Jesmyn Ward received the prestigious honor Nov. 15 for her 2011 book Salvage the Bones.
“I did not expect to win it,” said Ward, a native of the Gulf Coast community of DeLisle, so small it doesn’t even have its own post office. “I wasn’t favored to win. I wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was a total surprise. I still haven’t come to terms with it.”
Ward received the recognition for her second book set in a small fictional town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
“I wanted to tell the story about these characters, this family and Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “I thought it might get some reviews and some people might read it, like had happened with my first book, but I didn’t expect to win.”
Growing up, Ward attended the small private Coast Episcopal High School before enrolling as an undergraduate at Stanford University. She enjoyed writing growing up, but “doubted whether or not I would be successful at it.”
“I was always impressed by writers and works of literature. Writers were amazing to me, and I respected what they could do so much. It seemed like they had so much power to be able to create another world. It wasn’t until I graduated college that I tried to seriously be a writer.”
The former Stegner fellow at Stanford and the current Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi is an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama.
She received a master’s of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood awards for essays, drama, and fiction.
Her debut novel,Where the Line Bleeds, was an Essence Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient and a finalist for both the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
At 3 p.m. Dec. 17, Ward will sign books at Lemuria in Jackson.
Lisa Newman, Lemuria fiction room and social media manager, read an advanced copy of Salvage the Bones in July.
“I read it in a couple of days, and I couldn’t put it down,” she said. “The novel takes place in the span of 12 days. It’s about a poor black family on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The mother has passed away, and the father has these four children. He’s kind of a drunk, but seems to be like one of the few people in his community who is trying to get ready for the storm as best he can. He’s trying to tell his children to do these things to help them, like save some water and the little bit of food they have. The story is told from the perspective of the 15-year-old daughter.”
Newman said it’s a book she continued to think about after reading it.
“One thing for sure I took away from it is she is a super talented writer, no doubt,” she said. “We hear so much about Katrina. There are so many books that have been published about it. We get kind of fatigued about it. But you don’t feel like that at all reading this book.”
Scott Naugle, owner of Pass Christian books, was there with Ward when she accepted the National Book Award. He has known her the past four years.
“I wrote a story about her for a magazine, and that’s how we met,” he said. “We stayed in touch and became friends. When I read her first book, I knew that someone who wrote so well would have to be both intellectual and deeply insightful.”
He also discovered they shared the same taste in books. Both were fans of Jean Toomer’s novel Cane and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
“Her first novel is very strong,” he said. “The second book has even further development of a very powerful and strong literary voice. I could just see her talent becoming more bold, more truthful.”
Naugle describes Ward as very eloquent, well spoken, opinionated and graceful.
“To me the message of her novel is hurricanes and catastrophes expose things that society doesn’t give a voice to, doesn’t respect,” Naugle said. “A hurricane takes all that away. … If we’re complicit, we are helping create the circumstances that allow these things to happen.”
–LaReeca Rucker, Clarion-Ledger