The National Book Award winner on substance abuse in the rural South, being told she’d written “just a Southern book,” and her hope that Obama found in her work “something he wasn’t expecting to see.”
Image by Tony Cook
For those who worry that the American publishing industry is too deep in the thrall of New Yorkers and Iowans, the rise of Jesmyn Ward has been a great comfort. In 2008, Ward went in rapid succession from a prospective nursing student in Mississippi to an acclaimed debut novelist and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Her second book, Salvage the Bones, then earned the National Book Award for Fiction in 2011. Last year, her memoir, Men We Reaped, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Ward now teaches creative writing at the University of South Alabama and lives in DeLisle, Mississippi (population just over a thousand), the bayou town where she was born and raised.
As much as any writer of her generation, Ward has directed her creative energy at the struggles of the contemporary South. Her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, looked at the post-Katrina world of joblessness and drugs. Salvage the Bones offered a wrenching portrait of Esch Batiste, a pregnant teenager surrounded by men and pit bulls, preparing for the storm’s arrival. And Men We Reaped, Ward’s latest, is a penetrating examination of the deaths of five young black men, including Ward’s brother, and the society that deals out such blatantly unequal lots.
Amid the hardship, Ward has a sharp eye for moments of quiet joy and everyday intimacy. Her writing effortlessly blends the poetic and the colloquial, lament and hard data. She portrays a narrow slice of the American landscape, but never treats it as exotic or exceptional. She’s after something far more universal—a portrait of survival, in a place that doesn’t often make it easy.
Ward spoke to me by Skype from her home, where the walls are painted a lovely shade of forest green. She had a relaxed manner and a quick, knowing laugh. Her ideas were punctuated by a mesmerizing series of hand gestures—curlicues and slashes and puffs at an invisible cigarette. We had a wide-ranging conversation over the course of a Friday afternoon, discussing the constricting labels placed on Southern writers, racism, substance abuse in rural America, True Detective, President Obama, Faulkner, and Southern hip-hop.
—Dwyer Murphy for Guernica
Guernica: The VIDA numbers came out recently, indicating that there’s still a big disparity in how often books by men and women authors get reviewed, and that got me wondering whether Southern writers get the short end of that coverage, too.
Jesmyn Ward: I definitely think so. My first novel was reviewed nowhere, and I remember being told that people thought it was just a Southern book. Even with Salvage the Bones, I got a good number of reviews when it first came out, but I didn’t get reviewed by the New York Times until after I won the National Book Award. I understand those papers are catering to an audience, and maybe they think their audience is more interested in literature that takes place in New York or on the East Coast. Or maybe they just have to see that readers want something else before they’re willing to cover it. But in the meantime, we have good coverage in the South. The Times-Picayune and The Oxford American have always been great at exposing people to Southern literature. And I go to the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival and I meet these emerging writers who are just all over the place—black writers, queer writers, women writers, writing fiercely and honestly and doing things that are new and experimental. There’s great stuff coming out of the South right now.
Guernica: Now that you’ve got the National Book Award, do you worry that you’ll be held up as an exception, as though the coverage of your work proves that the bias against women or Southern or black writers isn’t as bad as it seems?
Jesmyn Ward: You know, I’ve heard black writers talking about this—it seems like there can only be one person let through the gates, one person who then has to represent all writing by people of color. So, yes, I worry, because I see so many talented writers of color struggling to get their work out to an audience. I know that’s the case for all writers—everyone’s struggling for attention—but I do think that for writers of color it’s harder, and for women it’s harder, and for regional writers it’s harder, too. But there are things that can help, like the VIDA study. If we just keep beating that drum, things may begin to change.
Publishing companies put labels on these books. For me, the labels are Southern and black and woman.
Guernica: You said a moment ago that some people thought your first novel was “just a Southern book.” Does Southern literature get treated as a niche genre, with a limited audience, in your experience?
