Jesmyn Ward is an American novelist. She won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction and a 2012 Alex Award with her second novel Salvage the Bones, a story about familial love and community covering the 10 days preceding Hurricane Katrina, the day of the cyclone, and the day after. An assistant professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama, Ward is currently working on a memoir. She was the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi for the 2010–2011 academic year. From 2008 to 2010 Ward had a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
Early life and education
Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, a small rural community in Mississippi. She developed a love-hate relationship with her hometown after having been bullied at public school by black classmates and subsequently by white students while attending a private school paid for by her mother’s employer. Ward chose to become a writer to honor the memory of her younger brother, who was killed by a drunk driver the year she graduated from college.
In 2005, Ward received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. Shortly afterwards, she and her family became victims of Hurricane Katrina. With their house in De Lisle flooding rapidly, the Ward family set out in their car to get to a local church, but ended up stranded in a field full of tractors. When the white owners of the land eventually checked on their possessions, they refused to invite the Wards into their home, claiming they were overcrowded. Tired and traumatized, the refugees were eventually given shelter by another white family down the road.
Ward went on to work at the University of New Orleans, where her daily commute took her through the neighborhoods ravaged by the hurricane. Empathizing with the struggle of the survivors and coming to terms with her own experience during the storm, Ward was unable to write creatively for three years – the time it took her to find a publisher for her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds.
In 2008, just as Ward had decided to give up writing and enroll in a nursing program, Where the Line Bleeds was accepted by Doug Seibold at Agate Publishing. The novel was picked as a Book Club Selection by Essence and received a Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) Honor Award in 2009. It was shortlisted for the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. Starting on the day twin protagonists Joshua and Christophe DeLisle graduate from high school, Where the Line Bleeds follows the brothers as their choices pull them in opposite directions. Unwilling to leave the small rural town on the Gulf Coast where they were raised by their loving grandmother, the twins struggle to find work, with Joshua eventually becoming a dock hand and Christophe joining his drug-dealing cousin. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Ward "a fresh new voice in American literature" who "unflinchingly describes a world full of despair but not devoid of hope."
In her second novel, Salvage the Bones, Ward homes in once more on the visceral bond between poor black siblings growing up on the Gulf Coast. Chronicling the lives of pregnant teenager Esch Batiste, her three brothers, and their father during the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the day of the cyclone, and the day after, Ward uses a vibrant language steeped in metaphors to illuminate the fundamental aspects of love, friendship, passion, and tenderness. Explaining her main character's fascination with the Greek mythological figure of Medea, Ward told Elizabeth Hoover of The Paris Review: "It infuriates me that the work of white American writers can be universal and lay claim to classic texts, while black and female authors are ghetto-ized as 'other.' I wanted to align Esch with that classic text, with the universal figure of Medea, the antihero, to claim that tradition as part of my Western literary heritage. The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one."
On November 16, 2011, Ward won the National Book Award in the Fiction category for Salvage the Bones. Interviewed by CNN’s Ed Lavandera on November 16, 2011, she said that both her nomination and her victory had come as a surprise, given that the novel had been largely ignored by mainstream reviewers. "When I hear people talking about the fact that they think we live in a post-racial America, … it blows my mind, because I don’t know that place. I’ve never lived there. … If one day, … they’re able to pick up my work and read it and see … the characters in my books as human beings and feel for them, then I think that that is a political act", Ward stated in a television interview with Anna Bressanin of BBC News on December 22, 2011.
Jesmyn Ward received an Alex Award for Salvage the Bones on January 23, 2012. The Alex Awards are given out each year by the Young Adult Library Services Association to ten books written for adults that resonate strongly with young people aged 12 through 18. Commenting on the winning books in School Library Journal, former Alex Award committee chair, Angela Carstensen described Salvage the Bones as a novel with "a small but intense following – each reader has passed the book to a friend."
In July 2011, Ward announced on her blog that she had finished the first draft of her third book, calling it the hardest thing she had ever written. A memoir with the working title Men We Reaped, it explores the lives of her brother and four other young black men who lost their lives in her hometown.
Men We Reaped was published in 2013.
- "Cattle Haul", A Public Space 5
- Where the Line Bleeds. Agate Publishing. 2008. ISBN 978-1-932841-38-1.
- Salvage the Bones: A Novel. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2011. ISBN 978-1-60819-627-2.
- Men We Reaped. Bloomsbury Publishing. 2013. ISBN 978-1-60819-521-3.
- "National Book Awards – 2011". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-03-27.
(With acceptance speech by Ward, interviews with and readings by all five finalists.)
- Carolyn Kellogg (November 17, 2011). "Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award for fiction", The Los Angeles Times.
- Angela Carstensen (January 24, 2012). "The Alex Awards, 2012", School Library Journal.
- Jeffrey Brown (August 26, 2011). "In 'Salvage the Bones,' Jesmyn Ward Tells Personal Story of Hurricane Katrina", PBS NewsHour.
- Jennifer Xu (November 15, 2011). "'U' MFA alum Jesmyn Ward nominated for National Book Award for 'Salvage the Bones'", The Michigan Daily.
- English Department. "John and Renée Grisham Writers in Residence", University of Mississippi.
- Stanford Creative Writing Program. "Current and Recent Stegner Fellows", Stanford University.
- Ed Lavandera (November 18, 2011). "Ignored by literary world, Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award", CNN.
- Julie Bosman (November 16, 2011). "National Book Awards Go to ‘Salvage the Bones’ and ‘Swerve’", The New York Times.
- Staff and wire reports/Susan Whitall (November 18, 2011). "U-M grad takes top national book honor", The Detroit News.
- Alison Flood (November 17, 2011). "Hurricane Katrina novel wins National Book Award", The Guardian.
- Noam Cohen (November 19, 2011). "Breakfast Meeting, Nov. 17", The New York Times.
- Staff (January 25, 2009). "BCALA announces the 2009 Literary Awards Winners", BCALA Literary Awards Committee.
- Staff (January 25, 2009). "Eighth Annual VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, 2009: Deb Olin Unferth for Vacation (McSweeney's)", Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award.
- Staff (November 2011). "2011 National Book Award Winner, Fiction. Jesmyn Ward. Salvage the Bones", The National Book Foundation.
- Staff (BOMB 105/FAll 2008). "Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward. Read by Jesmyn Ward. Podcast", BOMB Magazine.
- Staff (September 22, 2008). "Fiction Review: Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward", Publisher’s Weekly.
- Staff (May 23, 2011). "Fiction Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward", Publisher’s Weekly.
- Ron Charles (November 9, 2011). "The turmoil before the storm", The Washington Post.
- Elizabeth Hoover (August 30, 2011). "Jesmyn Ward on 'Salvage the Bones'", The Paris Review.
- Anna Bressanin (December 22, 2011). "How Hurricane Katrina shaped acclaimed Jesmyn Ward book", BBC News Magazine.
- Staff (January 23, 2012). "YALSA's Alex Awards", Young Adult Library Services Association.
- Jesmyn Ward (July 7, 2011). "nearly there", Jesmimi.
- Jesmyn Ward's blog
- Jesmyn Ward discusses Where the Line Bleeds, YouTube
- Jesmyn Ward – feature on BBC News
- Jesmyn Ward at Library of Congress Authorities — with 3 catalog records