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How Jesmyn Ward is reinventing Southern literature

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Ward is a classic beauty – delicate and golden-skinned with her hair hanging in long curls. She is friendly and open but reserved. Her face is not wrinkled, which makes her look much younger than her 46 years. But there are occasions when she sets her jaw and prepares to speak, and you discover that she has the speaking habits of an older black woman, following deep observations with silence, waiting for her point of view to come. it permeates without exegesis or elaboration. But when she laughs, her shoulders hunched, I can imagine her as a little girl running through the woods she takes me through. “It was wilder when I was little,” she said, looking at the trees. “It wasn’t as constructed. After Hurricane Katrina, many people bought property here. White developers decided to develop it. Sometimes I feel like the house I talk about in my work – my childhood home – doesn’t really exist anymore.

Eventually we came to a road that Ward said led to a community called the Kiln – pronounced “kill” by locals and fictionalized as “the murder” in Ward’s third novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” 2017. It is perhaps best known as the hometown of NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre. The town is important to Ward for another reason: his great-grandfather Harry was the son of a white mother, Edna. When Harry had his own children, he and Edna would take them to the Oven to visit their white relatives, including Edna’s sister. At a certain time of day, she would take the family out before sunset. As Harry and Edna headed back down to the dark side of town, the children were loaded into the trunk. Ward borrowed from his family’s complex racial history when writing “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” This family story tells us something about how Ward views history and its relationship to his fiction. She uses the raw material of the past to tell how it continues to act on us, but also how we continue to work on he. She focuses her attention on things that are both familiar and difficult. As her friend, researcher Regina N. Bradley, told me, she shows us the Black & Milds, alcohol and T-shirts with images of the deceased, but also how fragmentation, natural disasters and Structural injustice can blur black life. Ward’s novels are populated by the dead, their ghosts, and the survivors they leave behind. The reality of premature death looms, but, as she makes abundantly clear, black people live. She is interested in this life and the hauntings that torment and sustain us.

Ward’s new novel, “Let Us Descend,” to be published later this month, offers an intense sensory and emotional account of an enslaved existence in the antebellum South. The book’s protagonist, Annis, is a painful filia, an archetypal and sad girl, mourning her separation from her mother because of the slave trade. But according to Ward, the ruptures of slavery must not be transcended; nor are they simply a relentless horror show. She offers another path: a life made of fragments and held together by acts of tenderness. Along the way, Annis’s relationships are broken, and while she benefits from the spiritual guidance of her ancestors and other spirits, it would be too romantic to describe her as triumphant or resilient. It’s not that kind of story; instead we stay in the storm with Annis.

When I spoke about Ward with contemporary black writers and intellectuals, two of the words that came up most often were “we” and “ours.” Writer Mitchell S. Jackson described her to me as “an ultimate model of what it means to support your people, not because they are perfect or special, but because they are worth it.” Scholar and fellow Gulf Coast native Eddie S. Glaude Jr. told me via text message that Ward’s novels “feel like they belong in our time, in the places most familiar to me ”, and described his work as “shaped literature”. by the Reagan era and its deadly consequences. His voice on the page does not imitate an ancient era with its protests and black consciousness. She writes afterwards. In a political era where the country’s horrific racial history is openly distorted, Ward depicts a time and place that is often overlooked in contemporary American literary fiction. In doing so, she redefines the areas in which we think we must look if we are to understand this story and the world it created.

The contours of Ward’s life was marked by two hurricanes. In 1969, Hurricane Camille struck, marking a terrible turning point in the lives of black people on the Gulf Coast. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated a year earlier, sparking spasms of grief and rage-filled urban uprisings. Camille compounded this loss by dispersing Gulf Coast residents across the country. Ward’s father’s family survived the storm by sheltering in the attic, then left Pass Christian through a government resettlement program to settle in Oakland, California. Her mother spent time in Los Angeles while attending community college and was persuaded to go to Oakland with love letters. Ward was born in the Bay Area in 1977.

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