Armed with two National Book Awards and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, author Jesmyn Ward will speak at Benaroya Hall on Jan. 17.
Before the two National Book Awards and the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, before the critics called her “one of the most important American writers today,” Jesmyn Ward was an intern at Pacific Northwest Ballet for a year.
“Once I got over the summer weather,” she said of our lack of humidity, “I loved it. I’m used to Mississippi summers.”
Ward is used to Mississippi everything, which is why her books — including her latest and third novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” — are steeped in the spirit, struggle and vernacular of the Black South. More composed than written, Ward’s books are filled with characters that readers embrace for their humanity, flaws and heart — and the promise that can be seen in the faces of children.
On the heels of receiving the National Book Award for Fiction, Ward will speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17, at Benaroya Hall in an event sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lectures.
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“It has really been overwhelming,” Ward said of the last year. “I was on book tour this year with ‘Sing’ and then it didn’t slow down and then in November I learned about the National Book Award.
“It is a lot,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t think I have come to terms with it.”
In “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” the author introduces us to a wide range of characters both living and dead. They include a 13-year-old Mississippi boy named Jojo, whose neglectful mother, Leonie, is a drug addict and whose father is in prison. Jojo and his 3-year-old sister have been raised, for the most part, by their loving black grandparents.
On the way to visit their father, a white meth dealer, the dysfunctional little family is visited upon by two ghosts — one of them a boy who died in the very same penitentiary where Jojo’s father sits; and the other, Leonie’s brother Given, who was killed in a hunting accident.
The characters are also haunted by racism and poverty, and the pain and precariousness that result. Their story is told in Ward’s magical prose, which stirs up a mix of sadness and charm and — when Jojo is narrating — hope.
“I like to say that I don’t write about people that I know, but people that I might know,” Ward said. “They are informed by the people I grew up with, people who are in my family.”
Ward lost her younger brother to a drunken driver in 2000. She started writing as a way to honor him. She has said that Given, Leonie’s dead brother, wasn’t a nod to her brother. But she knows Leonie’s pain.
“I was nervous about Given’s character,” Ward said. “I hesitated in the beginning. I think I balked a little bit about writing him, but if I can make him take on his own life, and have Leonie take on her own life, then they will be their own people.”
Ward is an associate professor of English at Tulane University but took the semester off after she won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Strauss Living award, which requires that she focus on her writing for two years.
“You’re supposed to live, and to write,” Ward said. “You’re supposed to write a complete manuscript, which I have not done. But I am working on it.”
You understand, of course, when you hear one of Ward’s two young children in the background. (Her daughter is 5 and her son just turned 1.) She lives in the town where she grew up, DeLisle, Mississippi, with her longtime boyfriend. Her mother, Noreen, lives nearby.
Along with its acclaim and awards, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” is the first selection for “Now Read This,” the new PBS NewsHour-New York Times Book Club.
It’s a timely choice, considering not only its recent accolades, but also the country’s racial divide: Charlottesville, police shootings.
Does she feel her stories are the ones people need to read to better understand and relate to each other?
“I definitely feel a sense of responsibility because of who I wrote about,” Ward said. “And I think that’s a natural. That naturally occurs because the people I wrote about are marginalized.
“But it’s not as if my success or the current political climate has made this sense of responsibility,” she continues. “This isn’t a recent thing.”
When Ward began writing in her 20s, she said, “I was writing for black people. I wanted black people to read my work.”
At the same time, she was writing for the kind of people who attended the private, Episcopalian high school where she endured bullying and racism.
“I wanted the kind of kids I had gone to school with to see us and to see me as human beings,” Ward said. “And as I wrote more and as I began to publish and meet readers, I realized that my ideas and my view of who my audience could be was narrow. I needed to expand them.”
She remembered going to a book festival in New Zealand in 2011 with her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” and meeting readers who had survived the Christchurch earthquake, which killed 185 people and injured several thousand.
“They had survived this horrible disaster and were relating to characters they had nothing in common with,” Ward recalled. “These people could find a kinship with them. There was a shared humanity there.
“So I think there are some important things that my books can accomplish.”