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Ignored by literary world, Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award
Jesmyn Ward won a 2011 National Book Award for her novel "Salvage the Bones."
November 18th, 2011
12:22 PM ET

Ignored by literary world, Jesmyn Ward wins National Book Award

By Ed Lavandera, CNN

Dallas (CNN) – Jesmyn Ward stunned the literary world Wednesday night when her novel “Salvage the Bones” won the National Book Award for fiction. Ward was considered a long shot, at best, to win the prestigious award.

Before the nominees were announced in mid-October, Ward’s novel didn’t generate much publicity. The 34-year-old author was convinced her novel would be “lost in the sea of books.”

Now, people are paying attention. One critic says Ward's novel “has the aura of a classic.”

“Salvage the Bones” tells the story of a poor black Mississippi family struggling through life in August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina is about the strike the Gulf Coast. In one of the few reviews of the book in a major newspaper, The Washington Post praises Ward for her honest depiction of life in her home state of Mississippi.

“Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy,” the newspaper's review states.

Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, and is a Hurricane Katrina survivor. She worked on “Salvage the Bones” for three years. The book is her second novel.

She teaches at the University of South Alabama and is working on her next book, tentatively titled “Men We Reaped,” a memoir of living in her hometown as five young black men died, including her brother, who was killed by a drunken driver.

Exhausted after a night of celebrating her National Book Award honor, Ward talked to CNN's Ed Lavandera about what the award means to her and how a family tragedy helped persuade her to become a novelist.

CNN: Were you surprised that your novel “Salvage the Bones” won the National Book Award?

Jesmyn Ward: I was totally surprised. I was shocked. I had prepared an acceptance speech, just in case, but I did not think that was going to happen at all. I kept telling myself, just breathe, breathe, keep breathing and you’ll be fine.

CNN: What does this award mean to you?

Ward: I haven’t even processed what it means to me yet. I began looking at the list of past finalists and past winners; all the writers on those lists are amazing, and many of them - I’ve loved their work and they’ve been idols to me for a long time. So to be in the same company with writers of their stature amazes me, and I think that’s why I haven’t processed it yet. It’s overwhelming.

CNN: I couldn't find any reviews of your book in major newspapers across the country or much talk about your book before it was nominated for a National Book Award. Did you feel like your book was being ignored or lost?

Ward: I did. My publishing company worked hard to ensure that wasn’t the case, but it still felt like that was the case. I think part of the reason was because I’m writing about poor black people from the South. I think people make certain assumptions about what they’re interested in reading or what others would be interested in reading, and when they think of poor black people in the South, they don’t think people are interested in reading about those people. So I did think that it was just being lost in the sea of books.

CNN: What is it about your novel “Salvage the Bones” that resonated with the judges?

Ward: I think the characters resonated with the judges - they were real and alive on the page, and because they were experiencing this hurricane. … The characters became real for them on the page even before the hurricane entered the picture, and then … you introduce the hurricane into the narrative. I just think that was compelling and they saw these characters as real people. It was a story that needed to be told.

CNN: Like the characters in your book, you grew up as a poor black girl in the South. Is this book autobiographical in any way?

Ward: There are three things that I draw from my life that are included in this book. One is that the book is set on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in a small, rural black community, which is the kind of community I come from. Two, the characters experienced Hurricane Katrina. I was home for Hurricane Katrina, so I had some of my experience to draw from. It was like firsthand research. But the characters’ experience in the storm is totally different from mine. And the third thing is actually the dogfighting. When I was younger, I actually witnessed some dogfights. The other things the characters experienced throughout the book [are] purely fictional.

CNN: How has growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast influenced your writing? Why did you want to take readers to this place?

Ward: I have a love-hate relationship with home. There’s so much I love about home, but then there’s a lot that I can acknowledge that I dislike about home. And acknowledging that to myself helps me see that place more clearly and to bring readers to that place. I just think these stories are worth being told and these people are worth being written about. I think our stories are universal stories. In the end, it’s about us as human beings trying to survive and make the best of what we have right here, right now.

CNN: You talk about being bullied when you attended public school by black classmates and, when you started at a mostly white private school paid for by your mother's employer [her mother worked as a maid for wealthy white families], you were bullied because of the color of your skin. You've said some students even threatened to lynch you in the hallways. This must have great impact on your writing.

