Is Jesmyn Ward the Next Toni Morrison?
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.
I would tell them that even if they aren’t in an MFA program that they should still listen to their readers and learn how to take constructive criticism. I think both of those things are important. But I also think that they will be aware that rejection is something they’re going to face in this profession because everyone’s going to tell them that but they should also be aware that just one person has to say yes. They should also remember that. They will face a lot of rejection but just one person needs to say yes and if they work hard enough and they persevere, that happens.
Loop 21: You and I have something in common. Both of our moms worked as domestics at one point and neither of us had any interest in seeing “The Help.” Do you think that American readers, who for demographic reasons are more likely to be comprised of white readers, are more open to hearing the stories of disenfranchised black Americans told by white authors?
Ward: I do think that’s true and I don’t know why. I think about it often but I can’t figure out why that’s the case. I feel like in the literary world I butted up against or encountered these ideas that the people in power in the literary world had about who they thought my readership would be and I feel like a lot of that was based on who I am and the kind of people that I write about. So it’s really interesting to me that for someone that’s writing about the same kind of people I’m writing about and yet the difference in us is color and also class that that immediately changes people’s perceptions of who they think would be interested in reading the work. It’s very confusing for me and I don’t know what to make of it.
Loop 21: You’ve talked about the racism you experienced growing up and during Hurricane Katrina when a white family refused to allow your family shelter inside with them, which is still hard to believe. Do you think relations have gotten better or worse since President Obama’s election?
Ward: I think…that’s interesting but I don’t know but I do know that something that annoys me a lot is this idea that since President Obama was elected that all of a sudden we live in a post-racial America and that idea really makes me angry because I think that it allows the American public to delude themselves into thinking that we do live in a post-racial America when we don’t. The fact that that idea is floating around makes it easier to forget that racism exists and it’s a real thing and people express it all the time, everywhere embedded in our institutions and our culture. I don’t know if it’s gotten better or worse but I do know that this idea that this idea that came to office with him that we’ve overcome or banished or exorcised the ghost of slavery is complete BS and I hate that’s even part of the conversation of debate right now.
Loop 21: What are you working on next?
Ward: When I sold it was part of a two-book deal so I’ve been working on the second book for them for a while and I just gave it to my editor. I’m working on a memoir, which is new for me. The memoir is about a specific time in my life from 2000 to 2004 when five young black men from my community—which is this small, rural, mostly black community in Mississippi—died. So I’m writing about their deaths on why an epidemic like this happened in a place like that when we usually associate such epidemics with urban America. So I’m using my life and the lives of people in my community for context on why an epidemic like that could happen. I have a first draft so I have a beginning.