Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Wednesday, May 17, 2023: Maximum Shelf: Let Us Descend

Scribner Book Company: Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Scribner Book Company: Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Scribner Book Company: Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Scribner Book Company: Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend

by Jesmyn Ward

Two-time National Book Award-winner for Fiction Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped; Navigate Your Stars; The Fire This Time; Sing, Unburied, Sing; Salvage the Bones) takes a different direction with her fourth novel, Let Us Descend: it's her first historical narrative. Beautifully written and heartrending, Ward's story sensitively handles grief, love, and recovery. On a rice plantation in the Carolinas, an enslaved teenager named Annis narrates as she works alongside her beloved mother. Mama is a source of comfort and strength even as her finger bones are "blades in sheaths." Annis says, "The first weapon I ever held was my mother's hand." This steely woman teaches Annis lessons of combat learned from her own mother, one of thousands of warrior wives to an African king, tasked with both protection and elephant hunting. "In this world, you your own weapon," she tells her daughter, and Annis will need to be.

Annis's father is the plantation owner who owns her and her mother. Annis has half-sisters in the big house. "My sire's house hulks; its insides pinned by creaks," and her "sallow sisters" have a tutor to read to them, to teach them the texts of ancient Greece, about bees and wasps and Dante's Inferno: "The tutor is telling a story of a man, an ancient Italian, who is walking down into hell. The hell he travels has levels like my father's house." Let Us Descend's title is a nod to Dante, and a cue to the reader to notice hells, descents, and journeys south. Annis listens and learns. Through her natural gifts, her own interest, and with her mother's help, she becomes skilled in foraging: herbs, mushrooms, medicinal plants, and simple foods. She learns to befriend the bees she hears her sisters' tutor speak of.

Then Annis's father chooses to sell her mother south. The "Georgia Man" takes her away in a line of stolen people for the long walk to market. Annis falls into a near-fatal grief at being left without the most important person in her life, until a kind friend pulls her back to the surface. But soon, Annis and Safi, her friend-turned-lover, are sent on the same walk with the Georgia Man. From the plantation where she was born, Annis makes a death march to a New Orleans slave market and is sold to a cruel lady whose Louisiana sugar plantation marks a further descent, into a new level of hell. Others will uplift her along the way, but she never shakes the excruciating grief for her mother.

Along the way she gains and loses friends, and meets a spirit: Aza controls the storms and winds, and has stolen the name of Annis's maternal grandmother, the warrior Mama Aza. "Aza's hair a living thing: scudded clouds, the setting sun lighting them on fire. She leans forward and a breeze blows from her. Feels like the slap of a freshly washed linen on my face, snapping in a cool wind." The spirit seeks her own identity and self-importance in relation to others, and has locked onto Annis's maternal line as a way to achieve this: she models herself after the grandmother Annis never knew, and her use of the name Aza represents both connection and theft. That Annis refers to enslaved people like herself as "stolen" adds a layer to Aza's use of the name.

Less centered around plot and character than Ward's previous novels, Annis's story is more elemental and thematic, dealing primarily with grief, forces of nature and human evil, villains and allies. The spirits she meets--chiefly Aza, but others as well--are closely associated with natural forces. "Another spirit, white and cold as snow, walks the edge of the river; it hungers for warmth, for breath, for blood, for fear, and it, too, glances against the enslaved stolen and feeds. Another spirit slithers from rooftop to rooftop before twining about wrought iron balconies outside plaçage women's bedrooms, where it hums, telling the bound women to portion out poison in pinches over the years, to revolt, revolt, revolt." These spirits can help but also harm, offer but also take away; they may represent another form of attempted ownership, as Aza has taken Mama Aza's name. In a magical-realism twist, Annis finds these spirits widen her world beyond her immediate suffering to other timelines and possibilities.

Just as Ward's title refers to Dante's story of a descent into ever-deeper levels of hell, her hero makes a parallel, nonconsensual descent into the deeper South, into pain and suffering and sorrow, and into the worsening and worst of humanity. The novel moves with Annis from the Carolinas to Louisiana, and in story, back to Africa, where Mama Aza established the fighting spirit she would pass on.

Ward gives Annis's voice a raw strength and musicality. After she is imprisoned in an underground cell by a particularly sadistic plantation owner, Aza tells her, "When you were up north, your sorrow choked your song. Swallowed it down. Even so, it hummed. But the walk changed it. The further you went, the more it rose until the woman put you down in the earth. Then it shrieked." Attention to descriptive detail emphasizes Annis's close relationship to place, and the importance of the land itself (not least in supplementing the enslaved people's painfully meager allotted diet). "The water reaches in every direction, duckweed bright and green, floating on the murky wet. Cypress, fresh with rain, shimmers."

As much pain, struggle, torture as there is in these pages, there are also various forms of love, and great strength, power, and personal reclamation. Let Us Descend ends with surprising hope. "How the whitewash of starlight would buoy them along. How they dance with the rocking deck. How them sing." With this novel, Ward's talent continues to deepen and glow. --Julia Kastner

Scribner, $28, hardcover, 320p., 9781982104498, September 26, 2023

Scribner Book Company: Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward: Finding Those Erased by History

(photo: Beowulf Sheehan)

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has received a MacArthur Genius Grant and a Stegner Fellowship. She has won two National Book Awards, in 2017 for Sing, Unburied, Sing; and in 2011 for Salvage the Bones. She is professor of creative writing at Tulane University and lives in Mississippi. Her fourth novel, Let Us Descend (Scribner, October 3), begins on a rice plantation in the Carolinas, and is narrated by an inspiring enslaved young woman in transcendent prose.