Jesmyn Ward: Publishing companies put labels on these books. For me, the labels are Southern and black and woman. For some reason, they think an audience depends on the author’s identity, and every time they add another box, the audience gets smaller in their minds. You know those numbers showing that in the workplace, a person of color has to work ten times harder or more efficiently than a white colleague? I hate to say this, but I feel like that’s the case with literature, too. I’m not saying I have to write a book that’s ten times better than my counterparts, but I do think that I have to concentrate my efforts on writing something that will really engage people’s humanity and will tie readers to my characters regardless of race. I have to prove that I can connect with a wider audience. I think I accomplished that with Salvage. I went to Mystic, Connecticut, for example, to a wonderful bookstore there, full of people who couldn’t have been further from the place I come from, but they really responded to my work and saw my characters as human beings and loved them that way.
Guernica: You’ve been more willing than many novelists to engage with bigger political and social issues. Do you regret there aren’t more out there with you?
Jesmyn Ward: I understand why some writers resist it. They fear being boxed in, relegated to a category of political or socially conscious fiction. But I just don’t think I have a choice. I’m writing about the things I see all around me. Growing up in Mississippi, I’ve seen how these backward ideas about class and race and healthcare and education and housing and racism impact everyday lives. For example, my mother wouldn’t let me go to my homecoming dance because the yacht club where they were having the dance threw a fundraiser for David Duke, an ex-Klan member, when he was running for governor of Louisiana. So I grew up seeing how personal politics could be. It’s something I can’t avoid if I’m telling the truth about this place and writing about this community and Mississippi honestly.
We think that a lack of success comes from the individual not working hard enough. A lot of people in this country really believe that.
Guernica: I’ve read that you feel the South isn’t capable of having an honest conversation about racism right now. Why is that?
Jesmyn Ward: The events—slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, civil rights—are just too close and too personal. This history lives in the present and it informs everything about life here in the South. There are people at my readings who want to know what they can do to help these black people see that their lives aren’t dead ends and that they should want more. But there’s no accounting for the other side of the equation. Black people in this country are told all the time, from all aspects, that they’re nothing, that they’re less than. And of course that bears fruit, but no one wants to shoulder part of the blame. A lot of people here can’t see around their own family’s history. They don’t want to see that where they come from and the people they surround themselves with might have played a role in all this. This is all part of our national myth about the individual. We think that a lack of success comes from the individual not working hard enough. A lot of people in this country really believe that. Hopefully, if we keep trying to have these really tortured conversations, it might make a difference some years in the future, but right now I don’t think we can speak about that part of our past honestly.
Guernica: The South is having a strange moment in pop culture right now. You see these reality shows, like Duck Dynasty, or one that’s advertised on the New York subways right now, Southern Charm. Do you worry about people seeing this version of life in the South?
Jesmyn Ward: I worry because it’s this romanticized version of the South. It’s interesting to see Duck Dynasty, for example. This guy Phil says something about race or about gay people, there’s a media storm for a week, and then everything’s okay. There’s an apology that’s not really an apology—“I’m Christian and this is what I believe and that’s just the way it is.” Apparently it’s all good now. But I get it. I was talking about that show with my sister, and she knows that what she’s seeing is this sanitized version of the South, and she feels bad about watching, but it still makes her laugh.
There’s another side to this phenomenon, though. After Katrina, that’s when the film industry blew up in Louisiana. Think about True Detective. It’s romanticized in a way, but I’m a huge fan of that show. Whatever is happening with the South right now, it’s allowing more of our stories to be told, and I appreciate that. In the past, I’ve felt like an outsider, with New York the center of everything literary, but right now, there are new opportunities being created that let us tell stories in the South, whether the medium is writing or TV or reality TV.
Guernica: So are you walking around with a pitch for HBO about a Mississippi bayou town?
Jesmyn Ward: [feeling pockets] I’ve got to get one of those.
Guernica: They haven’t done your part of the Gulf Coast yet. If any TV people are reading this—I’d definitely watch that show. While we’re talking about DeLisle, Mississippi, can you tell me about the decision to stay in your hometown?
Jesmyn Ward: First, both sides of my family are here, and it’s a huge family. Just counting the side of my mother’s mother, there are more than two hundred of us. Having a family that big in a place like this, there’s a pretty special sense of community and closeness. Second, I love the South—the landscape and the beauty—it feels like a part of me. I know that sounds hokey, but that’s how it feels. And there are things about the South—the politics, the classism, the racism—that I hate, and I want to be here to fight those things. I don’t want to be in California or Michigan just complaining about them. I’m here trying to make a difference in the way I can, writing about it. And I want younger people, especially kids from my community, to see that being successful doesn’t have to mean leaving a place like this. You don’t have to trade in your family or your sense of belonging for that.
