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Jesmyn Ward author photo credit Beowulf Sheehan_edited.jpg

An Interview with
Jesmyn Ward

The Amistad Staff

The staff has spent a lot of time reading and analyzing your work. We see you as important to the general consciousness of American readers. We also explored how your contemporaries describe your work. Author Kiese Laymon has said, “[You’re] not following Faulkner. [You’re] competing with him.” How do you see yourself as an artist? 
 

It's really interesting to me when my peers and my contemporaries talk about my work, because I think that the way that they talk about it, it often surprises me. I'm always flattered by their assessments of my work, and of how it works, and of what I'm attempting to do in my work, and the way that it moves in the world, and the way that my work engages with other people's work, including Faulkner.

It's always flattering and deeply humbling for my name to be bought up and to be mentioned in the company of great writers like that. I think part of what complicates this for me is that I live in Mississippi. You know what I'm saying? I'm not in New York. I'm not in the capital, basically, of the publishing industry. I'm not even on East Coast. I'm as far south as you can get in the state of Mississippi. I think that much of my regular life feels very removed from publishing and, I don't know, very removed from that world.

I think that that can be isolated, but I also think that it makes me focus on the work, and just the work, in a way that maybe I wouldn't be able to. Or, I think it makes me focus on the work and think less about audience, maybe, and less about the critical audience, because I'm so far removed from that world.

I mean, really, when I say that I'm focused on the work, that means that I'm focused on telling stories about the kind of people that I live around and the kind of people that I grew up with. I'm focused on telling stories about Black Americans, about Black southerners, about poor Americans.

I think that consumed me, in a way. Depending on the project, I'm just trying to write the best story that I can, and really sort of focusing on that story, and focusing on that world and those characters, and trying to make the story sing.

So, yeah. I mean, it is always flattering to sort of be compared to great writers, but I think that in my day-to-day creative life, I don't think about it as much. And I try not to think about it as much because I feel like my first concern is to tell the true stories of the people around me, and to be as honest as I can in those stories, and to bear witness to those stories.

 


Who are you writing for? What do you want your audience to gain?

Oh. I don't know. I think that when I was younger, my answer to that question would've been different. Because when I was starting out, a lot of, I think, my motivation to write came from the love that I have for my family, my extended family, my community. It also came out of my experience with my brother, who was killed when he was 19 years old by a White drunk driver. And then, after he was killed, the person who killed him, the drunk driver who killed him, was not charged with his death. That person was charged with leaving the scene of a crime. Not only did that seem like a great injustice to me, but it also felt like an erasure, and it also felt like a silencing. For me, that was as if the world said, "Your brother's life is inconsequential. It doesn't matter." In fact, it's almost as if he didn't even exist, right? Because, I mean, in death, his life had no worth.
And so, I think that in the beginning I thought, well, I want to assert that we are here. I think the biggest thing that was driving me, and so it's like I was writing for, for my community, writing for my extended family, writing for people who are like the people in my book, but also writing for... and this is very weird to say out loud... but writing for the kind of people who would write us off and who would silence us and who would say that our lives are inconsequential, and it's like we don't even deserve to exist.
I was writing to try to get those people. In a way, I wanted to get up in the face and write something that would make them feel. As I've grown, and as I've evolved as a writer, I think that my understanding of my audience has changed. I think that I still write for my people, for my family, for my extended family, for my community, for people like the kind of people who inhabit my books, or trying to confront, in a way, the kind of people who would say that we're not worthy of telling our stories.
But at the same time, too, I think that I've come to understand that thing that they say about writing, that the particular leads to the universal, I've come to realize that that is true. It's through telling a particular story, with a particular protagonist, with a particular life, with these particular details, and telling it in a really rich way, and textured way, that leads to people who are nothing like the people that I write about, and who may be sympathetic to the kind of people I write about, that leads to more people feeling with the kind of people that I write about. He creates this rich experience that makes the reader feel like they're living with the people in my books. And then, that makes them feel empathy for my character.
I think that that's one of the things that artists definitely want. So, I've come to realize that I'm sort of writing for everybody, because I want people in New Zealand, people in Australia, people on the African continent, I want people everywhere to be able to read my work. Because my work is published pretty widely. I'm lucky in that way, where I'm published internationally. So, I want people around the world to be able to read my work and find something in it that resonates for them.

