When Jesmyn Ward’s second novel “Salvage the Bones” was awarded the National Book Award two weeks ago, which she explained to her family as the “Oscars for books,” it immediately propelled Ward, a relative newcomer, onto the national stage. It also shone a light on her story of a poor black family living and loving in a rural backwater Gulf Coast town in the days before Hurricane Katrina.
The place and the people were inspired by her own hometown of Delisle, Miss. In the book, the family of siblings have better things to do than fret about the storm, which is just days away from making landfall. They’re chasing basketball dreams, tending to beloved spouse-pets, and in the case of Esch, the book’s 15-year-old narrator, struggling to accept the new life growing in her.
Ward, who called her recent win “surreal,” chatted with Colorlines.com about conventional depictions of black women, giving life to the stories of people she grew up with, and having the courage to commit to writing.
You mentioned in your acceptance speech that you set out to write about the lives of black folks and poor folks and rural folks, “so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that … our lives are as fraught and lovely and important as theirs.” Can you say more about that?
Jesmyn Ward: When I first committed to writing that was the reason I did it, because I wanted to write about people who were just really marginalized, who I never really saw in our modern popular culture, and so that was important to me, to reach the kind of people who had misconceptions and preconceived notions about those kinds of people, and to write against that.
That’s a large part of the reason that I decided to write about the kind of people I grew up with and did not use writing as more of an escape into another world, which I’d done when I was young in high school and somewhat in college. When I really committed to writing, I didn’t do that.
Can you talk about popular depictions of black women and girls, and where they fit in our popular imaginations, and if or how you see your work as a response to that?
It’s an interesting line that I’m walking because at the same time that I’m trying to write against these preconceived notions that I feel people have about black people, poor people, Southern people. I know that in some ways if people were summarizing my book, they could say: Oh, it’s about a black pregnant teenager who is poor and in love with a boy who’s not in love with her. In some ways they could think it’s reinforcing these stereotypes, but I feel—I hope—that the power of the characterizations, and how human they are, works against that. So even though she’s pregnant, she’s 15, they are very poor, I still hope that because she’s very human, that will counteract those expectations and make her story more universal.
I think we have a very limited view of black women in this country in regards to what we think they’re capable of and what we expect of them. There’s a reason that [Esch, the 15-year-old narrator] is darker than I am, you know what I’m saying? That she’s not light skinned, that she thinks of herself as unremarkable in every way, because I wanted to write about a character who is outside of all the norms of those standards of beauty.
I remember earlier this year there was this insane article that I read by that crazy scientist who said there was a scientific reason that black women were unattractive, the most unattractive out of everyone. That we’re still encountering things like that, I feel like I have to write against it, so hopefully after people encounter these characters, it’ll be harder to reduce black women and black men, the people I write about, to these insane types and reduce us to these weird, arcane ideas.
There’s another character in your book, China, who’s such a powerful force in the book, and who’s a dog. Who or what inspired her?
She just popped up into my work one day. I discovered her and [her owner, Esch’s older brother] Skeetah at the same time, and what’s interesting about them, at least to me, is this bond that they have, which is so strange and weird and it confused me and intrigued me. I couldn’t let them go. I kept returning to this character in my head, before I began “Salvage the Bones.” And where I was growing up, my dad had pit bulls that he sometimes fought. My brother also had a pit bull. Young men in my neighborhood, and some young women, too, when they get a dog, there’s no choice, they always get pit bulls. It’s part of that culture that informed my choice.
The scenes of Katrina were incredibly gripping. Where were you and where was your family during the storm?
I was home, in southern Mississippi, in my hometown of DeLisle. That was the summer between my second and third years at the University of Michigan and so I was supposed to go back to teach in the fall and because I would always come home for the summers in Mississippi, I thought, I’ll stay here till the storm passes so I can be with my family and then go back to school. I totally underestimated the storm, so I was here for it.
Living through it allowed me to understand, it’s going to sound trite, but the power of a storm like that. The terror that people feel in the middle of it, because you can’t cope with it when you’re in a storm like that. It really is just about survival, just about scrambling to survive.
I would love to know where these characters are now, six years after the storm.
I can’t picture them. I can picture her having the baby, but I can’t picture them as adults. I can’t move them that far into the future, I don’t know why. I think maybe because I love them so much as they are, as being teenagers and kids, it’s hard for me to move them into adulthood.
When did you know you had stories you wanted to tell and when did you get up the courage to tell them. I read in your Wikipedia profile you had gotten into a nursing program, is that true?
Oh no, no no. I was thinking of applying. I had gone to Stanford as an undergrad, which is a really good school, and I had gone to the University of Michigan, which was a really great school, and I felt like compared to my peers, my writing career was dead in the water. I had a novel no one wanted. I kept getting rejected by publishing companies, no one wanted to publish it. I didn’t have anything published at all yet, even though I had a short story accepted. [Around 2006 to 2008] I began rethinking everything and whether or not I should even continue doing this. And then several things happened. I didn’t give up. It’s like foolish or bravery or, I don’t know, desperation. I didn’t give up. I just kept at it and we brought my book to a smaller publishing company out of Chicago, and then I was chosen as a Stegner fellow and everything turned around.
That’s not to say I’ve been successful in all my endeavors since, because I haven’t. But some people started saying yes, and that was enough to keep me going.
But I didn’t commit to writing until after my brother died. He died in the year 2000. I’d just graduated from college and at the time I was thinking of going to law school, but I couldn’t shake this impulse to write and write specifically about the place where I came from. But I kept trying not to do it, you know? Because I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I felt a lot of pressure to get a stable, lucrative career. And then my brother died and everything changed for me, because all the old standards that I had lived by before… Suddenly, getting some stable job that I probably wouldn’t enjoy didn’t seem so important. I thought, what could I do with my life that would give it meaning, and that’s the first thing that popped into my head, writing. So I decided to try, and I could try and fail, but at least I could try.
What would you say to other young writers out there who have stories to tell, and who want to be telling those stories?
I would tell them, you’re going to face a lot of rejection and a lot of people are going to tell you no, but you only need one person to tell you yes, so hang in there. I mean, look at me, it happened to me. You can have a ton of people telling you no, but as long as you have one or two people tell you yes, then something is still happening and it’s still worth it.
I would tell them to be as truthful as they can be to their stories, because I think young writers of color, we’re not the norm in the literary world. I feel like the literary world feels like it’s like Highlander. “There can only be one.” And I’ve read that before, other writers of color expressing that sentiment. And that’s tough because I think those expectations hold true in regards to class, too. Like, there can only be one hard-scrabble writer, and even region, too, right. There can only be one writer of color from the South.
So I think we are facing an uphill battle where because people feel the market is limited as far as our stories go, that they don’t feel they can give all the attention to different writers of color. But I believe in the power of our stories, and I believe in the value of our stories, and I believe they have merit and they need to be told. There’s universal appeal in my story, even though it’s about a very specific time and place and set of people, and there’s universal appeal in the stories a lot of young writers of color are writing. We just have to fight to make sure people recognize that.
Keep fighting, because those stories are worth being told. If you keep fighting people will recognize that.