Tulane creative writing professor and novelist Jesmyn Ward, who grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, won both the National Book Award for Fiction (2011) and an Alex Award (2012) for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” centered on a community’s struggles before and immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Tonight she celebrates the release of her memoir (“Men We Reaped”) in paperback with an appearance and book signing slated for 6:30 p.m. at the Garden District Book Shop at 2727 Prytania St.
The author took time out from a writers’ conference in Paris to answer a few questions about recently joining the Tulane University faculty, her impressions of New Orleans and how themes in her memoir are expressed in daily life in her adopted city.
What led you to make the move from the University of South Alabama to Tulane?
I’ve always regarded Tulane very highly. As a kid in south Mississippi, I understood Tulane to be the premier university in the region. The school has a reputation for attracting very smart, highly motivated students as well as innovative professors. It was my dream to teach and write in such an environment.
If New Orleans was part of the draw, what is it about the city that attracted you most: its challenges or its assets?
New Orleans is my city. I’m a country girl, and the fact that I grew up so close to New Orleans formed my ideas about what it meant to live in a city. All the good and the bad: the culture of art, the varied history of the place, the beauty, the crime, the music, the second lines, everything about its culture — all these things drew me to New Orleans.
When I was in my teens, I thought all cities were so singular, so wondrous. When I left home for college and then later worked in the world as an adult, I was disappointed by all those other cities. New Orleans is a special place.
What have you discovered about this place since you arrived and how does it contradict or confirm what you thought you knew?
I grew up so near to this city that I knew it fairly well. When I was a teenager, my father lived in Jefferson for a few years, and me and my siblings visited him often. My father didn’t have a car, so we’d walk across the levee and through the neighborhoods to reach a bus line. The neighborhoods we walked through were working class and, at that time, deeply affected by the illicit drug trade. We’d then take the bus downtown and then walk to the trolley and ride it (with a transfer) down St. Charles, where the houses were so big and grand as to be almost unbelievable.
So when I was younger, I saw how New Orleans can encompass so many realities, be a different place to each person, depending on who one is, what your history is, what your culture is and where one lives.
The poverty, crime and murder rate in the city seem to relate to issues surrounding some of the deaths you write about in “Men We Reaped.” What can you say about your reflections on the situation in New Orleans today as it relates to the book?
Well, it’s all the same, isn’t it? That thing that underpins this system of grinding poverty and violence? In the end, it’s the statement: You are nothing. Generations of black people have been told that they are less than human, that they are worth less. The circumstances of their lives tell them this, the larger culture tells them this, and so we imbibe that message and parrot it. It breeds tragedy everywhere, in rural and urban areas, in southern Mississippi and New Orleans.
Who helped you find your writing voice?
In part, I found my voice by reading everything I could, so that I began to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like, what I admired and didn’t, and what I could perhaps emulate in my own writing. At the same time, I wrote. For years, I wrote very badly, and as I studied with my teachers, took writing workshops with my peers, and worked with editors, I began to understand how to look at something I’d written, realize what wasn’t working about it, and then, how to revise that.
This is what working with Peter Ho Davies, Nicholas Delbanco, Laura Kasischke, Thomas Lynch, Elizabeth Tallent, Tobias Wolff and John L’Heureux taught me. This is what studying with amazing writers like Natalie Bakopoulos, Elizabeth Staudt, Celeste Ng, Justin St. Germain, Jim Gavin, Molly Antopol, Will Boast and so many others taught me. This is what working with great editors like Brigid Hughes at A Public Space, Marc Smirnoff and Carol Ann Fitzgerald, formerly of the Oxford American, and my current editor at Bloomsbury, Kathy Belden, taught me. It’s been a long process, and in some ways, I think my voice is evolving every day.
What can you take from your own learning experience to share with your students?
In the end, this long process taught me something that I strive to impart to all my students: Writing is work. Worthwhile work, but for most of us, it takes a lot of effort and dedication and discipline and love and a kind of obsession, perhaps, to be a writer.