How Jesmyn Ward Is Reimagining Southern Literature

Jesmyn Ward gestured with her eyes and a tilt of her face, hands on the wheel. “This crazy colored house right here? That’s my grandmother’s house. That’s the house I grew up in. And her sister lives there” — she pointed — “and then that little blue house? That’s my great-grandparents’ house.” She was driving me around DeLisle, Miss., her hometown and the inspiration for Bois Sauvage, the fictional setting of her first three novels. It is Deep South-in-August hot outside, and the air-conditioning was a relief. “My mom’s side of the family was all clustered around this road.”

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Ward is a MacArthur Fellow and a two-time winner of the National Book Award. According to the norms of literary culture, writers of her stature are not supposed to live in places like DeLisle; they tend to make their homes in publishing’s metropolitan centers. But Ward’s daily life does not consist of rubbing elbows with the literati in their New York haunts. The Gulf Coast is her home and her source: As with William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, great novelists with whom Ward is often compared, a commitment to evoking the particularities of place animates her work.

There are many Souths. Ward’s version, made up of the towns dotting the Mississippi Gulf Coast, was submerged until she dredged it for us. Even within Mississippi, this region is often opaque: It is not the storied Delta, where cotton was king. On the Gulf Coast, the red-and-ocher-skinned, sandy, curly and slick-haired Black residents speak in soft drawls, with rounded vowels and country-French pronunciations (the town of Pass Christian, for example, is pronounced “Pass-Christi-ANN”). Their accents and complexions speak to the state’s embedded history of slavery and Jim Crow, but there is also the folk cosmopolitanism that comes with proximity to a port. The Gulf Coast is the United States’ mouth to the Americas, at once vast and small.

Ward is classically beautiful — delicate and golden-skinned with her hair hanging in long curls. She is friendly and open yet reserved. Her face is unlined, making her appear much younger than her 46 years. But there are occasions when she sets her jaw and fixes to speak, and you find that she has the speech habits of an elder Black woman, following profound observations with silence, waiting for her point to sink in without exegesis or elaboration. When she laughs, though, shoulders hunched, I can imagine her as a little girl running around the woods she is driving me through. “It felt wilder when I was little,” she said, looking at the trees. “It wasn’t as built up. After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of people bought property around here. White developers decided to develop it. Sometimes I feel like the home I write about in my work — the home of my childhood — doesn’t quite exist anymore.”

Eventually, we came to a road that Ward said went up to a community called the Kiln — pronounced “kill” by the locals, and fictionalized as “the Kill” in Ward’s third novel, 2017’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” It is perhaps best known as the hometown of Brett Favre, the N.F.L. Hall of Fame quarterback. The town is important to Ward for another reason, though: Her great-grandfather Harry was the son of a white mother, Edna. When Harry had kids of his own, he and Edna would take them up to the Kiln to visit their white relatives, including Edna’s sister. At a certain point in the day, she would usher the family out before the sun set. While Harry and Edna rode back down to the Black side of town, the children were loaded into the trunk. Ward borrowed her family’s complex racial history in writing “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” That family history tells us something about how Ward thinks about history and its relationship to her fiction. She uses the raw material of the past to chronicle how it continues to work on us, but also to how we continue to work on it. She trains her attention on things both familiar and difficult. As her friend, the scholar Regina N. Bradley, told me, she shows us the Black & Milds, the liquor and the T-shirts with images of the deceased emblazoned on them, but also the way fragmentation, natural disaster and structural injustice can scramble Black life. Ward’s novels are populated by the dead, their ghosts and the survivors they leave behind. The reality of premature death looms, yet, as she makes abundantly clear, Black people live. She’s interested in that living and the hauntings that both torment and sustain us.

Ward’s new novel, “Let Us Descend,” which will be published later this month, offers a sensorially and emotionally thick account of an enslaved existence in the antebellum South. The book’s protagonist, Annis, is a filia dolorosa, an archetypal sorrowful daughter mourning her separation from her mother because of the slave trade. But the ruptures of slavery are not, in Ward’s telling, to be transcended; nor are they merely an unrelenting horror show. She offers another way: a life made of fragments and held together by acts of tenderness. Along her path, Annis’s connections are snatched, and though she has spiritual guidance from foremothers and other spirits, it would be too romantic to describe her as triumphant or resilient. This is not that kind of story; rather we stand in the storm with Annis.

