ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Writer Jesmyn Ward calls Mississippi a place she loves and hates all at once. It's where she grew up and still lives in a tiny town by the Gulf Coast, a place where African-American families like hers are, she writes, pinioned beneath poverty and history and racism. And those struggles run all through her writing. NPR's Melissa Block went to Mississippi to visit Jesmyn Ward at home.
JESMYN WARD: Isn't it beautiful?
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It is.
We're driving over the bayou near Jesmyn Ward's hometown, DeLisle, Miss., the air summer-heavy and hot, the sky piled high with billowing clouds.
WARD: There's just this dense tangle of trees. And then, you know, we come to these bridges and the landscape opens up. And then...
BLOCK: This is the landscape Jesmyn Ward has known all her life. It's where her family has lived for generations.
WARD: So this is the black - one of the black portions of DeLisle here.
BLOCK: We pass small homes and rickety trailers set into the brush. We pass the field where she and her family rode out Hurricane Katrina in a pickup truck, watching the waters rise around them, feeling the wind rock them back and forth.
WARD: There were six of us sandwiched into this pickup truck. Two of the people that were in that truck were, like, visibly elderly, right? And my sister was visibly pregnant.
BLOCK: But they had to stay in the truck because the people whose land they were on wouldn't let them come into their house, said it was too full.
WARD: They're white. We're black. And that's the only reason that I could think of.
BLOCK: Jesmyn Ward's books are all set in this part of Mississippi, her characters poor and black, the people, she says, who've always been seen as worth less. These are the people whose lives she brings to the page in stunning, sometimes brutal clarity. In her novel "Salvage The Bones," it's a family barely surviving the wrath of Katrina.
WARD: (Reading) We sat in the open attic until the sky brightened from a sick orange to a clean, white gray. We sat in the open attic until the water, which had milled like a boiling soup beneath us, receded inch by inch back into the woods.
BLOCK: "Salvage The Bones" won her a National Book Award in 2011 when she was 34, a surprise to many, including Ward herself. She followed it with a searing memoir, "Men We Reaped," about five young black men in her community who died violent deaths. Now she's turned back to fiction with a new novel titled "Sing, Unburied, Sing." We'll talk more about that in a few minutes.
We stop by the local bookstore cafe in nearby Pass Christian, where Jesmyn Ward shares space on the shelves with fellow Mississippi writers like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. And this year, her portrait was added to a poster, the state's official literary map.
WARD: Yeah, I made the map. You know, in high school I would look at that map, you know? And here's Faulkner. And here's Welty. And here's Richard Wright. And I think a part of me sort of always dreamed or asked, you know, like, what if? You know, what would it be like to be on that map one day?
BLOCK: That what if would have seemed like a distant fantasy to Jesmyn growing up.
WARD: You know, we were poor.
BLOCK: Her father worked occasional factory jobs and raised pit bulls for dogfights. He left the family when Jesmyn was young. Her mother worked as a maid and at times relied on food stamps to help feed her children. They lived in a single-wide trailer. Later they moved in with extended family, 13 of them packed into her grandmother's house. For Jesmyn, reading was her escape, especially books about spunky girls.
WARD: "Harriet The Spy," "The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler," "The Secret Garden," "Island Of The Blue Dolphins," "Julie Of The Wolves," "Pippi Longstocking."
BLOCK: Did you see yourself in them?
WARD: I think I wanted to see myself in them.
BLOCK: But those girls were bold adventurers. Jesmyn was painfully shy. And those characters didn't look like her. They were never black.
WARD: And that underlying message, that thing that I understood, was that stories about people like me, like, nobody wanted to read them, you know? Or that those stories weren't worth being told. Or that people like me weren't capable of being the hero.
BLOCK: In middle school, Jesmyn got an unexpected opportunity. Her mother was working as a maid for a wealthy white family in their mansion on the Gulf Coast, and they offered to pay the tuition for Jesmyn to go to a small private Episcopal school. For years she was the only black girl there. She went on to Stanford - the first in her immediate family to go to college - got her bachelor's and master's degrees in English and communication respectively. But she figured she needed to be practical, so a career as a writer was out of the question.
WARD: You know, it made more sense for me to go to law school or go to nursing school and train myself for a profession where success was sort of guaranteed. But I - but my brother died, and I didn't have a choice anymore.
BLOCK: That was Jesmyn's younger brother, Joshua, killed by a drunk driver when he was 19.
WARD: You know, like, I couldn't run from that desire to tell stories, that desire to tell stories about us and about the people I loved. And it's not that I was confident that I could actually do it. You know, that didn't get me here. Confidence definitely did not get me here. More of like a desperation, right? And I thought, well, like, I can try. At the least I can try.
BLOCK: We've been talking in the room where Jesmyn Ward writes. It's painted a deep red. Her power color, she says.
WARD: I like to call it my library, but then that sounds pretentious.
BLOCK: Books everywhere, spilling off the shelves and piled on the floor. Here she wrote her new novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing." It traces the twined narratives of a mixed-race adolescent boy named Jojo, his drug-addicted mother and the ghosts of those long dead who visit them. Ward set some of the story in the 1940s in Mississippi's notorious Parchman penitentiary.
WARD: So much about that place reveals, like, the essence of the worst of Mississippi. They were treated as slaves were. I mean, they were worked and worked and worked and worked. They were starved and they were beaten. You know, they were tortured.
BLOCK: Ward tells me the weight of history in the South of slavery and Jim Crow makes it hard to bear up. And when she thinks about the future, she worries - worries about climate change and more devastating storms like Katrina and Harvey that she fears could erase her town, DeLisle, from the map. And she worries about her two young children - Noemie, who's nearly 5, and 10-month-old Brando. She was especially unnerved by the recent violent rallies staged by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
WARD: Part of me is panicking thinking about my children and thinking about the place that I'm choosing to raise them in and thinking about my brother and wondering, am I going to be able to, like, raise my children to adulthood? Like, are they going to live to be adults, to be as old as I am now in this climate, in this country? That's Noemie.
BLOCK: Suddenly, as we're talking, the door bursts open.
WARD: Hi, honey.
BLOCK: And Noemie rushes in, home from preschool, eager to show her mother the writer her own work. She's learning to write her name.
WARD: Oh, look at that. Look at that. You made an M.
BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, DeLisle, Miss.
WARD: You got all the letters. They're a little out of order, but we'll work on that.
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