing industry, but she ended up completing the novel while working toward her graduate degree in Michigan. Ward credits her relationship with her brother and with male friends growing up for her accurate portrayal of the twin boys who serve as the novel's focal point. A Southerner to the core, Ward also feels her writing is influenced by classic Southern writers. Brad Hooper, interviewing Ward for Booklist, remarked that "when asked whom she includes among her literary masters, Ward unhesitatingly answered, 'William Faulkner, particularly his novel As I Lay Dying.' She admits that 'it made my head explode' upon her first reading of it.' Ward cited Toni Morrison and poetry as a genre as additional influences on her style of writing.

Where the Line Bleeds takes place in the small rural town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, situated on the Gulf Coast. The residents are primarily black, and economically speaking, the town is at a stand-still, with little to encourage young people to stay on and make their lives there after they have grown old enough to leave. The protagonists of the book are twins Christophe and Joshua. After graduating from high school, they set out to make their mark on the world, intent on leaving both their small town and parents of somewhat questionable morals far behind them. Unfortunately, neither twin gets very far. Joshua ends up working the docks, but when Christophe is unable to find a job, he begins to sell drugs with their cousin. There is little hope of them escaping the dead-end life ahead--no money for college, a father who is a junkie, and a mother who took off for Atlanta years earlier, leaving them behind. The boys strive to please their beloved grandmother, who virtually raised them and encouraged them to stay on the right path, but events conspire against all their efforts.

Critics praised Ward's debut effort as a strong and illuminating look at the rural South. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews remarked that Ward describes a place that has been little seen before in novels: "the rural African American South, a place of grinding poverty but enduring loyalties, tragic but somehow noble." Brad Hooper, in his Booklist review, declared that she "successfully escapes first-novel awkwardness, obviously knowledgeable of and comfortable with the milieu in which she sets her narrative." In a review for the Dallas Morning News Web site, William J. Cobb concluded of the boys' story that "the ending that eventually unfolds does not perhaps change their destiny as much as confirm it. This vision of the real America is not a pretty picture, but it's a powerful, realistic story." Elizabeth Jackson, writing for the Austin Chronicle Online, commented that "Ward is an author to watch, to be sure, as one readily anticipates her sense of proportion and emphasis will gain subtlety."

Ward's second novel, Salvage the Bones, was published in 2011 and won both a National Book Award for fiction and the American Library Association's Alex Award. Set in the fictionalized coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, the novel chronicles the lives of pregnant teenager Esch Batiste, her three brothers, and their alcoholic and abusive father during the ten days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and the day after. The events in Salvage the Bones are partly inspired by what happened to Ward's own family in 2005 when Katrina impacted their community. Salvage the Bones "begins in disaster, and endures cataclysm. Early scenes--of pups arriving, some of them dying, of the shooting and gutting of a squirrel, of desperate, bloody dog fights and limb-risking efforts to steal supplies, of friends and family striking out in crazed efforts to survive in sweat and dirt and steam-heat, of characters getting bitten and sliced and broken--are full-frontal, graphic. This novel's got no time for comfort," asserted San Francisco Chronicle contributor Joan Frank, who called the novel "strikingly beautiful, taut, relentless and, by its end, indelible."

"We are immersed in Esch's world, a world in which birth and death nestle close, where there is little safety except that which the siblings create for each other. That close-knit familial relationship is vivid and compelling, drawn with complexities and detail," observed Los Angeles Times contributor Carolyn Kellogg. "What makes the novel so powerful ... is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy," remarked Washington Post Book World reviewer Ron Charles. In an article about the author for the London Guardian Emma Brockes praised the novel, noting that Ward's "writing is lyrical; savage."

In an interview with Elizabeth Hoover for Paris Review Online, the author discussed how she came up with the title for Salvage the Bones: "The word salvage is phonetically close to savage. ... It says that come hell or high water, Katrina or oil spill, hunger or heat, you are strong, you are fierce, and you possess hope. When you stand on a beach after a hurricane, the asphalt ripped from the earth, gas stations and homes and grocery stores disappeared, oak trees uprooted, without any of the comforts of civilization--no electricity, no running water, no government safety net--and all you have are your hands, your feet, your head, and your resolve to fight, you do the only thing you can: you survive." She added: "Bones is meant to remind readers what this family, and people like this family, are left with after tragedy strikes."