When I spoke with contemporary Black writers and intellectuals about Ward, two of the words that came up most frequently were “us” and “ours.” The writer Mitchell S. Jackson described her to me as “an ultimate model of what it means to hold your people up, not because they are perfect or special, but because they are worthy.” The scholar and fellow Gulf Coast native Eddie S. Glaude Jr., told me via text that Ward’s novels “feel like they belong to our time, to the places that are most familiar to me,” and described her work as “a literature shaped by the Reagan era and its deadly consequences. Her voice on the page doesn’t imitate an early time with its protests and Black consciousness. She writes in its aftermath.” In a political moment when the country’s ugly racial history is being openly misrepresented, Ward is depicting a time and place that often goes overlooked in contemporary American literary fiction. In doing so, she is remapping where we believe we must look if we are to understand that history and the world it has created.

The contours of Ward’s life were formed by two hurricanes. In 1969, Hurricane Camille struck, marking a terrible watershed in Black life on the Gulf Coast. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a year earlier, triggering spasms of mourning and rage-filled urban uprisings. Camille compounded that loss, scattering Gulf Coast residents across the country. Ward’s father’s family survived the storm by sheltering in the attic, then left Pass Christian via a government resettlement program, moving to Oakland, Calif. Her mother spent time in Los Angeles while attending community college, and was coaxed to Oakland with love letters. Ward was born in the Bay Area in 1977.

California had long been a destination for Black people migrating from all points along I-10, the interstate that can take you in a straight shot from Jacksonville, Fla., to Los Angeles. According to Ward, California, with its Black Panther Party programs and metropolitan life, was a place of possibility for her father, but possibility — like the chance to go to art school — was thwarted by the demands of work and raising a family. The Wards returned to Mississippi in 1980, when Jesmyn was 3.

Early on, adults identified Ward as a gifted child. Her mother was a domestic worker whose employer, an attorney, paid for Ward to attend a small Episcopal school for five years, where she was the only Black student. Her peers’ classism and racism made her eager to get out of the South. In 1995 she enrolled at Stanford University, where she majored in English but found herself homesick for her family, the trees and the ways of the Gulf Coast. Becoming a writer didn’t seem like a feasible goal. Like many of us who emerged into the distinct, if rare, opportunities of elite education in the post-Civil Rights moment, she felt that she had to choose a reliable profession, one that offered the promise of a prosperous career. “Even though I was showing some talent in a creative field when I was in school, in writing, pursuing that as a career wasn’t encouraged,” Ward said.

Ward graduated in 2000 with an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s degree in media studies, figuring it would help her land a job. But when she returned home to Mississippi, work was hard to come by, even with two degrees from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Those months, she spent a lot of time with her 19-year-old brother, Joshua. They shared intellectual curiosity and a keen awareness of racial injustice, often driving around DeLisle together, listening to music by rappers like Ghostface Killah.

Their time together was suddenly cut short when a drunken driver hit Joshua in October 2000, killing him. Ward described the event as we drove past the site. The horror of it still sticks in her throat. The culprit wasn’t even charged with manslaughter; instead he served two years for fleeing the scene of the accident. Had Joshua been white, grief would not carry the same bitter sense of disregard. Ward has often said that Joshua’s death pushed her to become a writer. It is a labor that allows her to record her people and her place against the threat of neglect, erasure and violence.

In 2003, Ward enrolled in the University of Michigan’s M.F.A. program, where she cultivated a stern process for herself, which she retains, often writing between eight and 10 drafts of her books and essays. After graduation in 2005, she returned home, this time moving into her mother’s house. A few months later, Hurricane Katrina landed on the Gulf Coast.

