A Strong Voice

Jesmyn Ward is a fighter. You wouldn’t know it to look at her. Elegant and graceful with a beautiful smile, she is the very image of a young professor and writer. But make no mistake, there is a steel core to this woman and enough heart and will to wrestle personal stories and travails onto the page that would send less courageous folk to the bottle or the psychiatrist’s office. 

I call Ward at her DeLisle, Miss., home on a thundery summer afternoon. I’m in my car, and the connection is bad. Then, the bottom drops out, and I feel like I’m in a tin can being showered with gravel. I apologize for the circumstances, but amid the crackles and the pounding rain, Ward’s voice comes through strong enough to follow. She tells me about her 10-month-old daughter, Noemie, and how good it feels to be on home ground. 

Ward has had an incredibly busy and productive couple of years. In addition to Noemie’s birth, she became an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama and famously won the 2011 National Book Award for her hard-hitting novel “Salvage the Bones.” When I ask her what winning the award was like, her voice takes on an awed tone. “It was incredible, ” she says. “Just to be nominated was a huge honor.” But she was convinced she wouldn’t win – so convinced, in fact, that she didn’t even encourage her mother to attend the ceremony. Win she did, however, and the exposure “enlarged my readership.”

I tell Ward that after the National Book Award, most local literati expected her to make the jump to a more glamorous school. She is quick to put the kibosh on that notion. “This is home. This is where I’m from. This is where my center is. It’s important that I don’t lose touch with what inspires me.” One need only read Ward’s searing new memoir, “Men We Reaped” (Bloomsbury, $26) to know how thoroughly imbued she is with the central Gulf Coast’s distinctive climate and culture.

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Ward was born three months premature in Oakland, Calif., on April Fool’s Day 1977. The doctors told her young parents she would probably die. “My skin was red, ” Ward writes, “paper-thin and wrinkly, my eyes large and alien.” Happily, she survived, and moved with her family to the Mississippi Gulf Coast when she was 5 years old. Her new world was one of heat and humidity, towering pines, cinder-block houses, poorly maintained parks and sorry schools.

It was against this backdrop that Ward’s childhood and youth unfolded. Her mother worked as a motel maid, and her restless father dropped in and out of her and her siblings’ lives. He “felt too big for the life he’d been born into, ” she writes. “He was forever in love with the promise of the horizon; the girls he cheated with, fell in love with, one after another, all corporeal telescopes to another reality.” Her mother kept the family together, and when she went to work for a wealthy white lawyer, the man took an interest in his housekeeper’s bookish daughter and paid for Ward to attend an exclusive Episcopal school. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Michigan, followed by stints as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss.

Despite all her professional success, Ward’s hardscrabble early years are what most deeply inform her art. She was horribly mauled by a pit bull – she still bears the scars – and she quickly learned that her struggling community was woefully underserved by the powers that be. The soul of her new memoir, and her experience, concerns the loss of five young men between 2000 and 2004 – friends, a cousin, a beloved younger brother – to drugs, suicide, violence and accident. I ask her to explain how she was able to endure writing about these losses in such unblinking prose. “It was really painful, ” she says. “I had to do a lot of emotional work.” The project went through four drafts, and there were times, especially during the third draft, when it seemed overwhelming. “I would just cry for hours at a time.” A strong editor helped her keep her balance and establish a broader context, and her sisters were vitally supportive. I ask if either of her parents has read the book, and she says no, but only because she has just gotten the galleys (proofing copies).

I’m also curious about Ward’s desires as a new mother, especially since she’s lived firsthand the problems, neglect and despair that too often grip the black working class. She says she sees her daughter and thinks foremost of her mom, “of how she didn’t want our lives to be as hard as hers. I hope in each generation it may be a little easier for the women of my family. I want to try to provide Noemie with the kind of opportunity my mother gave me.” And her desires for the culture at large? “A new attitude, ” she responds. “That we do better. I hope it’s harder for future kids to fall into those traps. I have hope.”

Oct. 22: Jesmyn Ward’s “Men We Reaped” Book Signing

5 p.m. pre-signing, 5:30 p.m. author discussion and Q-and-A, 6 p.m. book signing. 
Page and Palette • 32 S. Section St., Fairhope. 928-5295. 

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Devin Ford

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