Ward: That’s one of the reasons that I can acknowledge that there’s much that I love about Mississippi and growing up there, but that there’s also much that I hate. The bullying I experienced, much of it revolved around race. Having that history made me want to write about those things, to write about the sort of people that I write about, so that the types of people I went to school with who saw us not as human beings, but as less than human beings, would read my stuff and then would see us as human beings. At least that was my hope.

CNN: Your brother was killed at the age of 19 by a drunken driver. You’ve said his death really inspired you to become a writer. Can you explain that?

Ward: We were very close. I didn’t realize until after he died that all these things we had shared, that I could tell those stories and have them remember and understand. As I was trying to live through the grief after he died, his dying taught me that we aren’t promised anything, that tomorrow might not come. So understanding that reconfigured things for me and made me think about, with the time I have left, what can I do that would make this life worth living and give my life meaning. And for me, that was writing.

CNN: At what age did you start focusing on writing?

Ward: I didn’t start really focusing on writing until I was 24. I’d always loved reading. I dabbled in writing, wrote really bad poetry in high school. I also took a few writing classes when I was an undergrad at Stanford. I was so intimidated. I felt like I didn’t have the chops to do well in the writing workshops in the classes, and I didn’t think I was a good enough writer, so I didn’t take many creative writing classes while I was there.
But after I graduated and my brother died, it made me focus on sort of realizing and making a serious attempt at what I always secretly wanted to do but never had the courage to do.

CNN: “Salvage The Bones” is really the story of siblings. Is that important to you?

Ward: There are things that happened in this book that surprised me when I wrote them. The development of that relationship between those kids, I didn’t know that was going to be as important in the book as it was. I didn’t realize it was going to be such an important theme in the book. I loved that relationship the siblings had. I was interested in the different tensions. Nothing about their relationships is perfect. Sometimes they lie to each other, sometimes they misunderstand each other, but still in the end, those relationships endure.

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Filed under: Black in America • Bullying • Ethnicity • Pop culture • Who we are • Women
soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. sheilab4

    Your hard work and commitment have paid off...fantastic! I will be using your book and Natasha Trethewey's Beyond Katrina as the basis of my literature class...thank you so much for your contributions to relevant literature that students can embrace and often relate to. Kudos to you.

    January 27, 2012 at 9:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sonya bennett

    I live in Fairhope, Alabama and met Jesmyn at a local book-signing. What a gift to readers who love elegant writing!
    She is not only a great story teller and writer; She is a beautiful person. I loved listeneing to her that day ... The combination of modesty and brilliance is very inspirational.

    November 21, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • SHE ISNT BLACK!

      Duh. You can tell that she is not a black woman but mixed. Stop lumping us mixed people in with black! It is not the same at all. Is a person who is half irish halfn chinese a WHITE WOMAN? NO! Its not that complicated. As a mixed person, I am offended and irritated by the media's OBSESSION with lumping biracial and mixed people into ONE GROUP. Get it? We are mixed. Its not that complicated.

      November 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Report abuse |
      • Melvin_K

        Except in most places (obviously Mississippi) despite her background, people will most likely consider her and treat her as an "African-American" female. As a person of mixed ethnicity I am proud to be identified as "Black" because to most of America despite my background or accomplishments I am just another Ni**er. Know how I know? Hang out with me and try hailing a cab at 11:30 at night, watch how many pass us by.

        December 4, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  3. linda bare

    I loved your book. I just happened to get it based on a librarians recommendation. You are a talented story teller. Good luck and congratulations.

    November 20, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Paul Harris

    Many kudos to Jesmyn on this tremendous honor. It's a real thrill when a piece of fiction can tell a story much more powerfully than non-fiction. Many more successes to you!

    Paul Harris
    Author, "Diary From the Dome, Reflections on Fear and Privilege During Katrina"

    November 20, 2011 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
  5. pulsars

    I think I'll read this book. BTW – What a beautiful smile!!

    November 19, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  6. Ja'LonLon

    Haven't read your book,but congraulations,goin to get it.

