Jesymn Ward, who was announced earlier this month as a winner of the prestigious McArthur Award, says the $625,000 fellowship validates her work, “like a vote of confidence” because it means her work is “resonating with people.”
The MacArthur Foundation praised Ward as a “fiction writer exploring the bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans in the rural South.” It added she “captures moments of beauty, tenderness, and resilience against a bleak landscape of crushing poverty, racism, addition, and incarceration.”
Ward grew up in DeLisle, MS, a community of about 1,100 residents where more than a third live below the poverty line. Her three novels to date have been set in a fictional Mississippi coastal town called Bois Sauvage.
Ward, 40, almost gave up on writing, but continued thanks to the award of a Sanford Stegner fellowship in fiction in 2008. The book she wrote during her two years in the Stegner program, “Salvage the Bones,” went on to win the National Book Award in 2011, and now, as her latest novel, “Sing, Unburied Sing,” is a contender for this year’s National Book Award,
“I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor and the black and the rural people of the South,” she told the audience of the National Book Award ceremony after her win, “so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs.”
Her memoir, “Men We Reaped,” was named one of the best books of 2013 by The New York Times Book Review. Like her first book, 2008’s “Where the Line Bleeds,” the voices in Ward’s work are often those of young people or children. In the memoir “Men We Reaped,” Ward traces the lives and early deaths of five young Mississippi men, including her brother, Joshua. Of that book, Hector Tobar wrote in The Times that “Ward is one of those rare writers who’s traveled across America’s deepening class rift with her sense of truth intact.”
The McArthur fellowship, often called a “genius grant,” awards a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 over five years to individuals who exhibit “exceptional creativity,” as well as “promise for important future advances” based on their accomplishments. It is meant to encourage fellows to pursue their particular inclinations as artists, scientists or entrepreneurs, although recipients are not always affiliated with those fields. Past MacArthur fellows include Lin-Manuel Miranda, writer and star of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates, an award-winning author whose body of work includes “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” and “Between the World and Me.”
“Salvage the Bones” is set in the 12 days leading up to and just after Hurricane Katrina, told through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch. She’s poor and pregnant and plain unlucky. Mama’s dead, Daddy’s a drunk and dinner is Top Ramen every night. Sex is the only thing that has ever come easily to her. She’s stuck in shabby Bois Sauvage, a predominantly black Mississippi bayou town in the direct path of a hurricane they’re calling Katrina.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing” about the ghosts of inherited trauma is told through the eyes of 13-year-old Jo Jo.
Ward said she’s currently working on a novel set in early 1800s New Orleans at the height of the domestic slave trade.
“It’s a novel unlike anything that I’ve written. … I’m a little nervous, afraid, but also aware of the fact that this novel will make me grow and evolve as a human being, and I’m looking forward to that,” Ward said.
The writer is nearing the end of a two-year break from teaching at Tulane University after winning the $200,000 Strauss Living award in January 2016.
Tulane spokesman Roger Dunaway said he had not heard Wednesday whether Ward plans to extend her leave after winning the MacArthur grant.
Ward still lives in her hometown of DeLisle, Miss., with her husband and their son and daughter.