Mississippi occupies a central role in your work, a place of rich family life and deep connection but also brutal poverty and tense race relations. What does Mississippi and its people mean to you and how has it influenced your writing?
Mississippi is home; it’s family. I tried to leave, but it pulled me back, and now I’m raising my children here. On my maternal grandmother’s side, I have counted 200 cousins, and all four of my grandparents are from my home town. My connection to Mississippi is deep, and we’ve been here for all the generations we can recall. All three of my novels have been set in a fictionalized version of this place… Clearly it occupies my daily reality and my imagination. I wonder if it would have been different if I hadn’t lost my brother, my cousin, and some of my friends in a short span of time, all at young ages. I write toward my brother, in particular, with my teenage boy characters. He only existed in this place. I love it for what it gives me, and I hate it for the ways it punishes us.
You’ve written a lot about black masculinity in the South. Was it important to you that the positive role models in this book be black men?
A lot of my work is involved with enriching our understanding of a population that some readers might be prone to reducing to stereotypes, so, yes, I suppose so. I write mostly black characters, and I’m from a black community. And the project of my work is decidedly about a black experience. I wanted both Pop and Jojo to represent a different kind of masculinity than the rugged, individual, stereotype of an American male, black or white. I wanted to show their strength but also their tenderness and their vulnerability and the ways that they give love.
You’re the first woman to win the prestigious National Book Award for Fiction twice. Do you feel hopeful about the future of women’s writing in the US, particularly by women of colour? Which fellow writers would you urge people to read?
Reading all of the great work that’s been coming out lately does make me feel hopeful. One of the big bestsellers on the New York Times list is by Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere. This is powerful social commentary, and the readership is sizable! I find that encouraging. Tayari Jones has a new novel out, An American Marriage. It was an Oprah Book Club pick, and it’s hanging out on the bestseller lists, too. On the more literary end of the spectrum, there’s My Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, all of which have been finalists for some of the US’s literary awards. So women, and women of colour, are writing to serve different readerships within the market, and people are taking them seriously as is evident through sales, awards, and reviews.
You’ve also recently edited The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race which became a New York Times bestseller and the UK has seen similar success stories with titles such as Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and Nikesh Shukla edited, The Good Immigrant. There’s obviously a long way to go but are you heartened by the reception these books are getting? What other initiatives would you like to see the book industry getting behind?
I’m thrilled to hear about these two books–and that they’re being well received by the UK market. I look forward to reading both. I know the history and dynamics are somewhat different in the UK, but I’m sure the results are the same for those who are marginalized by a dominant culture and power structure. That said, maybe we’re entering a period when book publishers feel some pressure to address issues of inclusivity and inequality within their ranks and on their lists, but I imagine, as is often the case, the push will continue to come from the communities outside of this power structure. At some point, the work itself becomes impossible to ignore. I say to Reni and Nikesh and to anyone else contemplating adding their voices to the dialogue, please do! We need you, and we’re sending love and support.
What do you love most about being a writer and what influence do you hope your writing will have?
I love losing myself in a world of imagination. That’s a gift for me. I hope my life shows people in my community that there are different kinds of work available to them, and I hope my stories show poor people and black people that their lives are beautiful and noble and worth recording and remembering.
You studied at Stanford followed by an MFA at the University of Michigan. Was the MFA a crucial step in you becoming a writer? Do you feel you’d be where you are now without taking it?
For me, it was a crucial step. I was fortunate to attend a funded program. This was followed by two fellowships, which also made a difference when I was a younger writer, the Stegner Fellowship, at Stanford, and a Grisham Residency, at the University of Mississippi. If not for those opportunities at that early stage in my career, I wouldn’t have had concentrated time to focus on the work. I know there are other ways–working and writing, chief among them, which is a really tough balance to strike.
Jesmyn Ward will be discussing her award winning latest novel Sing, Unburied, Sing at Waterstones, Bristol Galleries on Monday April 23. For more information, visit www.ideasfestival.co.uk/events/jesmyn-ward/