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Celebrated author Jesmyn Ward came to St. Andrew’s on Tuesday, April 9 to attend classes, talk with students & faculty, and give a lecture in Engelhard Hall to the entire School community. St. Andrew’s English classes have read her novel Salvage the Bones and her memoir Men We Reaped for many years. This year, her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing— which won the 2017 National Book Award for fiction— was the summer all-School read. Salvage the Bones also won the National Book Award for fiction in 2011; Ward is the only woman and the only person of color to have won two National Book Awards.
"What did Jesmyn Ward teach us this week? So much," Dean of Teaching & Learning Elizabeth Roach said after Ward's visit. "From the moment she answered the first question posed by a student at 10:15 in the morning until she signed the final student’s book at 10:15 at night, Jesmyn Ward put us all under her magical spell as she gave generously and graciously to everyone she met at St. Andrew’s. Although we all felt entranced by her beautiful words and her otherworldly presence, we also felt connected to her because she is, at the same time, so real."
"Her expansive answers to every question throughout the day touched on wide-ranging topics from writing to grief to motherhood," Roach continued. "In the evening, she interspersed readings from Sing, Unburied, Sing with excerpts from her essay in The Guardian: “Raising a black son in the US: ‘He had never taken a breath, and I was already mourning him.’” Hypnotically, Ward’s poetic prose paired with her devastating stories of loss and love and family rendered us all motionless in Engelhard. We were barely breathing."
Roach also shared the following student reflections on Ward’s work during her introduction of the evening talk:
Noor El-Baradie ’19
Personally, Jesmyn Ward's novel challenged me in a way I had never been challenged before. She brings into existence a new means of expression without the limitations of human constructs like time and death. She causes readers to challenge their conception and understanding of their history as Americans and to see the transcendence of the history of slavery into black Americans' daily lives. More than that, her novel drew me in and caused me to feel for the characters: feel for Jojo in his struggle to navigate his identity, feel for Leonie as the burdens of guilt and sadness infringed on her motherhood, and feel for the ghosts in this novel and what they represent.
Piper Ackermann ’19
Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing showed me the power of literature. Jesmyn Ward crafts her novels so carefully, leaving me racing through the novel and then forcing me to turn back the pages and ponder the meaning of each and every word she puts on the page. Through re-reading her novels I have also learned that I can continuously make new discoveries in her writing.
Danny Lee ’19
For my Senior Exhibition, I wrote on and wrestled with Jesmyn Ward's novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. Throughout the novel, I was amazed by the intricacy of Ward's use of language and supernatural elements to transform a story about Jojo and his family into a greater narrative on the history of the oppression of black America. And while this novel is a commentary on the past, present, and future of the African-American community, Ward also so masterfully creates the narratives of characters such as Jojo, Richie, and Leonie, constructing them as complex, multi-layered people and causing us to empathize with them as such.
Austin Brannan ’19
Jesmyn Ward's work has vastly expanded my understanding of time, love, family, history, memory, pain, life, death, and home. More specifically, her writing has changed the way I read, changed the way I speak, and changed the way I think about stories forever. From her memoir Men We Reaped, to Salvage the Bones, and to her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s compositions regarding dissonance between historical suffering and universal healing have taught me a great deal about the narrative of my own life, and the ultimate interconnectedness of my story to the collective stories of the past, present, and future. Her work frightens me, invigorates me, encourages me, and comforts me all at once. But, above all, I am eternally grateful for Jesmyn Ward, for if it weren't for her writing, I would not understand the power of my singular voice.
Bobbi Cooke ’20
In class on Friday, I was asked to read the highly emotional scene where Pop informs Jojo about the death of Richie… I knew it was an honor being asked to read from this specific scene because I know it holds so much passion, emotion, and suffering. While I was reading, I felt Pop's struggle through the words on the page, feeling all of the intensity and love that enthralled me to perform with an immense amount of passion and understanding. Through Ward's words, I was captured by the torment, misery, yet passionate love that is felt in this scene and throughout the entire book. When I read Sing, Unburied, Sing, I can't help but feel empowered through her expression yet feel the pain of the characters throughout their journey.
Ward received a BA in English and an MA in media studies and communication from Stanford University, along with her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood Awards for her fiction, essays, and drama. She held a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University from 2008-2010 and served as the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi the following year.
Ward currently teaches creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans. In 2016, she won the Strauss Living award, given every five years by the American Academy of Arts & Letters for literary excellence. In 2017, she was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work “exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African-Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential.” In 2018, she was recognized among Time’s 100 Most Influential People.
"Because she is so open, because she bares her heart and soul, others make themselves vulnerable to her," Roach said. "I watched her for an hour and a half—as she signed over 400 books—give space to that vulnerability and listen to students as they reached out to connect with her. At the end of the night, I thanked her for her hard work, the fullness of her answers, her beautiful reading, and her patience with and attention to every student she touched throughout the day. She told me that she remembered well how important it is, as a teenager, to be seen, to be visible. That’s why she makes eye contact with each person as she signs book after book after book. That’s why she so carefully considers each question. That’s why she tells stories that bear witness to the truth. And that’s how she fortifies us with her writing, with her presence, with her truth, with her love, with her empathy."
"Jesmyn Ward lives in empathy," Roach concluded. "It’s how she writes and where she dwells at all times. That’s her magic.
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