Is Jesmyn Ward the Next Toni Morrison?
1 year ago
National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward talks Hurricane Katrina and “The Help”
When Toni Morrison’s classic “Beloved” failed to win the National Book Award in 1987, fans and fellow writers alike were shocked as well as outraged that a budding literary legend was overlooked. This year literary insiders were shocked for a different reason. Jesmyn Ward, a relative unknown won the coveted honor for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” the story of a family whose lives are upended by a hurricane. Ward, whose novel was inspired by her family’s experience during Hurricane Katrina, does not represent your typical National Book Award Winner. She is 34, African-American and prefers writing about the kind of people she believes are often ignored in popular writing, specifically poor people of color. Winning the National Book Award this month immediately catapulted Ward into the stratosphere of the literary elite, meaning she will have to get comfortable rubbing elbows with people very different from the disenfranchised characters she crafts with such artistry. Ward chatted about her win and her reservations about the blockbuster book and film “The Help,” in a conversation with Loop21.com.
Loop 21: What was the first thing you did after arriving home after winning the National Book Award?
Jesmyn Ward: You’re the first to ask that! Let me think. Well all I had was the medal because Bloomsbury [her publisher] carried the trophy for me so I unpacked my medal and then called my family. I basically told my family then I ate. [She laughs.]
Loop 21: How is your family doing in the years since they lost so much during Hurricane Katrina, which inspired your novel?
Ward: We’re doing pretty well. The physical damage to our houses—my grandmother’s house was flooded, my aunt’s house was flooded, my mom’s house had a lot of roof damage—but basically all of that they rebuilt…I think sort of psychologically that the fact that people are asking me to talk about our experience during Hurricane Katrina and that I’m telling people about that experience I think that they appreciate that and think it’s a good thing and it helps them deal with the legacy of that storm too because I’m expressing what happened to all of us.
Loop 21: What would you say to encourage other young writers, particularly young writers of color who may be students reading this?
Ward: I would tell them discipline is important, to learn how to sit down and write and access their creativity everyday…I would say that’s important.