Ward's third novel is titled Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward "tells the story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family in this astonishing novel," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. "This intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South," commented BookPage writer Michael Magras. JoJo, the main character, is a thirteen-year-old African American youth who, along with his younger sister Kayla, live with his grandparents, Mam and Pop. Their mother, Leonie, is an unreliable parent, a drug user and dealer who has an inexplicable connection to the world of spirits. More often than not, JoJo ends up taking care of his sister. When JoJo and Kayla's father--Michael, a white man--is released from the notorious Parchman prison, she believes the family might finally be able to reconcile and live well together. Despite the fact that Mam is dying of cancer, Leonie packs JoJo into a car and takes off across Mississippi to pick up Michael. Their journey, however, is eventful, marked by temptations and danger, not the least of which is the inadvertent picking up of a ghost named Richie, the spirit of a thirteen-year-old boy who was killed at Parchmen when Pop was incarcerated there. Both family background and the regions racial history serve to propel their journey and the difficult lives they lead.

"Vivid, sharp, and instantly engaging, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a powerful work by one of America's foremost novelists," commented Rhianna Walton, writing on the Powell's Website. A Kirkus Reviews contributor observed, "As with the best and most meaningful American fiction these days, old truths are recast here in new realities rife with both peril and promise." Vanessa Bush, writing in Booklist, noted that Ward "renders richly drawn characters, a strong sense of place."

Ward is also the author of a memoir and the editor of a book of nonfiction. In her memoir, Men We Reaped, Ward tells the tragic stories of five young men she knew who died within a four-year period. They include three close friends, a cousin, and her brother, Joshua. All were residents of the small town of DeLisle, Mississippi, a place with few opportunities and where the main occupations seem to be drugs and alcohol. In Ward's view, "the underlying cause of their deaths was a self-destructive spiral born of hopelessness," Bush commented in another Booklist review. Her brother, for example, was killed when a hit-and-run drunk driver crashed into his car. The driver was later convicted of leaving the scene of the crime, not manslaughter, which further illustrates the racial tensions and injustices in this part of the country. In addition to the stories of her dead friends and relatives, Ward also chronicles her own family history, her struggles to escape, and the breaks she received which allowed her to find a different future. In this book, "Ward has a soft touch, making these stories heartbreakingly real through vivid portrayal and dialogue," commented a Publishers Weekly contributor. A Kirkus Reviews writer called the book "beautifully written, if sometimes too sad to bear." Reviewer Dominique Nicole Swann, writing in World Literature Today, concluded, "In giving voice to these young men who can't speak, Ward certainly compels readers to listen."

The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Ward, contains a collection of eighteen essays that address the state of racial equality, and the still-fractured state of race relations, in the United States today. The book's title is based on a work by James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, and Ward "hopes this book will offer solace and hope to a new generation of readers, just as Baldwin's work did for her," noted a Kirkus Reviews writer. The text "explores what it means to be black in America, past and present," observed Library Journal reviewer Stephanie Sendaula. The book contains "poetry, essays, and flash nonfiction to address the renewed racial tensions that continue to boil in America in the twenty-first century," commented reviewer Diego Baez, writing in Booklist. The book's contributions "work together as one to present a kaleidoscopic performance of race in America," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor. The Kirkus Reviews writer called the book a "Timely contributions to an urgent national conversation." USA Today reviewer Charisse Jones stated, "Ward's reflections on race and racism, along with those of seventeen other writers, are thoughtful, searing and, at times, hopeful."

FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Ward, Jesmyn, Men We Reaped (memoir), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2013.

