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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