 

Your prose is regarded for its raw beauty. How do you balance your resonant voice with the painful interlocking themes of class, race, and social justice?

I think that all of those issues, all of those terrible realities, exist in my work. The reason that they exist in my work, the reason that I bear witness to them, the reason that I write about them is because the people who I'm writing about, they experience all those things.

So, it's one of the reasons that I think there's a certain value in living in Mississippi, even though sometimes this place frustrates me and makes me angry, and it scares me. One of the reasons that I continue to stay here and to work here and write here is because I feel like doing so keeps me honest, because I live in the same community that mirrors the one that I write about, and I live around the same kind of people that I write about.

Because I'm here, I'm constantly encountering all the realities of their lives, of people living in families where they've been living with generational poverty for decades, living with people who have been struggling with substance addiction, people who have been struggling to navigate racism, to navigate institutional racism. People who, for various reasons, their families have been impacted by all these things, and so they have to construct these extended family networks.

So, that's part of the reason that I live here, part of the reason that I work here, and I just try to tell the truth of those difficult realities in my work. But from the first draft, one of the things that I always keep in mind is my prose. So, I'm aware of the figurative language that I'm using. The simile, the metaphor. I'm aware of the imagery. I'm aware of the sensory details that I'm using. I'm trying to use several sensory details, all five senses, in my work the entire time that I'm writing the rough draft. When I'm going through and revising 10, 15, 20 times, that's also something that I'm thinking about, that was at the forefront of my mind the entire time.

And so, it's just something that I'm thinking about throughout the entire process. I think in part because I love poetry so much, and I read poets. I love reading poets. I love so many poets. Jericho Brown, Ada Limón, Natasha Trethewey, Donette Smith. In part, one of the ways that I want my prose to work is that I really want it to have the same punch, to say continuous punch and surprise and impact, as poetry does. Because when you read a poem, each line impacts you in some way. There's so much thought, there's so much purpose, put into each line.

And that's what I'm trying to do with my prose. It's crazy, probably, because it makes the audience work. The audience has to work, right? My prose is not like other writers' prose, and I'm not speaking negatively about other writers' prose, prose that is more spare, cleaner, sort of invisible. I would probably write that way if I could, but I can't. Because I think one of the things that brings me to the page and that makes me want to be a writer is that I love language. I love complicated language. And so, that's always reflected, I think, in my writing.

In ‘Salvage the Bones’ you write so carefully and with such affection for Esch who also happens to be a Black pregnant teen. We felt so deeply for her because she was at the mercy of so many systems—racism, patriarchy, classism. How can we do better for our young girls?

That is a fantastic question. And that's a really hard question, I think, for me to answer.

I think one of the things that broke my heart about Esch is that she has been born into a family and into a place, into a reality, where she often feels very alone. Even though she has her siblings who she loves, and who she connects with, and who she aligns herself with, I feel like often when she's moving through the world in spaces where it's not just her and her family, she feels alone. She feels invisible in the world, I think, in a way.

I think it's one of the reasons why she's such a voracious reader and why she's such a careful observer, because I think that she wants to see something in the world that reflects her reality back to her, and that will help her navigate what she's going through. So, I think that's why she reads so much, and that's why she is so observant and draws so many different connections between disparate things in the world.

So, I think the first thing that we can do as artists is reflect young women like Esch, offer reflections to them in the art that we do, create reflections for them so that they see something of themselves in the work. And I hope that the work that we do, that it helps them to better navigate their lives.

That's the way that I think about it for artists. But I think what we can do differs according to where our work takes us. So, if you are some sort of teacher or professor or instructor, then I think one of the things you can do is just be aware that Esches exist, and try to meet them in the classroom, and open yourself to listening to them in the classroom, and meeting their needs in the classroom, and providing them with what support that you can that they may not be getting outside of your classroom.

And I think one of the bigger things is just being aware that they exist, trying to create space to be open to them and their reality, and to listen to them, so that they're able to tell you, perhaps, what they want, or how you can best serve them and create safe space for them.

As a Black woman do you feel that your agency is restricted? How about as a writer? We notice your characters live in a realistic world that confines Black people to a set of unspoken rules.

