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Reading Your Way Through Jesmyn Ward

A Reading Guide from A Super Fan
Sophia Nash •
May 10th, 2024

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Commonly attributed to William Faulkner, this quote has always held personal meaning to Jesmyn Ward, a literary visionary who is acclaimed for capturing the essence of life in rural pockets on the Gulf Coast.  As a trailblazer, claiming the spotlight as a two-time recipient of the National Book Award—the first woman and the first person of color to win twice—Ward is often likened to Faulker. But even early in her career, she was fueled by a quest to tell the stories that he failed to capture.

“The first time I read As I Lay Dying, I was so awed I wanted to give up. I thought, ‘He’s done it, perfectly. Why the hell am I trying?,’” she told The Paris Review. “But the failures of some of his Black characters—the lack of imaginative vision regarding them, the way they don’t display the full range of human emotion, how they fail to live fully on the page—work against that awe and goad me to write.” 

At only 47 years old, Ward has managed to produce a body of work that has dramatically expanded the American literary canon. But don’t worry: if you’re a first-time reader, I’m here with some background that we hope will inspire you to delve into Ward’s world. 

My first introduction to Ward was through her first memoir The Men We Reaped, and I was instantly struck by her ability to vividly capture personal grief while simultaneously making a social commentary on intergenerational trauma and systemic racism. Having read through her body of work, I’m amazed by her tremendous range from gritty depictions of slavery to supernatural allusions to contemporary reflections on our responsibility to dismantle racist structures. Here’s a snapshot of each of Ward’s books in the order I would recommend reading them.

Salvage the Bones (2012)

Winner of the National Book Award

Salvage the Bones is a gutsy, tender testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the lengths we go to survive. Set against the backdrop of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the novel follows the Batiste family as they navigate their bleak reality. Narrated by Esch, a pregnant teen grappling with her own identity and desires, the story unfolds with a raw intensity that captures the beauty and brutality of life in the rural South. This book serves as a perfect introduction to Ward's lyrical style and her authentic way of capturing the beauty found in imperfection.

"It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale...And like every good myth, at its heart, the book is salvific; it wants to teach you how to wait out the storm and swim to safety. — Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2018)

Winner of the National Book Award

Finalist for the Kirkus Prize, Andrew Carnegie Medal, National Book Critics Circle Award

Set in rural Mississippi, this novel follows Jojo, a biracial teen, navigating the challenges of adolescence while shouldering the burden of caring for his younger sister and drug-addicted mother. When his father is released from prison, the family embarks on a turbulent journey to retrieve him. As the family itches to escape the physical confines of their car, this road trip is also a metaphor for the confinement of poverty.

"Ward’s novel, with its rotating cast of narrators rambling through a family odyssey in Mississippi, struggling under the weight of history and their own dysfunction, draws elements from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, while Morrison’s Beloved is felt in the unshakable way the ghosts of race and trauma manifest in the lives of its characters." —Mike Broida, Los Angeles Review of Books

Men We Reaped: A Memoir (2014)

Unlike her fictional works, Men We Reaped draws directly from Ward's own experiences. This raw narrative covers the tragic deaths of five young men from her community over the span of just a few years, offering a searing exploration of race, poverty, and systemic injustice in the rural South. If you admire Ward's poetic depictions and are ready for an impeccably-researched picture of the relentless brutality of racism in the South, this is where to start.

"Anyone who emerges from America's black working-class youth with words as fine as Ward's deserves a hearing. As such The Men We Reaped is an eloquent account of a psychological, sociological and political condition all too often dismissed as an enduring pathology." —Gary Younge, The Guardian

Let Us Descend (2023)

Appropriately named after Dante’s famous descent into the inferno of hell, this is Ward’s most intense and brutal depiction of slavery. It centers around Annis, a young enslaved teenage girl and descendant of the West African warrior kingdom of Dahomey. From being sold by her own father and enslaved, to her arduous journey between the Carolinas and New Orleans, Annis's life story lays bare the brutal reality of chattel slavery in the Deep South. This is an indispensable reckoning with the foundational roots of modern racism discussed in Ward's other works.

Angry, beautiful, raw, visceral, and heartfelt, Let Us Descend is the literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours. This novel is a thing you can't help but to feel... It's rare to have a historical novel that also feels timely, but this story pulls it off. — Gabino Iglesias, NPR

Where the Line Bleeds (2008)

Ward's debut novel follows twin brothers Joshua and Christophe living in a small Mississippi town, where the air is thick with promise and peril. As they come of age with limited opportunities surrounded by the simmering tensions of poverty, the brothers face a series of difficult choices that threaten to unravel their close bond and force them to reckon with the allure of escape. Ward brings to life the struggles of everyday existence in the Deep South, from the stifling heat of summer to the relentless grind of manual labor. In none of her other works is her writing as restrained, yet striking, as it is here.  

Wrenching, authentic dialogue permeates the book as the characters come to life through rich and detailed description…Ward’s conclusion is as stunning as the prose itself, and the novel begs to be read again and again. - Shannon Carriger, Seattle Book Review

The Fire This Time (2017)

Ward was the editor of this powerful and timely anthology of essays and poems that illuminate the persistent complexities of race in today’s world. Drawing inspiration from Baldwin’s seminal work, The Fire Next Time, this anthology brings a diverse array of voices, each offering their own perspective on issues ranging from police brutality and cultural identity. With contributions from acclaimed writers such as Claudia Rankine, Edwidge Danticat, and Kiese Laymon, this work sparks essential conversations about the future of racial justice in America and serves as a rallying cry for change. It is a testament to the enduring power of literature as a tool of justice, which Ward is certainly an expert in. 

"Essayist after essayist in this powerful book (there are also some poems) considers black experience in America in light of the recent deaths of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and others. Most agree with Ms. Ward, who declares: “Replace ropes with bullets. Hound dogs with German shepherds. A gray uniform with a bulletproof vest. Nothing is new.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

Navigate Your Stars (2020)

Ward's inspiring (second) memoir, drawn from her Tulane commencement speech, is a meditation on the contrast and development of life in the rural South to her esteemed career in academia and writing. Her heartfelt wisdom is paired with stunning, colorful illustrations depicting the tenacity and humility required of Ward as she navigates her changing environment. Navigate Your Stars serves as a stirring call to action, empowering readers to navigate life’s challenges with courage, resilience, and unwavering determination.

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