National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward: “I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina”


Self-effacing star at Stanford (Photo: Adam Johnson)

When author Jesmyn Ward was named the winner of the 2011 National Book Award at the awards ceremony a few months ago, she covered her face with her hands.  She had believed the earlier notification that she was a finalist to be “a joke or a scam,” but winning seemed even farther beyond the reach of a girl who came from a “rural, southern, mostly poor” Mississippi town.

She didn’t take her hands from her face, or respond to the applause, or move to accept the award for her novel Salvage the Bones. Her publicist finally grabbed her by the shoulders and shouted her name at her.

National Book Award winner?  “I still haven’t come to terms with it – I still hesitate to say it,” the Hurricane Katrina survivor told an audience Monday night at Stanford.

In a world of self-promotion, Ward’s modesty and humility were downright charming.

Author Elizabeth Tallent‘s introduction to the reading included this snippet from Ward’s interview in The Missoulian:

I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina. …  After the hurricane, I didn’t write anything for around two-and-a-half years. I didn’t realize how it had affected me at the time. I was here with my family for the hurricane.  So not only did I have to deal with the experience of surviving the hurricane, being out in the hurricane when it was going on, but with the residual terror in the knowledge that a storm like that can take away everything your family has within a matter of hours. I had to contend with all that, and the rebuilding process.

We got hit by the worst of the storm. After the rubble was cleared away, it just looked like things disappeared. There was a gas station there, and it’s not there anymore.  And the trailer park there, it’s not there anymore. I had no hope during that time. So I needed enough time to pass beyond Katrina to see that people would come back and they would rebuild.

The New York Times review called the book “a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale.” One author, fellow Southerner Ken Wells, said that she writes like “an angel with a knife to your throat.”

But great books affect people in different ways. For Tallent, reading Salvage the Bones resulted in a different understanding:  “I realized I needed a dog in my life again.”

So she credits author Ward – and the novel’s white pit bull named China (“on a shortlist of great dogs in literature”) – for the shelter dog she recently acquired.  Tallent said that although Ward had been a Stegner fellow from 2008-10, “we all think of it as five minutes ago.”

During the question-and-answer period following the reading, Ward was asked if she had ever envisioned herself as a successful novelist.  “It was my dream. I didn’t think I would ever be good enough.”

Ward’s memories of Stanford are nuanced and complex: “Much of my years here was feeling overwhelmed, that I didn’t deserve to be here.”

Monday’s applause for her work is gravy:  “I’m coming back to Stanford as the person I wanted to be as an undergraduate.”

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One Response to “National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward: “I didn’t think I was going to write about Hurricane Katrina””

  1. Chung cư gemek tower Says:

    Monday’s applause for her work is gravy: “I’m coming back to Stanford as the person I wanted to be as an undergraduate.”