‘Life doesn’t spare the kind of peo­ple I write about, so it would be dis­hon­est to spare my char­ac­ters.’

The Guardian - Review - - News - — Jes­myn Ward,

Black girls ’are si­lenced, they are mis­un­der­stood and they are un­der­es­ti­mated. Poor black girls are di­min­ished in Amer­i­can cul­ture’

Ward’s sub­ject is what it means to be poor and black in Amer­ica’s ru­ral south, where “life is a hur­ri­cane”. Mod­ern Mis­sis­sippi, she says, “means ad­dic­tion, ground-in gen­er­a­tional poverty, liv­ing very closely with the legacy of slav­ery, of Jim Crow, of lynch­ing and of in­tractable racism”. In her first novel,

Where the Line Bleeds (2008), she felt she “pro­tected” her char­ac­ters from these bru­tal re­al­i­ties, be­cause she knew and cared about them too much: “So I kept pulling my punches. And later I re­alised that was a mis­take. Life doesn’t spare the kind of peo­ple who I write about, so I felt like it would be dis­hon­est to spare my char­ac­ters in that way.” She kept this in mind with her sec­ond novel

Sal­vage the Bones (2011), in which the strug­gles of a preg­nant teenager are set against the ap­proach of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. (Ward couldn’t write for two years af­ter the storm, but then was com­pelled to do so by her fury at the re­sponse to the sur­vivors: “I thought: you know noth­ing about the re­al­ity of life for most peo­ple who live down here.”) Her dev­as­tat­ing 2013 mem­oir Men We Reaped doc­u­ments the early, un­re­lated deaths of five young men in fewer years in her com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing her brother, who was killed in a hit and run by a white drunk driver. Grief, she says, nearly two decades later, “never goes away. I tell friends of mine who ex­pe­ri­ence the death of some­one close to them: ‘You will never stop wait­ing for that per­son to walk through the door, but you learn how to live with it’.”

No one could ac­cuse her of spar­ing her char­ac­ters in

Sing, where the only cer­tain­ties are dan­ger, death and de­cay: “Af­ter the first flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts ma­chin­ery, it ma­tures an­i­mals to be­come hair­less and feath­er­less, and it withers plants.” This is no coun­try for young boys: 13-year-old mixed race Jojo cares for his lit­tle sis­ter Kayla; his dad Michael is in the no­to­ri­ous Parch­man prison (a place of fear, “the bo­gey­man”, when Ward was grow­ing up); his mother Leonie is a drug ad­dict. They live with their grand­par­ents: Pop, up­right and dig­ni­fied, is con­sumed by his past, haunted by racial his­tory; Mam, with her herbal reme­dies and voodoo, is dried up and hol­lowed out by can­cer.

The novel borrows its road trip struc­ture from Wil­liam Faulkner’s As I Lay Dy­ing , a book Ward re­turns to again and again (she has his No­bel prize speech pinned above her desk), as Leonie, a friend, Jojo and baby Kayla set off to col­lect Michael from prison, with de­tours for the adults to score drugs and the kids to be car­sick. But where Faulkner’s fam­ily are trav­el­ling across Yok­na­p­ataw­pha county with a body to bury, Ward’s queasy cast re­turn home with an un­buried spirit, as the nar­ra­tive takes a more supernatural turn.

Jojo was the in­spi­ra­tion for the novel, and for a long time Ward strug­gled to empathise with Leonie. She is hard to love: her ad­dic­tion, at­trac­tion to bad­boy Michael, and grief for her dead brother (an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal bor­row­ing she ini­tially re­sisted: “I didn’t want peo­ple to con­fuse my ex­pe­ri­ence with her ex­pe­ri­ence” ) for­ever get­ting the bet­ter of her puny ma­ter­nal in­stinct. Her re­la­tion­ship with Michael is as vi­o­lent in its de­pen­dency and mu­tual hurt as that be­tween their chil­dren is gen­tle; the scenes be­tween the si­b­lings bring an al­most un­bear­able ten­der­ness to the novel. Leonie un­fail­ingly makes the wrong choices – big and small: this is a woman who will buy her­self a Coke at a gas sta­tion when her chil­dren are so thirsty they will drink the rain. But like the chem­i­cal burns she has on her scalp from re­lax­ing her hair, she is scarred sim­ply by be­ing a black woman. Ward wanted to “give voice to her ex­pe­ri­ence”, just as she did for 15-year-old Esch in Sal­vage

the Bones, 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.”

In vivid con­trast to the bleak­ness of her sto­ries, Ward’s prose is dis­tin­guished by its lush – un­fash­ion­able – lyri­cism. (Re­call­ing the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the hur­ri­cane she de­scribes see­ing “houses dot­ting the rail­road tracks like pearls on a neck­lace”.) She calls her­self a “failed poet”, se­cretly writ­ing po­ems that “I share with no one”, and dreams of one day pub­lish­ing a col­lec­tion. Ward blames her po­etic style for some of the re­sis­tance her work ini­tially en­coun­tered: in the US at the mo­ment, she says, “peo­ple pre­fer cleaner, more spare, less flowery lan­guage”. And then there’s her sub­ject mat­ter: pub­lish­ers and edi­tors didn’t be­lieve “that read­ers would iden­tify with the kind of peo­ple I was writ­ing about”. There was also, per­haps, a sus­pi­cion that these char­ac­ters, who rarely fin­ish high school, have no right to ex­press them­selves so fan­ci­fully.

