Author and Tulane University professor Jesmyn Ward was named a MacArthur Fellow on Wednesday, a validation of her body of work in both fiction and nonfiction.
The awards, presented by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, are commonly known as the “genius grants.” They carry a cash award of $625,000 over five years.
Ward, 40, is the author of three novels — “Where the Line Bleeds,” the 2011 National Book Award-winner “Salvage the Bones,” and the recently released “Sing, Unburied, Sing," a National Book Award nominee for 2017. She also has written a memoir, “Men We Reaped," and edited an anthology, “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race.”
"I'm honored and grateful to receive a MacArthur Award," Ward said. "It will give me time and freedom to create, and these are two precious gifts for writers."
Ward is a native of DeLisle, Mississippi, a small Gulf Coast community where brutal poverty and racism have trapped generations and where most of her books are set.
She is perhaps best known for “Salvage the Bones,” which heralded the arrival of a singular new voice. That novel, though rooted in the traumatic experiences of her family during Hurricane Katrina, transcended the brutal reality of those experiences with her poetic language.
Despite her ambiguous portrayal of DeLisle — or Bois Sauvage, the name of the fictional town in her novels — Ward lives in the town and is raising her family there.
"There's a feeling of belonging and of ease and of knowing who I am that I feel here that I don't feel anywhere else," Ward told NPR in an interview aired Aug. 31. "There's this entire web of people that I'm connected with, and I think that gives me a sense of myself that is hard for me to access when I'm not here."
The memoir “Men We Reaped” is an account of the loss over a very short period of five young men, including her brother, who were dear to Ward. Reviewers hailed it as a brave and important book addressing a pressing American issue — the premature deaths of young black men due to drugs, violence, illness and myriad other social ills and challenges.
In the same book, Ward describes her path away from her roots, which began when the man who employed her mother as a housekeeper paid Ward's tuition at a local private school. Her younger brother, considered a less promising student, remained in public schools. After graduation Ward left for work and education elsewhere, but the plight of her family and home was never far from her mind and pervades her work.
Ward’s anthology, “The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race,” was inspired by her grief over the death of Trayvon Martin, as well as her reading of James Baldwin’s classic, “The Fire Next Time.”
She was especially moved by Baldwin’s letter to his namesake nephew, which, she said in an interview at the time, “was so much imbued with the things I felt — the frustration with things as they are, and yet he imbued that letter with such a sense of hope.” That description applies equally well to her own writing.
Her most recent book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” is a powerful tale of a family for whom Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, is a thread in family history. The family patriarch has served his time there and is haunted by memories he shares with Jojo, his 13-year-old grandson.
When Jojo and his baby sister accompany his mother on a road trip to collect his white father on his release date, we learn about the legacy of Parchman as well as the challenges that beset this family. Ward knows how to depict the struggle for a kind of wholeness in a broken world.
Ward received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and a master's of fine arts from the University of Michigan. She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford in 2008-10, then the Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi in 2010-11. Before coming to Tulane, she was an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama from 2011 to 2014.
Ward is now on a national tour promoting “Sing, Unburied, Sing”; she appears Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Garden District Book Shop, 2727 Prytania St.