Yes. I mean, I live in South Mississippi. You know what I'm saying? I think that I'm aware of the way of how I'm perceived because of who I am, and I'm aware that there are multiple systems in place that exist that undermine me and that don't serve me well, that attempt to silence me.

So, the first one that I think of off the top of my head is, as a Black woman in South Mississippi, and probably just in the South in general, I struggle with healthcare. I struggle with having confidence in the healthcare system, in feeling safe in the healthcare system, in thinking that if something happens to me, if I have some sort of medical situation or complication, I don't have a lot of confidence in the hospitals here, in the doctors here. I don't have a lot of confidence in the idea that they're going to listen to what I'm saying about my body and what I may be going through. I don't have a lot of confidence in the idea that they will try to meet my healthcare needs in a sensitive, responsive way.

And that's just one thing that I think about often, and all of that is predicated on me being a Black woman. Right now I have a 15-month-old, and when I was pregnant I was terrified, because of the statistics and the reality of Black maternal mortality, the higher rates of Black maternal mortality, of Black infant mortality. I knew that the fact that I was in Mississippi complicated that even more.

So, in my everyday life, I am very aware that I'm a Black woman, and I am very aware that multiple systems exist to not only oppress me, what they do is they oppress me and people like me.

As a Black woman writer who writes about the kind of people that I write about, poor, Black southern people, enslaved people, I am also aware that there can be a negative response to my work because of who I am and because of my subject matter and the people who I choose to write about.

That can be a limiting thing in the publishing industry. They can look at work like mine and they can say, "This isn't going to sell, so we're not going to put a lot of resources behind it." I feel like that has happened to me in the past. When I was fighting and clawing to try to write and publish, especially in the beginning, that who I am limited the publishing industry's ideas about my abilities, and also about the fact that I can even have a reading audience.

Some people might look at my life from the outside and think, "Oh, she's made it". And in some ways, yes, I have. But I'm still a Black woman writer who is writing about marginalized, oppressed people. And those stories, they're not celebrated.

So, I don't know. I feel like it's something that recently with Let Us Descend, my most recent novel, that I was made aware of again. That maybe this industry is not set up necessarily to celebrate stories like mine. I don't know. It's difficult for me to answer that question. I'm sorry. I feel like I'm going off on a tangent. But I feel like that's something that I've been thinking about and reckoning with, and specifically with this book. Specifically with Let Us Descend.

We have been talking about Blackness as if it’s singular. Is there another way you define being Black in 2024?

Kiese Laymon, who I love, one of the things that he says is that, because we have a lot of conversations with each other when we do events, in part because we love each other, we love each other's works, we're both from Mississippi, so anytime I can get the opportunity to have a conversation with him, like do an onstage event, we're just going back and forth and talking. I love to do it.

And one of the things that he said in one of the events that we did was, he made it a point to say, and I'm paraphrasing, so Jesmyn's Mississippi not my Mississippi, and my Mississippi isn't Jesmyn's Mississippi. And then Natasha Trethewey's Mississippi is not our Mississippi, and Ralph Eubanks' Mississippi maybe isn't our Mississippi. There are multiple Mississippis.

I think about him saying that because I feel like there are so many different experiences of Blackness in this country, in America, and I feel like it's taken me a really long time to learn that.

But I began learning that, I think, when I went away to college for my undergrad education. Because I remember just assuming that all the Black kids in my class that I met would be like me. I don't think I had articulated it to myself until I got there and met all these incoming Black freshmen, and realized that they live very different lives from the one that I had, but I just assumed everybody would be, probably not the smartest idea, but I was like, "Oh, I thought I would meet more first-generation Black college students, more kids who had come from impoverished backgrounds." Because that was my frame of reference.

I learned pretty quickly that there was a whole spectrum of Blackness, and that the kids that I went to school with, that they lived totally different lives than I did.

And so, I don't know. I think that there are multiple different experiences of Blackness. But I think that thing that we all share, and that one of the things that we share, is that even though some of the kids that I encountered came from very privileged backgrounds, they're still Black in America. I mean, you still have to reckon with that history and reckon with all those systems. That's the same.

