Award winning author and associate professor at Tulane University, Jesmyn Ward, spoke in low tones, reminiscent of the shy reticent young teacher she was when she first started her teaching career. Behind the low tones, however her passion for literature broke free; especially when she spoke of her love for literature, and of her hometown of DeLisle, Miss.
“I was able to navigate through and get past my extreme shyness in order to teach, because my love of literature and writing was greater than my shyness,” she said.
Her journey of becoming a writer, would take her from childhood on the Mississippi bayou, which would serve as the back drop for her fiction and non-fiction writing as well, was fraught with steamy nights, teenage antics that included beer, weed, and late night car rides through DeLisle where she was born and raised. It would take her as far north as New York, by way of Michigan, all the way across the country to points west in California twice—only to find herself right back settled down to a life in the town of her youth.
It was shortly after receiving her MFA Degree from the University of Michigan that her own family became victims of Hurricane Katrina; with their house in DeLisle flooding rapidly. They left their home hoping to find refuge in a local church and ended up in a field owned by a White family who refused to help them. They would travel on to another White family would helped them.
“Traumatizing is a word I would use to describe what my siblings and I went through trying to escape the ravages of Katrina, with all this brought to me, writing creatively seemed to be just out of reach,” she said.
It would take her three years to even attempt to write—just long enough to find a publisher for her first novel “Where the Line Bleeds”; a novel of twins Joshua and Christopher who were raised by a blind grandmother, the story follows the young men down the two separate paths the chose to go.
Her second novel “Salvage The Bones,” portrays the lives of pregnant teenager Esch Baptiste, her three brothers, and their father during the 10 days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the day of the hurricane, and the day after. Ward and her family’s own experience makes her uniquely qualified to tell the story of the Baptiste family.
Ward said of the similarities between herself and the young girl, Esch, in “Salvage the Bones”
“She was an interesting character and while completely made up we had a lot in common,” she said. “I was shy, and like her had doubts about my self worth. But in many ways she is also different from me; she owned her sexuality and her world was different than mine—she grew up in a world full of men but I didn’t; I grew up in a world full of women. I also appreciated that she (Esch) did things that surprised me; which was nice. (I feel like if my characters are not surprising me then I am doing something wrong – it’s like they do not have agency or personality on the page.)”
Her third and final completed project, “Men We Reaped” is a poignant and reflective memoir that peals back the layers of her youth and connects the death’s of five young men close to her, including her own brother, all of whom where either lost to accident, suicide or drugs, by the time she was 28 to the societal stigmas of race in manhood in the south. It is a frank and open discussion of her family life, the father’s departure from the family, and the poverty that surrounded them and the scars all of this created inside and outside and how it informed her development.
The Stanford graduate speaks candidly of the irony of watching her mother clean houses, of being bullied in the all White private school high school she attended due to the generosity of one of her mother’s employers, and the frame of mind she cultivated as a result.
“I was bullied for a variety of reasons, race, class being poor, being small, shy” and nerdy,” she said. “Somehow, however, I believe it created within me some of the traits that would ultimately make me a writer; including a keen sense of observation—so there was some usefulness there.”
Ward was in Pittsburgh, reading from these works Feb. 9 as part of the annual Drue Heinz Lecture Series sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh PITT ARTS Program.
(For info on the program go to www.pittsburghlectures.org/section.php?pageID=108)
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