As we approached a stoplight, Ward described the scene: “All of this was underwater, from the bayou all the way. That’s why these people built their houses on stilts.” Ward’s grandmother’s home flooded, and the family took to their cars, finding refuge by parking in an open field on higher ground. Everywhere you look there is evidence of how much was lost: spanking new homes, historic markers that simply note what was once there and no longer exists and, in the gulf, marooned boats with only the very tops of their masts showing.

Writing has sustained Ward through heartbreak and has given her a means of repair. Her body of work reveals how the injuries of the past can be renamed and reshaped by those who keep on living. In her debut novel, “Where the Line Bleeds” (2008), she told the story of twin brothers, Joshua and Christophe DeLisle, who graduate from high school and confront the limited opportunities for young Black men in Bois Sauvage. They live with their stalwart grandmother Ma-mee, and carry the heartbreak of their mostly absent mother and drug-addicted father. While Joshua works at the port, Christophe becomes a drug dealer before becoming addicted himself and veering tragically toward conflict with his father. The book carries Ward’s characteristic mélange of vernacular speech and lush, sometimes oracular prose, immersing readers in the blessings — and difficulties — of family, the ways that bonds can both nurture and destroy.

Her next novel, “Salvage the Bones” (2011), returned readers to Bois Sauvage, introducing them to Esch, a pregnant and motherless teenage girl living with her father and three brothers when Hurricane Katrina upends their world. Esch and her family face the storm the way they face everything else in their lives: trying to make do after losing so much of what little they had. Ward brings the traumatic displacement of natural disaster into focus, describing hardscrabble living with a sensitive terseness. Her prose brings readers inside Esch’s perspective, protecting her against the voyeurism that stories of Black teenage mothers usually encourage, and granting her a vulnerable nobility.

“Salvage the Bones” won the National Book Award (she’d win a second for “Sing, Unburied, Sing”), pushing Ward onto an international stage. That success prepared the ground for her 2013 memoir, “Men We Reaped.” Chronicling four years marked by the deaths of five men she knew from back home, including her brother. This is, as she describes it, “writing to the wound.” The work is searing and personal, but not parochial. In the portraits Ward paints, guns, hard labor and humiliation are all common place — but so, too, is the love and ritual that nourish those caught in the web of economic precarity, with Jim Crow’s legacy bearing down on them.

We paused by a children’s playground that sits adjacent to a graveyard. I recognized it as the inspiration for the playground Joshua and Christophe frequented in “Where the Line Bleeds,” the one with the “asphalt basketball court, rusty slides, swings, monkey bars and park benches.” Memorialized in Ward’s writing, it is the kind of place that would otherwise go unrecognized.

I remarked at how well maintained the graveyard was. It was small and pristine, the grass lush and trimmed, its headstones clean. “My brother is buried there,” she said. The community pitched in to take care of the cemetery. “Sometimes my stepdad will come down here, he’ll do it. My cousin will mow. Everybody has equipment. The men in the community, if they see that the grass is really long and there are weeds, they’ll come down here and they’ll do it. They all love someone who is buried there.” I think of the final pages of “Men We Reaped,” in which she remembers one of the last times she saw Joshua, listening to Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You.” Its lyrics express bittersweet nostalgia about growing up in the hood. It is exactly the sort of song that makes sense for a child who comes of age going to a playground adjacent to a graveyard; one who just might travel from one to the other more quickly than could ever make sense.

Ward when she was 5 in a field near her childhood home in DeLisle, Miss. DeLisle is the inspiration for Bois Sauvage, the fictional setting of her first three novels.Credit…via Jesmyn Ward