So, I think there are multiple types of blackness, or multiple experiences of blackness, but I do think there are some things that resonate across all of those experiences. The fact that we have to reckon with all the systems. I think that there's a resilience that also echoes across all of the expressions of Blackness. I think that there's a joy in creation, in creativity, and innovation. Also, I think it goes across all of those different expressions of Blackness. But yeah, that's a really good question.

Your writing has been criticized as over-the-top traumatic, but we see you embed hope, love, and fellowship. What do people misinterpret about your work?

I can't be too hard on people, or too judgmental of people, who have that reaction to my work, or have that criticism of my work.

And the reason that I can't is because I understand that the kinds of stories that I write, they require an active reader. There are other stories, and I love these other stories. I read these other stories, especially in other genres that don't require any kind of work on the part of the reader. They don't require work as far as wrestling with the language. The language is sort of invisible, more streamlined and straightforward.

But they also don't require the reader to reckon with hard things, like hard facts, hard situations, painful situations, sometimes traumatic situations.

And, like I said, I read those stories. I love those stories. Sometimes I don't want to work, either. But I think that my work, again and again, in my novels, in my creative nonfiction, in my memoir, it requires that the reader is active, that the reader works, that the reader sometimes bears witness to things that are painful and that do hurt.

But I feel that one of the first lessons that I've learned regarding storytelling, and that I adopted in my own storytelling, is that you tell the whole story. No matter how painful it is, no matter how traumatic it might be, that if you are committing to doing the kind of work that I'm committed to doing, you have to tell the whole story. It's important for me to bear witness in my work.

My characters don't live on a different planet or a different dimension where I can construct an entirely different reality, an entirely different world, and where I can invent all kinds of different systems and institutions. My characters live in the real world.

Sometimes there's a sort of supernatural element to some of my stories, but they're very much still rooted in the real world. And in the real world, as we all know, is full of trauma, full of painful, uncomfortable events. My work is reflective of that, especially because I chose to write literary fiction.

There are all types of other fictions, other types of genres, that you can read if you don't want to read fiction that is rooted in the real world. I mean, rooted in the ugly real world. You can read romance, you can read mystery, you can read thriller, and you don't have to reckon with those ugly truths.

So, I've been working on this talk. And in the talk, one of the things that I speak about is about my grandmother. My grandmother was one of the first storytellers of my life. One of the first stories that she told me when I was a kid was she told me about her birth, as my grandmother was a twin. When she was born, her twin was born first. My grandmother's twin, she was stillborn. My great-grandmother was so grief-stricken when my grandmother's twin was stillborn that she told my great-grandfather to just put my grandmother in a drawer. And she turned and she despaired, and she rolled over in bed and she just wouldn't engage with my grandmother. She was like, "She's going to die, too."

It is one of the first stories I remember hearing in my life. And it was my grandmother's story, and it was true. To retell that story and to pass along that story, it's not the glory in trauma, right, it's to be honest about the story, and then also to bear witness to the fact that my grandmother fought in that dresser drawer, and she cried, and she survived, and she lived, and she became a woman who had a very full life and who experienced a lot of joy. That's the whole story.

I understand that it's easy for people to lobby that complaint at me. But for me, it's just about being honest about the kind of people that I write about.

Well, we can’t let you go without mentioning DeLisle. If we ever get to visit, what special food should we try?

So, we are on the coast. I would probably say the gumbo. Seafood is really popular down here, so any seafood. If you eat seafood, any seafood dish, we do it well. So, gumbo or shrimp etouffée or crawfish etouffée or oysters.

But there's this thing that they do with them down here, which I'm sure they them in other places too, but they grill them in the half-shell. And so, you can ask for different toppings on top of them. They are delicious. So, I'd say any type of seafood, depending on what you have a taste for.

Before we end this interview, The Amistad staffs wants to thank you again and let you know that… we hear you.

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has received the MacArthur Genius Grant, a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency, the Strauss Living Prize, and the 2022 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. She is the historic winner—first woman and first Black American—of two National Book Awards for Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) and Salvage the Bones (2011). Her most recent novel, Let Us Descend, was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. She is also the author of the novel Where the Line Bleeds and the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Media for a Just Society Award. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Tulane University and lives in Mississippi.

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