This article is part of our series “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” in which we profile some of our favorite Southern ladies and the things that make them awesome. Got an idea for a fabulous femme we should feature? Shoot us an email at email@example.com! (Alliteration optional.)
Name: Jesmyn Ward
Hometown: DeLisle, Mississippi
Profession: writer, professor, certified genius
Reasons she’s awesome: “The dream of her was the glow of a spent fire on a cold night: warm and welcoming.” Jesmyn Ward’s writing seems to come like a dream, shimmeringly close to reality and grounded in her experience but spun so quickly into cobwebs of fantasy that you don’t realize you’re moving into the realm of the magical until you’re already there. She was born in 1977 in a rural Mississippi town, raised on the hurricane-buffeted land of the Gulf Coast. She was bullied as a child — first at her public school, then at her new private school when her mother’s boss, whose house she cleaned, offered to pay her way. She was the first person in her family to go to college, earning a B.A. and M.A. at Stanford. Just after she graduated, her little brother, Joshua, was killed by a drunk driver. And it was at that moment that she decided to take her love-hate relationship with her home, her fascination with heritage and ghosts and family, and her critical eye on matters of race and poverty and the culture of the South, and channel them into writing.
Jesmyn earned her M.F.A. at the University of Michigan in 2005. (Her thesis would eventually become her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, which spins a tale of siblings in the Yoknapatawpha-esque Bois Sauvage, MS — both of which would come to feature heavily in her fiction.) Also in 2005, the second tragedy would hit the crucible of her rapidly forging talent: Hurricane Katrina. Like many folks in the region, Jesmyn and her family had to evacuate their home as the waters rapidly rose. They attempted to drive to a nearby church but ended up stranded in a field full of tractors. The white family that owned the field came out mid-storm to check on their property and refused to let the Wards, who are black, take refuge in their house, claiming it was too full. And so they sat. When the waters receded a bit, they made their way to the next intersection, where another family took them in. But the experience stuck with Jesmyn. And in 2011, it became her second, ground-breaking, award-winning book: Salvage the Bones. And that is where I fell in love with her.
There are some books that are so moving, so breath taking, that they stick in your craw for years. For me, Salvage the Bones is one of them. It’s a story about a motherless child, herself about to become a mother, as she and her siblings and father (and her brother’s dog) brace for and (spoiler alert) ultimately survive Hurricane Katrina. It is, as the New York Times put it, “a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written,” and one whose richly imagined characters and their struggles to grow up and get by have stuck with me for years. (Sound familiar? It was featured in the very first installment of our series, Required Reading, three years ago today.) Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award on November 16, 2011, and a literary star was born.
Since then, Jesmyn has gone on to write a memoir (Men We Reaped), edited and contributed to an essay collection (The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race), and publish her third novel (Sing, Unburied, Sing!), which earned her her second National Book Award. She was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2017 for her work “exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential.” And when she isn’t blowing minds with her vibrant prose, she is an associate professor of English at Tulane University.
When describing Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn said, “Here in these Mississippi coastal backwoods, there are motherless children, beautiful pit bulls, lost girls, boys who ride bikes without seats, fights in basketball gyms, births, deaths, and more. Sit with me on the lip of this ditch. Come on: let me tell you a story.” She follows in a great tradition of Southern storytellers: steeped in lore, clear-eyed to the realities of the present, and shining a light on the dustier, muddier, darker corners of our world. She tells the stories of the people who don’t often get the spotlight, and she does it with grace and honesty. And I’ll just be sitting here, on the lip of the ditch, waiting for her to tell me another one.