The elision of the line between the dead and the living is a hallmark of Ward’s work. In “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Ward tells the story of a boy named Jojo, the son of a young Black mother mourning her dead brother, Given, and a white father incarcerated at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary, known as Parchman Farm. The ghost of a boy who died generations ago trying to escape Parchman trails Jojo; Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is also troubled by Given. “Haunting” feels too narrow of a word, though, for how Ward’s characters are enmeshed with the world of the dead. “At the same time that they’ve inherited the simple facts that they live in poverty,” she said in a 2017 interview, “they also have a different legacy. This spiritual legacy allows them, not to transcend their reality, but to access a different understanding of their reality.” For Ward, this connection to the afterlife offers a way to live in a world where institutions, relationships and lives might be casually shattered by the whims of the wealthy or the weather.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” speaks to the hoodoo ethos that Ward channels in her writing. Hoodoo exists in the pantheon of New World Black spirituality, but it does not have as coherent a theology as even Santería or Candomblé. It’s an associative faith rather than a narrative one, a way to hold off the world’s brutality. Cobbled together from West and Central African, Indigenous and European folk remedies, it combines medicine, spells and rituals to build a folk tradition by hook or by crook. The cost of hoodoo’s balm, though, is a direct confrontation with loss. It’s the result of a Black American history that has been shorn from its origin point, without suture but with ample hope for survival.

In the new novel, Ward offers her most cleareyed assessment yet of the relationship between the dead and living, the past and the present. On its face it might read as a departure — it’s the first book not to tell a story rooted in the contemporary Gulf Coast. Its protagonist, Annis, is an enslaved girl whose mother tries to shield her from the predations of the slaveholder who fathered her. When the slaver loses patience with the mother’s protectiveness, he splits the family and sells them both. It is only the first of many catastrophes to befall the girl. Ripped from family and root, she is marched into the South toward the slave markets of New Orleans.

But “Let Us Descend” is not a departure; it is instead a ride across territory that Ward has been surveying for her entire career, expanding her investigations into loss and how we tend to ourselves in its aftermath. Annis is overwhelmed by death’s prevalence. “What of the ones who die bad but not awful?” she wonders before imagining a litany of expirations, thinking of all the ways a Black person can perish in a slaver’s world. “Those who die bleeding from the eyes, those who die with their breaths rattling, those who die because their bodies break on them, piece by piece, like clocks come to the end of their circling, those who die from bellies swelling, their eyes turning yellow, those who drown in rivers, those who work and work without rest, who lie down one night, exhausted from the march of days, and never wake in the morning?”

As Annis is marched South, she is accompanied by the spirits of her ancestors, using them to draw on a reserve of strength. These interactions are not simply supportive, though. Ward portrays the relationship between the two worlds as complexly as she does the relationship between Jojo and Leonie. The first time the spirit of her grandmother, Aza, materializes, Ward weights the scene with tension and estrangement. “She looks at me like it’s a mistake she came across me here,” she observes, trembling. “The way she gazes at me, wide-eyed and searching, stern about the eyebrows, reminds me of the one who sold me.” Annis encounters the ancestral past and the loss of it as something powerful yet unfamiliar, even frightening.

Though Ward is frequently linked to Faulkner and Morrison, writers for whom narrative was also a function of place and the histories that attach to specific communities, the association has led critics to miss Ward’s particularity. Where both Faulkner and Morrison are gothic, Ward is hoodoo. “She’s not following Faulkner,” the writer Kiese Laymon put it to me. “Jesmyn is competing with him.” And she does so by delving into Bois Sauvage with comparable intensity to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Morrison’s Ohio River Valley. “Where the Line Bleeds” begins with two epigraphs — one from Genesis, and another from the Georgia rapper Pastor Troy: “Why Jesus equipped with angels and devils with fire?/For God so loved the world that he blessed the thug with rock./Won’t stop until they feel me./Protect me devil, I think the Lord is trying to kill me.” That juxtaposition speaks to the way that the spiritual and physical worlds abut in Ward’s writing, how thin the veil is between life on the Coast and the land of the dead. In choosing the epigraph, Ward told me she was thinking about how Southern rap helped kids in her generation understand their world — one riven by the crack epidemic, the unraveling of social and economic institutions and the deaths of loved ones. “Southern rap was helping us to understand what we were living through, and also giving us language to process what we were living through in a way that other art forms weren’t necessarily doing,” she told me. “Back when I was coming up, I wasn’t reading any books that were giving me a framework to understand what I was living through.”

