To say that Jesmyn Ward’s literary works have been well received would be to put it mildly.
Still aged only 41, her novels have won her the United States’ prestigious National Book Award for Fiction twice (the only woman to have achieved this), while her memoir, Men We Reaped, was shortlisted for a national award.
On top of this, in October she was named a MacArthur Fellow, often referred to as a “genius grant”, while this year she was included on Time’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018 list.
Appearing at the University of East Anglia’s Spring 2018 Literary Festival, she admitted that all the praise “still stuns me”.
“Because it stuns me it feels very surreal. I’m already thinking about my next books which will come hopefully in the next five years. It’s important for me to avoid thinking about all these things,” she said.
“When I sit down to work and I’m in front of my computer and all I have is a blank page, if I think about the accolades, and the audience that comes with the accolades, I feel anxious.
“I worry about what they want from me and my work. That can have a negative effect. After I won the first National Book Award, it took me a while to get back into writing and the next book. I think it was because I was wrestling with my new awareness of audience.”
Ward is very much a southerner, coming from Mississippi and now working as an associate professor at Tulane University in Louisiana. The challenges for African-Americans in the southern states, which have slavery as an historical legacy, are one of her areas of interest.
“I always wanted to amplify the voices of the people that I wrote about because they’ve been absent from the public conversation for so long,” she said.
“If they’ve been in the spotlight or noticed in the larger public conversation, it’s always in a negative manner. I noticed that after Hurricane Katrina.
“I feel a responsibility to maybe push back against these other idioms about us and about people like the people in my family and the people in my community that I encounter.”
Although Ward said she felt a responsibility, she does not “feel like it’s a burden”, nor does she feel “confined writing about the people that I write about”. This may be partly because many of the difficulties faced by her characters – of grief or loss, for example – are universal.
“Those struggles are now about what it means to be human – to struggle with yourself, to be a healthy human being or to survive in this life, which at times can be very trying. That’s what I think it means for me,” she said.
Indeed Ward suggested the universality of the experiences she describes in her books could be why she has developed a broad readership.
“I think people are acknowledging the quality of the work. I’m not the only writer of colour put into a position where we’re given an opportunity for our work to reach a wider audience; there are many others,” she said.
“Part of the reason that’s the case is because people are reading my work and the work of these others, and even though they don’t look like the characters or come from the same socioeconomic status or the same place, they’re still recognising the humanity of the characters. In some ways they’re seeing themselves in their struggles.”
She found connections across cultures and races when she wrote about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 caused considerable destruction, especially in New Orleans, where many of the victims were African-Americans.
“I went to New Zealand for the Auckland [Writers’] Festival. There I met readers who had survived the Christchurch earthquake [of 2011],” she said.
“Many came up to me during the signing and said they felt for these characters: ‘I was right there with the characters because I was here in Christchurch when the earthquake happened and this is what it was like. I identified with the characters.’
“Maybe people’s ideas about the commonality of human experience, maybe these ideas are broadening a bit.”
If you enjoyed this article you may enjoy reading UEA Lecture – Must the poor be always with us?