I felt like if I didn’t write about what happened to the young men here, the same things would keep occurring. Here in the South, young black men just keep dying—young black women, too.
Guernica: Now that you’ve written a memoir that tackles some of the community’s most personal tragedies, have things changed for you in DeLisle? Are relations tense right now?
Jesmyn Ward: My family’s a little more protective of me now, and our bond is stronger, but it has strained some relationships and interactions in the community. Even within my immediate family, some people are angry, or they don’t agree with the way I wrote about this place and its young men. My mom wasn’t happy, for example, about me admitting to the world that my brother sold crack at age fourteen. But we talked about it, and I apologized for it, and I also told her why I felt I had to do it and what I hoped it might accomplish. I’ve had that conversation at readings in the community, too. I felt like if I didn’t write about what happened to the young men here, the same things would keep occurring. Here in the South, young black men just keep dying—young black women, too. I couldn’t live with myself if I hadn’t been as honest as possible about that.
Guernica: Men We Reaped includes a chapter with some statistics about life for young black men, especially in the South and Mississippi. Doing the research, did you find what you expected, or were you startled by the numbers?
Jesmyn Ward: I grew up knowing all these things—about black men and depression and mental health and suicide and drugs and the Southern economy and Mississippi’s hostility to unions. But sometimes, while I was writing Men We Reaped, working on these very personal chapters about the lives of young men I knew, I felt like a crazy person. I worried that I was reading too much into things, struggling with my grief, drawing unwarranted connections to broader issues. So doing the research and finding out that the numbers backed up what everyone in Mississippi knows to be true, it was grimly comforting, in a way, because it told me that I wasn’t crazy. There are some numbers that just speak the truth.
There’s a hopelessness that assails you when you’re living in a place like this when you’re black and poor, or when you’re white and poor—just poor, period.
Guernica: The portrait of a South plagued by substance abuse is particularly striking. I think a lot of people are still clinging to the old idea that drugs are more of an urban problem.
Jesmyn Ward: Most people just aren’t clear-eyed about the rural South. We think that the urban centers are the problem, and the rural areas across the country are idyllic, suffused with good old American values, social values, religious values, moral values. It’s what we tell ourselves to keep this political power structure in place, and it’s what we see in pop culture, too. I wanted to be honest about it, because I see how it’s all tied together. There’s a hopelessness that assails you when you’re living in a place like this when you’re black and poor, or when you’re white and poor—just poor, period. Living in the rural South, you sometimes feel trapped, like you don’t have any options. It grinds people down, and of course it leads to substance abuse. I see it all around me. So many people in my family, probably more than 50 percent, have had substance abuse problems, either currently or in the past. It’s so personal and immediate to me. I really can’t picture writing a book that doesn’t address it in some way. Right now, the novel I’m working on is about what it means to be a multi-racial family living in the New South. I don’t know what that means yet, but the mom is black, the dad is white, the kids are mixed, and the parents are dealing with substance abuse problems.
Guernica: In Salvage the Bones, you make use of dialect, which, especially in Southern literature, is a practice with a fraught history. Did you worry about that legacy when you were deciding how to tell the story?
Jesmyn Ward: I did. When I was working on Salvage, I would get feedback that the difference was too wide—between the characters’ speech, where I’m using dialect or colloquial language, and their thoughts, which are smart and complicated. But that’s something I learned from Faulkner. In Faulkner’s work, people speak one way, but then they’re allowed to have interior lives expressed with ten-dollar words because those are the words that best represent a person’s rich, complicated emotions. So I saw Faulkner doing that in his work, and I thought, “Fuck it”—I’m going to be true to this place and these people and how they speak, but my characters are going to think in ways that people might not expect.
Guernica: Did you have to wrestle with that Faulkner legacy? I think that’s something a lot of Southern writers feel they have to work out at some point in their careers.
Jesmyn Ward: He’s such a legend here that we all have to figure out where we stand in relation to him and how we want to respond to his work. Then we have to come up with our own ideas about what it’s like in the South and what it means to write about that world.
