The Rise and Return of Jesmyn Ward

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Photo: Lauren Tamaki

Jesmyn Ward is, by all accounts, a faithful friend and a loving mother. The award-winning novelist is so devoted to family that she still lives in DeLisle, Mississippi, the largely impoverished town where she and her relatives weathered Katrina by huddling in a pickup truck after a white neighbor denied them shelter. But her love for her characters — from the hurricane survivors in her novel Salvage the Bones to the dead friends in her memoir, Men We Reaped — is brutal. Or maybe, as Ward’s friend and fellow writer Sarah Frisch puts it, “her love is as kind as it could be, but it’s a tough world.”

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s third and latest novel and her first since Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award in 2011, is about the same tough world as her previous work: the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, her own version of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. But Sing’s scope and style, its pleasures and torments, and its symphony of ghosts should put to rest Ward’s own worry “that maybe I hit my peak with Salvage.” The new novel, or at least its core idea of “a mixed-raced boy growing up in the modern South,” has been with Ward for at least eight years, even as her own literary career has arced steeply upward.

Ward first tried and failed to write Sing after finishing a draft of Salvage in 2009. She was a Stegner fellow at Stanford back then, thousands of miles from DeLisle, and had recently published a first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, that came and went. Having graduated from a private high school paid for by her mother’s employer, Ward earned her B.A. and M.A. from Stanford and an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. She was the great hope of DeLisle. But she was also shy, obscure, and homesick in Palo Alto, still mourning her brother Joshua’s death, which had occurred nine years earlier. Her agent, Jennifer Lyons, had envisioned a career for Ward like Toni Morrison’s — but back then, her agent was the only one.

Ward decided she “didn’t have the important characters” for Sing, she says, so she put the pages away and decided to work on the memoir that had been nagging at her ever since Lyons proposed it. In 2010, she began Men We Reaped, about five young black men she knew who died in a four-year stretch. She also moved back to DeLisle. “I need to be here,” she says now over the phone, “very close to all the things that frustrate me about the South and about home, in order to feel the passion to write the kind of stuff that I write.”

Ward traveled to New York the following November for the National Book Awards. Two months earlier, no major critic had reviewed Salvage the Bones. At a bookstore in San Francisco, the city in which most of her writer friends live, Ward had read for an audience of three. “I wondered whether I was on the right path,” says Ward, “since it seemed that no one cared about these characters I loved so deeply, that no one gave a shit about their stories.” After she won the award, Salvage sold nearly 100,000 copies and was adopted for college courses, and suddenly Lyons’s prediction of a Morrisonian career looked a lot more plausible. “I’ve been confident ever since I met her that she was gonna be a rock star,” says Frisch, who went to that lonely reading. “We all knew it was coming. We just didn’t realize it was gonna be a month later.”

Her follow-up, Men We Reaped, probed the foundational trauma of Ward’s writing: Joshua’s death. She believes it made her a more honest writer. “One of the ways my first novel failed was that I was too in love with my characters,” Ward says, “so I spared them.” Men We Reaped is empathetic but unflinching. Ward mentions that Joshua sold crack, even though his death was unrelated. (He was struck by a white drunk driver, who served three years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident.) Her mother, portrayed glowingly as the matriarch holding the family together, “saw it as an indictment,” says Ward. “I think it’s done lasting damage to our relationship.” Ward promised never to write about her mother again, but she has no regrets. “I had to write that book.”

Working on her next book presented a new ordeal. She drafted “bad chapter after bad chapter” of Sing, worried that she wouldn’t measure up to post-award expectations — or be able to keep providing for her relatives in need. She was determined to update Bois Sauvage in the mold of modern DeLisle, which now has more biracial families and a new epidemic — crystal meth — while also remembering that “the ugly heart of the South still beats with this idea that one group of people is worth less.” But for a long time, she didn’t feel the weight of her own story. She was about halfway through when she hit on the idea of a third narrator, Richie, who happens to have been dead for more than 60 years.

At the heart of Sing, Unburied, Sing is a harrowing road trip recounted by two people, 13-year-old Jojo (tender and moral) and his mother, Leonie (drug addict, awful parent, and strangely reliable narrator). Joined by Leonie’s toddler daughter and drug-addled friend, the group is retrieving Jojo’s father, a white meth dealer, from jail. Ward learned about Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s oldest prison, from Worse Than Slavery, David M. Oshinsky’s chronicle of its history as a horrific labor camp for mostly black men, some as young as 12. The story of one particular boy sparked “just an immediate response,” says Ward. “I thought, This child has to be in my book. This kid deserves to speak, and the only way that I could do that was by bringing him to life as a ghost.”

Tormented spirits speaking for the voiceless inevitably evoke Morrison’s Beloved, but Ward owes her first-person style more to Faulkner. Sing’s narrators, two living and one dead, all poor and black, speak in a light dialect shot through with improbably erudite lyricism. Ward wields her literary license proudly. “Faulkner’s characters, too, were uneducated,” she says. “They were deprived, but they were allowed to have very rich inner lives. I want to advocate for that, for inner lives that are much more complicated and more poetic than we think.”

Ward’s love for her characters may be tougher than ever, from her opening set piece — the slaughter of a goat — to a litany of ensuing horrors: cancer, abuse, overdose, police brutality. But what Ward inflicts on Jojo and poor baby Kayla is what she most dreads when she thinks of her children. When her second child was born, ten months ago, she started having second thoughts about DeLisle and its way with young black men. “This isn’t a fairy tale,” she says. “I think about what it would be like to be adolescent and black here, and I don’t know if it’s best for them.” She’d have to send them to the same white school where she endured constant racial slurs just to give them a shot at success. Now, under a president who “serves as a model for people to be really ugly, I’m losing my patience for it. It’s tiring.”

Ward is looking beyond DeLisle in her fiction, too: She has already begun a historical novel set in New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade. “All these Confederate monuments exist that glorify one aspect of history, and here is one aspect that’s been erased,” she says. “I was fascinated by that, and I thought, Man, these people deserve to speak. Why can’t these people speak?

Scribner, September 5.

*This article appears in the August 21, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

The Rise and Return of Jesmyn Ward