Ward’s work pours liquor out in the manner of the Black South, where “pouring out a little” celebrates and honors our dead, keeping them involved in our world, not to haunt but to be loved. “I think hoodoo is becoming more and more important in my understanding of the world,” she told me. “Especially when I think about it in reference to grief. I know that it comes from African traditional religions, but it feels very right to me for Black Americans because it helps us to live with our grief, to cope and to do that in healthy ways.”

Ward first had the idea that became “Let Us Descend” years ago: Once, during her commute between her home and the Tulane University campus, where she teaches, she listened to an N.P.R. report about the many sites of former slave-auction blocks and pens around New Orleans. Ward had been going back and forth to New Orleans to visit family her whole life, but she had never seen any recognition of the geography of slavery in the historical markers and landscape of the city, nor of the many enslaved Africans who came through it.

“Let Us Descend,” which Ward began writing in 2015, marks the longest time she has ever spent working on a novel, and its writing challenged her in new ways. She had built a career on exploring how Black life exceeds racial oppression, thinking about her characters’ choices even within constrained circumstances. But she wanted to ask a new question: What do you do when agency is stolen from you and choice is constrained almost beyond meaning? “I realized Annis did have choices, on the inside, how she thought about things,” she told me.

Annis has a cut-up existence. As she descends into the Deep South’s brutality, every intimacy is ruptured; every treasured inheritance made partial. In the hands of another novelist, we might expect the spirits that appear to help Annis survive, but Annis’s relationship to them is begrudging, even antagonistic, and the fact of a spiritual realm often seems insufficient to confronting the bitterness of life amid so much sadness. In some cases, the spirits she encounters are deceitful. This wrestling with how to build a life in spite of the pull that loss exerts on us is Annis’s bildungsroman, the story of her spiritual education. In that sense, “Let Us Descend” asks us to imagine how we are to live a life here in the present, honoring the past while not being beholden to it.

When Ward began “Let Us Descend,” she was in the embrace of her family and community. Then in early January 2020, just a couple of weeks before Covid-19 would officially arrive on the continent, her partner, Brandon R. Miller, fell ill and died with flulike symptoms at age 33. In an essay for Vanity Fair, she recalled sinking into “hot, wordless grief,” eating tortillas and queso while trying to raise children made hysterical by sadness. Her mourning became an occasion to find community with those who had also suffered loss, not just in the present but in the past as well. In her essay, she recalled that, even in the thick of her own grief, “I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time.” The imagery recalls a description of the afterlife that Annis’s grandmother gives her: “There are lands, other lands, beyond the Water,” she says. “The Water has many voices. The people … They sing with the Water. They sing back to it.”

The essay was morally outraged — about the devastating loss of her partner and children’s father, about the crass cultural responses to the horror of the Covid-19 pandemic — but also hopeful about what appeared to be a sea change in the global uprising against racist violence after the murder of George Floyd. One cannot read “Let Us Descend” without sensing how it speaks to those crises, which remain with us. This quality is what makes it more than a historical novel; its concerns are germane to those of us who live amid contemporary terrors: viral pandemics, climate disaster, the persistence of racial violence, the political backlash against the gains for women, Black people and queer people. Ward faces down the horror of loss, but also the possibility of, as Gwendolyn Brooks often put it, living in the along, and forging a self even when bereft and broken.

Years after Brandon’s death, Ward is continuing to forge that self in the face of heartbreak. We sat outdoors at a restaurant patio overlooking the gulf, finishing up a few pieces of fish and gumbo. At a lull in the conversation, she looked to the water for a moment. Then she turned to me and smiled. “You know, I have a new baby,” she said. “And a partner.” Her eyes were bright; she explained her plan to take the child on tour with her, and we talked a bit about traveling while nursing, the way kids tear up houses like raccoons. Her smile was luminous when she described her little one, and I got a glimpse of how she must be with him when we ran into her great-niece at the restaurant. She talked directly to the toddler. “Hey, how you doing?” she asked, holding her hand. It is a moment of sweetness — not as weakness, but responsibility to the living.

Imani Perry is a professor at Harvard University and a 2023 MacArthur Fellow. Her book “South to America” won the 2022 National Book Award for nonfiction.

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