Guernica: Were there parts of Faulkner that you needed to reject?
Jesmyn Ward: His writing about characters of color is problematic to me. The last Faulkner I read was Absalom, Absalom! and the “villain” and his mother were just so flat. There was nothing redeeming. Right now I’m rereading The Sound and Fury. I see the black characters working in the household and I wonder, “Who are these people? What motivated them?” I can’t answer those questions, and that’s what frustrates me about Faulkner’s work. So when I write, I’m trying to render or to complete those characters in ways that he didn’t.
Guernica: Every Southern writer since Faulkner, I think, has heard his or her style described as “biblical.” But you seem to turn as often to Greek myths. Is that a reaction to the biblical cliché?
Jesmyn Ward: I’ve heard that, too, about my language being biblical, and I don’t even know what it means. But looking to Greek myths wasn’t really a deliberate decision. I love myths and fairy tales. I was rereading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology while I was starting to work on Salvage, and eventually I came to Jason and the Argonauts and Medea, and it was just one of those moments. I knew that I wanted this book to be Esch’s summer reading, and I knew that she would stop when she saw this story. It would speak to her. Times like that, I realize everything can’t be plotted. There’s something to be said for inspiration.
Guernica: Your first two novels quote Southern hip-hop lyrics in the epigraphs—Pastor Troy for Where the Line Bleeds and Outkast for Salvage the Bones. Are you trying to help people see that music as more than just pop culture?
Jesmyn Ward: Some people think that Southern hip-hop doesn’t have any depth. They think it’s just noise, all about people having a good time in the club. And some of it doesn’t have a lot of depth, it’s true, but some does. I wanted to work against that stereotype. These are verses by Southern artists who are really wrestling with what it means to be here, young black men who are trying to figure out how to live in the South. So I wanted the epigraphs to reflect that. I didn’t do it for Men We Reaped, because I had a Tupac quote that was too perfect, but with my next novel, I think I might use something by Big K.R.I.T., because he’s from Mississippi and he’s good.
Katrina revealed yet again a lot of ugly things about the South and the country in general—ugly things about race and class and about how certain human lives are valued more than others.
Guernica: Your novels are perhaps the most prominent literary treatments of Hurricane Katrina. Are you surprised that we haven’t seen more novels about life before and after the hurricane?
Jesmyn Ward: It really hasn’t been represented in writing much at all, but even before Salvage was published, I was hearing that people were tired of Katrina, that there was Katrina fatigue. Maybe other Southern writers are hearing that, too.
Guernica: That must have been pretty shocking to hear—Katrina fatigue.
Jesmyn Ward: I think that Katrina revealed yet again a lot of ugly things about the South and the country in general—ugly things about race and class and about how certain human lives are valued more than others. The same way 9/11 revealed some ugly things about this country or about our foreign policies. Maybe it was just too much and people are afraid to address it because it was so awful. In that regard, I might have been a little naïve before I started writing Salvage. I wasn’t in New Orleans during Katrina. I was on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the storm was so bad here that we had no idea what was going on in New Orleans. Maybe some houses had generators and access to a television, but the local station was covering what was happening here, not in New Orleans. We didn’t know about people being trapped on the roofs and we didn’t hear about the black people being called looters when they were looking for food. I didn’t see any of that until I left two weeks later and drove to Michigan, where I was teaching, and my friends were asking me, “Isn’t it awful what’s happening in New Orleans?” And I was wondering, “What the fuck is happening in New Orleans?” I wasn’t watching it on CNN. I was just dealing with living through it. So maybe I was foolhardy writing a book about Katrina at first, because I didn’t have all that background.
Guernica: I read about a year ago that President Obama was reading Salvage the Bones. What do you hope he took from it?
Jesmyn Ward: I heard that was in Time, and went out and bought multiple copies. I hope that reading Salvage enabled [Obama] to see us, to know what life is still like in the South for many poor black people. I’ve never been the president of anything, but I would imagine that in ways it could be a very isolating experience, because you’re ensconced in the halls of power and every stop and visit is so orchestrated and someone is choosing what you’re going to see. So I hope reading my book helped him to see something he wasn’t expecting to see, something that wasn’t part of a sanctioned, sanitized schedule.