PERIODICALS

  • Biography, fall, 2013, Tayari Jones, review of Men We Reaped, p. 904.
  • Booklist, November 15, 2008, Brad Hooper, review of Where the Line Bleeds, p. 28; August 1, 2013, Vanessa Bush, review of Men We Reaped, p. 21; July 1, 2016, Diego Baez, review of The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, p. 6; July 1, 2017, Vanessa Bush, review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, p. 24.
  • BookPage, September, 2017, Michael Magras, review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, p. 20.
  • Christian Science Monitor, October 2, 2013, Yvonne Zipp, review of Men We Reaped; October 11, 2017, "Sing, Unburied, Sing Is a Road Novel, a Ghost Story, a Family Epic," review of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
  • Essence, November 1, 2008, "Boys to Men: Delve into Our Seventeenth Essence Book Club Pick, a Novel That Offers a Truthful View of Young Black Men in America Today," p. 79.
  • Guardian (London, England), December 1, 2011, Emma Brockes, "Jesmyn Ward: 'I Wanted to Write about the People of the South.'"
  • Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2008, review of Where the Line Bleeds; May 1, 2013, review of Men We Reaped; May 15, 2016, review of The Fire This Time; August 1, 2017, review of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
  • Library Journal, September 1, 2013, review of Men We Reaped, p. 111; June 15, 2016, Stephanie Sendaula, review of The Fire This Time, p. 91.
  • Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2011, Carolyn Kellogg, review of Salvage the Bones.
  • New Statesman, February 14, 2014, review of Men We Reaped, p. 46.
  • New Yorker, September 11, 2017, Vinson Cunningham, "After the Flood," review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, p. 69.
  • New York Times, August 17, 2016, Dwight Garner, "Inspired by James Baldwin, in a Racial Struggle with No End," review of The Fire This Time, p. C1(L).
  • Observer (London, England), December 11, 2011, Olivia Laing, review of Salvage the Bones.
  • Press-Register (Mobile, AL), November 16, 2011, "Jesmyn Ward, University of South Alabama Professor, Wins National Book Award for Fiction."
  • Publishers Weekly, September 22, 2008, review of Where the Line Bleeds, p. 39; June 24, 2013, review of Men We Reaped, p. 160; June 6, 2016, review of The Fire This Time, p. 75; July 3, 2017, review of Sing, Unburied, Sing, p. 49.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, November 27, 2011, Joan Frank, review of Salvage the Bones.
  • School Library Journal, December 1, 2008, Jamie Watson, review of Where the Line Bleeds, p. 157.
  • Smithsonian, September, 2013, review of Men We Reaped, p. 99.
  • Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia), October 20, 2017, Melanie Kembrey, "Jesmyn Ward Interview: 'My Ghosts Were Once People, and I Cannot Forget That.'"
  • USA Today, August 30, 2016, Charisse Jones, "Pain of Racism Illuminated in Timely Fire This Time," review of The Fire This Time, p. 05D.
  • Washington Post, August 29, 2017, Ron Charles, "Jesmyn Ward's Powerful New Novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing," review of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
  • Washington Post Book World, November 8, 2011, Ron Charles, review of Salvage the Bones; August 30, 2017, Ron Charles, "A Powerful New Story," review of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
  • World Literature Today, November-December, 2014, Dominique Nicole Swann, review of Men We Reaped, p. 78.

ONLINE

  • Apooo Book Club Web site, http://www.apooobooks.com/ (February 22, 2009), Darnetta Frazier, review of Where the Line Bleeds.
  • Austin Chronicle Online, http://www.austinchronicle.com/ (December 19, 2008), Elizabeth Jackson, review of Where the Line Bleeds.
  • Boston Globe Online, http://www.boston.com/ (December 28, 2008), Anna Mundow, "Tragedy, Loyalty on the Bayou."
  • Dallas Morning News Online, http://www.dallasnews.com/ (November 30, 2008), William J. Cobb, review of Where the Line Bleeds.
  • Entertainment Weekly Online, http://shelf-life.ew.com/ (November 18, 2011), Stephan Lee, author interview.
  • Literary Fiction Review, http://www.litficreview.com/ (July 27, 2009), review of Where the Line Bleeds.
  • Los Angeles Review of Books, http://www.lareviewofbooks.org/ (October 11, 2017), Louise McCune, "Ghosts of Our Past: An Interview with Jesmyn Ward."
  • Millions, http://www.themillions.com/ (September 11, 2017), Adam Vitcavage, "Haunted by Ghosts: The Millions Interviews Jesmyn Ward."
  • National Book Foundation Web site, http://www.nationalbook.org/ (April 9, 2012), author profile.
  • National Public Radio Website, http://www.npr.org/ (August 31, 2017), Melissa Block, All Things Considered, "Writing Mississippi: Jesmyn Ward Salvages Stories of the Silenced," interview with Jesmyn Ward.
  • One-Minute Book Reviews, http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/ (February 15, 2012), Janice Harayda, review of Salvage the Bones.
  • Paris Review Online, http://www.theparisreview.org/ (August 30, 2011), Elizabeth Hoover, author interview.
  • Powell's Website, http://www.powells.com/ (August 29, 2017), Rhianna Walton, "Powell's Interview: Jesmyn Ward, Author of Sing, Unburied, Sing."
  • Warren County, Vicksburg Public Library Blog, http://wcvpl.blogspot.com/ (March 31, 2009), "Dive into Jesmyn Ward's World." *

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000192029