    November 18, 2011 at 6:10 pm | Report abuse |
  7. JL

    Why do you feel the need to express that you thought your book was being ignored due to racial reasons?? You won the award, remember? Doesn't that sort of negate it?

    November 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Appreciation

      Reply to JL: You could not possibly mean the comment you posted! It is tough enough to find a publisher, much less wait an eternity for a major newspaper to actually review the published work. The award was announced only this week. Please don't throw stones at good people. Congratulations, Miss Ward. You have succeeded in a difficult arena!

      November 19, 2011 at 8:44 am | Report abuse |
  8. Carl, Sr.

    I am very proud of you and your accomplishment. Many black people from the South have similar stories but have not the interest, or skill to write professionally. Thank you for your willingness to put for the effort to create stories that apparently captivated the judges. I can't wait to read it. Don't let this be the last. If your brother's death was the inspiration or catalyst for this success, his death was not in vain.
    A proud Black father from Alabama.

    November 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. cc straus

    Misleading headline. You are hardly ignored is you have an agent and a publisher.

    November 18, 2011 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |
  10. HU

    This is one of the most beautiful writers I have ever seen. I am talking on a purely physical level. I haven't read her work but I am judging her from the picture in this article. Obviously, her writing is quite beautiful as well, I just don't know that from personal experience.

    November 18, 2011 at 3:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • She is mixed race

      That is because she is mixed. We have a unique look and softer features. Plus the nice loose curls. I love being mixed :)

      November 30, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  11. thabiso

    Halala!*congratulation* all the way from south africa! I can't wait to meet you one day!

    November 18, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Annie Hall

    I am happy for her. It is about time intelligent people gain some fame and not just the Kardashians.

    November 18, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  13. JOE

    It would be nice if Ms. Ward and other authors from the deep South were to write a little about why hate crimes are still so very rampant in the American South half a century after the creation of the Civil Rights movement and the end of Jim Crow. I reside in the Northeast and I've always heard so much about southern hospitality and about the "good white folkes" of the South. But I'm still troubled over the fact that in these regions of our country where slave labor helped to build the American South, African-Americans are still being discriminated against and continue to be the victims of hate crime. I know that hate crimes occurs all over the United States, but it is more prevalant in the South and I just hope influencial people like Ms. Ward would not be deterred to write about it. Maybe it would help to bridge difference and misunderstanding and encourage tolerence and acceptance a little more. After all, that was the goal of the Civil Rights movement and the purpose of passage of the 1964 Civil Rights legislation in the first place. Nevertheless, contratulations to Ms. Ward on a job well done.

    November 18, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Report abuse |
  14. SpeakSoftly CarryBigStick

    This being an article on a work or literature, the author could have at least made an effort to structure his sentences correctly.

    For example : ".... a memoir of living in her hometown as five young black men died, including her brother, who was killed by a drunken driver."

    This sentence tells me that 5 men died in her town. One was her brother and he was killed by a drunk driver. And as a reader, I'm left wondering what killed the other 4 men ?

    November 18, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jeanco

      Correct me if I am wrong. I believe the author stated five men were killed including her brother by a drunken driver. If you read it correctly doesn't that mean all were killed by the drunk driver? Maybe you should read again with some understanding?

      November 19, 2011 at 9:30 pm | Report abuse |
  15. San

    I am very happy for the author and will be purchasing this book. The description of the book makes it seem like the type of fiction that I can get lost in, and that is my favorite type.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Lean6

    I'm in love.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Dawn Martin

    Beautiful Jesmyn Ward, a job well done.
    I cannot wait to read the book.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  18. N Blake

    This will be a wonderful addition to my syllabus next year. Congratulations!

    November 18, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  19. iheartyou

    Congratulations, Miss. Ward!!! Just bought the book and can't wait to read it.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  20. Shirleyone

    I cannot thank you enough for your novel and sharing of the black experiences in Mississippi. If it had not been for a fellow African American worker in NV telling me about what it was like to be black in the South, I would never have know what was really going on in other parts of our country. I was lucky enough to have parents who were too busy with their own problems to teach me racism. It's really true about how racism is learned or driven by fear of the unknown.

    Congratulations on your accomplishment and can't wait to see more of your creativity and sharing.

    November 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  21. Sojourner Marable Grimmett

    Congratulations!

    November 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |