The Truth and Power in Jesmyn Ward's Fiction

December 12, 2019 | Paul Richardson

There are less than three weeks left in the second decade of the 21st century. Which means we are starting to see collections of the “best books of the 2010s.” And, almost without exception, Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 National Book Award-winning novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is on them.
 
The powerful tale follows Leonie, a fragile, drug-abusing black woman, on a road trip with her two children to bring the kids’ white father home from prison. But of course Sing, Unburied, Sing is about far more than a road trip. As with all of Ward’s work, it is about the race-related trauma that has seared our history, about the incomparable bonds of family and place, about what it means to be poor and black in America’s rural south.
 
Often Ward conveys her stories through the eyes and voices of young girls. She has noted that she wants to “give voice to her experience” growing up poor in Mississippi, because these girls “are silenced, they are misunderstood, and they are underestimated. Black girls period: pregnant young black girls, poor black girls – girls like that are diminished in American culture.”
 
Mississippi, where Ward still lives, is, she writes in her memoir, “everything that I love and everything I hate.” While it is her family home and has been for generations, it also “means addiction, ground-in generational poverty, living very closely with the legacy of slavery, of Jim Crow, of lynching and of intractable racism.”
 
What makes Ward’s work so powerful is how the tragedy and pain of her stories are counterpointed with such profoundly poetic, such beautifully-crafted prose. Indeed, this two-time national book award winner (the only woman or person of color to win it twice – both in the 2010s, by the way) has been hailed as “one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country.”
 
Jesmyn Ward will spend an evening with us at Festival Boca on Monday, March 2. She will share her writing process and how her experiences growing up poor and black in the South continue to influence her work.

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