What freedoms and challenges do the historical setting present?

It offered me a freedom to write from a time and place where I was less constrained by the present moment. That is, I didn't feel pressured to write about current politics or manners or modes of behavior or even geography, as the world of the novel had its own.

It was beyond difficult to write about a person who has little to no physical agency for much of the novel. That reality is so far removed from my own that it was nearly impossible for me to draft a beginning. I wrote that beginning over and over for years because I could not figure out how to inhabit Annis; I was flailing because I couldn't understand where the narrative was supposed to go. It took me a long time to figure out that Annis would have other kinds of agency--emotional, imaginative, and spiritual--and that these would carry her through the story. Once I began putting words on the page, living with Annis's voice, she led me.

Where did this novel begin?

I heard an episode of WWOZ's Tripod called "Sighting the Sites of the New Orleans Slave Trade." In it, historian Erin Greenwald tells journalist Laine Kaplan-Levinson that there were only two plaques in New Orleans that accounted for the slave trade, and one of them was in the wrong location.

I felt a hot blush in my chest and had to fight back tears when I heard this. It was devastating to know that so many enslaved people had been sent for sale to the lower south, had endured barbaric conditions and treatment, and then had their experiences erased. It was painful to know that I moved through this landscape, a landscape that had soaked up their sorrow and pain like a sponge, and I was blind to it. It seemed immensely unjust. I immediately asked myself: What if I write about it? What will happen if I bring it to life through a character, a woman? This is how I first began to get glimpses of Annis.

How much research was required?

I knew next to nothing about the domestic slave trade. It was embarrassing to realize that my high school and college education had failed me so miserably in that aspect. It made me wonder about active erasure, about how the active suppression of knowledge can make it possible for a well-known rapper to say slavery was a choice, 150 years later. For folks on Black Twitter to talk about slavery and say: I am not my ancestor--couldn't be me. We have these ill-informed reactions to American slavery because we don't know anything about it beyond what we see in pop culture. We are not educated about it.

I read general books about American slavery, The Half Has Never Been Told, They Were Her Property and The Great Stain. I read books about Louisiana: The Sugar Masters, Slavery's Metropolis and The Free People of Color of New Orleans. I read about slave pens in Soul by Soul. I read about maroons in Slavery's Exiles, and I read slave narratives, too, the most helpful one being Six Women's Slave Narratives. This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some of the books that were most helpful to me.

As I wrote I discovered there was still more research I needed to do. I read about African-American slave medicine, the amazons of Dahomey, flora and fauna of the southeast United States, and more, driven by panic and anxiety. The last thing I wanted was to kick an academic out of the story when I got some fact or bit of ephemera wrong.

I'm sure I made mistakes, but I tried really hard not to. I hope I read enough to render the world real and present for the reader, to crowd them into Annis's reality, to make it impossible for them to look away.

Does this offer an allegory for present times?

I think at its heart that this novel is about someone struggling with grief. I can strip away all the material circumstances of Annis's enslavement, and underneath the brutality and cruelty of the forced work and punishment and dehumanization, I see a person who is swimming through grief. She has lost so many loved ones, so she is navigating mourning and the strange reality of the slave markets and the lower south at the same time. She is all longing and bewilderment and grit. I think many of us can identify with those emotions, especially post-2020, as we maneuver our way through this new reality, so many of us saddled with loss.

Annis enters adulthood because she has fought to survive a very American crucible. I believe that in a way, Annis saves herself in telling stories, in remembering, in creating community and relationship with those she meets on her way, in empathizing, in living. I like to think that she gives us a blueprint for how to survive and thrive in the present moment.

Is this a triumphant story?

I believe it is a triumphant story for Annis, for the character, but I also think it is a triumphant story for all the enslaved and maroons in the world of the story. In allowing the reader to inhabit this world, we empathize with them, we feel with them as they live and love and resist and persist. I hope this novel contributes to the conversation that writers of African descent have been having in books like The Water Dancer or The Underground Railroad, and that it does its part to enable readers to witness and to understand enslaved people anew.

How has novel-writing changed for you?

I find my motivation for writing novels changing. In the beginning, I wanted to write about people who could be part of my community or family because I wanted to make us visible. I wanted readers to love us and bleed with us and cry and laugh with us. I still want all that, but in the last two novels, I've discovered that it is also important to me to find those erased by history and to write them into the present, into common knowledge. I want readers to know about kids like Richie, sent to Parchman Prison at 12 and 13. I want readers to know that teens like Annis existed: that she and others like her walked from the upper south to the lower south, that they encountered demeaning horror after demeaning horror, and yet they persisted. They lived in spite of all that was done to them.

I intend to write a YA/middle grade book next, and my next few novel ideas revolve around characters who live through moments of upheaval, when the world is turned on its head and the logic of everyday life does not apply. I'm really interested in how people cope in those moments, in how they hold onto themselves in those moments, in how they navigate realities that defy their expectations and their experiences.

I believe Let Us Descend could count as the first flower of that motivation as well. --Julia Kastner

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