I took notes while I was there and cried at the end of the talk and then forgot about it until last week when I finally picked up her book Sing, Unburied, Sing and read it. The book is about a boy turning thirteen in Mississippi and his road trip with his mother to pick up his father from Parchman Prison, a notorious place known for its human rights abuses and horrific treatment of black men. It's also about ghosts and rural life and black Southern culture and the love between siblings and generational poverty and racism and sacrifices people make and cancer and Southern food and police brutality and grandparents.
It's not an easy book to read, in the sense that it's about a world that many white people want to pretend does not exist. But it is an easy book to read in the sense that you, as a white person, can pick it up and read it. And I hope you will.
Here are some of the notes I took when Jesmyn Ward spoke:
It is a mixed crowd of people here, something you don’t usually see at events like this. Usually it’s all older white women, probably going together with their book clubs.
She tells us about the importance of storytelling and how her parents and grandparents told stories, all of it mixed up with growing up in Mississippi and growing up in America where black people are marginalized and seen as lesser.
Her experiences as a child being a reader and only finding books about white girls to read. Her classmates at a wealthy private school who talked about the confederate flag as their heritage and grumbled that it was Affirmative Action that got her into Stanford and not her hard work or intelligence.
During Katrina, her family lost their home and she and her pregnant sister and elderly grandparents were turned away by white people--their neighbors--at the height of the storm. She said she couldn’t write for three years after that. She thought, how could she be a writer in a world like this, and maybe she’d be a nurse.
Her brother died, killed by a drunk driver, a white man who was only charged with leaving the scene of an accident and not with her brother’s death. She lost three friends at the same time, to drugs and accidents, all young black men from the same small town.
She says she writes because she feels the burden of needing to tell the stories of people who have been erased.
When I go to something like this—the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, for example, or hear a speaker, like Jason Reynolds, someone speaking about their experiences with white people, I don’t know how to sit with it.
I mean, it’s profoundly uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing, actually. I can see myself how they see me, a white woman, and it feels bad. I don’t know what to do with this feeling though. See it. Acknowledge it. There’s no real defense. It just is.
I bought her book Sing, Unburied, Sing and I thought about standing in line and getting it signed and telling Jesmyn Ward how much her book Salvage the Bones affected me, how I was in awe of how she was able to turn this dark story into something somehow hopeful.
But then I thought, why? Why does she need to hear my response? She said interviewers ask her if she means to end her novels with some hope, and she said, "Of course I do. If I didn’t, the book would be horror."
She told us her mother and grandmother rise every day and they keep going because they have hope. This is what we do, she said. Her voice broke then and the people around me, black and white, were crying.