All of her nov­els are set in the small town of Bois Sau­vage, “the fic­tional twin” of DeLisle on the Gulf coast (nick­named Wolf Town by the early set­tlers), where she grew up and where she lives to­day. “I’d been home­sick for so long, I re­ally wanted to see what it was like to live as an adult in the south.” She’s pretty much re­lated to ev­ery­one in town, she says, and she’s not jok­ing, with 200 rel­a­tives on her ma­ter­nal grand­mother’s side alone. Like most of the in­hab­i­tants, the fam­ily have lived there for gen­er­a­tions. Ward her­self has some­thing of an ad­dict’s re­la­tion­ship with Mis­sis­sippi, yearn­ing from child­hood to get as far away as pos­si­ble but pulled back, “by a love so thick it choked me”, as she writes in her mem­oir. “It’s ev­ery­thing that I love and ev­ery­thing that I hate,” she says now. Sing is the first novel she’s writ­ten since re­turn­ing home.

It’s a cliche to say that “read­ing saved my life”, but in Ward’s case, it may be true. The stats in Mis­sis­sippi

Hard times The ru­ins of a home in Biloxi, Mis­sis­sippi in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina

are as mer­ci­less as the storms and the prob­a­bil­ity was that Ward’s fate would fol­low the grim path of her char­ac­ters: “You have a small ar­ray of bad choices and you pick your poi­son and that’s your life.” Af­ter her par­ents “fell on hard times” in Ron­ald Rea­gan’s 1980s, they moved into her grand­mother’s house with 13 mem­bers of her fam­ily (one of the hap­pi­est times of her life), where “ev­ery­one told sto­ries”, lead­ing to a love of books and learn­ing, she says, “that al­ways made me want some­thing more”.

Her first es­cape seems to come straight from a chil­dren’s book (al­though as Ward notes, no one looked or talked like her in those pages in which she took refuge): when she was 12 a wealthy lawyer for whom her mother worked as a house­keeper of­fered to send her to the pri­vate Epis­co­palian school his own chil­dren at­tended. She was the only black girl un­til her se­nior years. But al­though it was “re­ally rough”, she cred­its the bul­ly­ing she ex­pe­ri­enced with mo­ti­vat­ing her: “All I thought about was to es­cape: ‘I want to get out. I want to go away to univer­sity.’”

She now sends her five-year-old daugh­ter to the same school. Al­though her chil­dren will not ex­pe­ri­ence the hard­ship of her own child­hood, she is con­flicted about raising them in DeLisle, es­pe­cially since the birth of her son. She strug­gles to rec­on­cile her­self “to this idea of liv­ing in this place that con­sis­tently de­val­ues me and peo­ple like me in big ways and in lit­tle ways ev­ery day”.

Mak­ing her first de­par­ture from Bois Sau­vage, Ward is now work­ing on a novel set in New Or­leans in the early 1800s at the height of the US slave trade. Col­son White­head’s The Un­der­ground Rail­road , in which the metaphor­i­cal se­cret net­work help­ing to free slaves is made real, was one of the big­gest US books of last year (along with Ge­orge Saunders’s Booker-win­ning Lin­coln in the Bardo , also set dur­ing this era and with a sim­i­larly talk­a­tive spirit world). On the morn­ing of our in­ter­view, White­head tweeted: “Q: Why write about slav­ery? Haven’t we had enough sto­ries about slav­ery? A: I could have writ­ten about up­per mid­dle-class white peo­ple who feel sad some­times, but there’s a lot of com­pe­ti­tion.”

Why does she think Amer­i­can writ­ers are re­turn­ing to this pe­riod? Those in power in the US are “in­vested in sani­tis­ing and eras­ing the past”, deny­ing its im­pact on the present, she replies. “They keep in­sist­ing that racism does not ex­ist, that there’s a level play­ing field. That we are all born with the same op­por­tu­ni­ties. If peo­ple are writ­ing about slav­ery, I think it is be­cause we want to push back against that nar­ra­tive. The nar­ra­tive serves them. It makes it seem like we chose our poverty, or we de­serve our poverty; we de­serve our ill-equipped, danger­ous play­grounds, and we de­serve our hor­ri­ble ed­u­ca­tions and we de­serve to be hun­gry.”

The shoot­ing of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 led Ward to as­sem­ble an an­thol­ogy of es­says on race, The Fire This Time, by black Amer­i­can writ­ers, a re­spect­ful nod to James Bald­win’s 1963 col­lec­tion

The Fire Next Time – “we saw there was space for that con­ver­sa­tion to take place,” she says. Al­though the col­lec­tion has only just been pub­lished in the UK, she be­gan work­ing on it long be­fore Trump took of­fice. Her ju­bi­la­tion at the elec­tion of Obama – one of the few times in her life that she has felt “in­tensely proud to be an Amer­i­can” – gave way to de­spair at Trump and his sup­port­ers, whose re­sponse to events such as Char­lottesville dis­played a sym­pa­thy “with peo­ple who think that I’m not fit to live. Def­i­nitely not fit to live in this coun­try. And that’s hard to live with day in and day out.”

She’s fear­ful for the fu­ture. “But if I did not hope I would not be able to do what I do. But I don’t think it is an in­tel­li­gent hope, I think it is a nec­es­sary hope,” she says. “And maybe that’s what the peo­ple in our past did, my an­ces­tors who were en­slaved. It wasn’t an in­tel­li­gent hope that they had for free­dom or that their chil­dren might live dif­fer­ent lives than they did, but I think they had to hope to keep go­ing.”

She writes for those she grew up with, her suc­cess prov­ing that theirs are uni­ver­sal hu­man sto­ries. Above all, she writes for her younger self, who felt so si­lenced and “erased” by the world. With another prize within her sights, that young girl would be feel­ing pretty good right now, surely?

“Yes, be­cause she se­cretly dreamed of all this,” she says. “She wouldn’t ad­mit it and she wasn’t very con­fi­dent about it, but she se­cretly hoped” •

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