Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Where the Line Bleeds, and Men we Reaped, was born in rural Mississippi in 1977. She attended a private high school paid for by her mothers employer. While in this majority white private school she was bullied due to her race. She attended and graduated from the University of Michigan. That same year, her younger brother passed away. Ward received her MFA in creative writing in 2005. Not soon after, her family fell victim to hurricane Katrina. After that terrible disaster, Jesmyn’s writing passed through a three year drought. After seemingly coming to terms with the irrevocable changes to her life, she picked her pen back up and wrote her first novel Where the Line Bleeds.
With a little fear of sounding too informal, any reader who enlightens me enough to read this can just as easily find all the above details of Jesmyn Ward’s life on Wikipedia. What they will not see is the passion, strength and ease with which Jesmyn Ward spoke this evening in Belk Centrum as part of the visiting writers series. That today was MLK day was no happy coincidence. I believe that the timing of her talk was impeccable and had a great reaction from those in attendance, regardless of race or gender.
Jesmyn Ward spoke bravely this evening about the not so light hearted realities of growing up African American in the south, as she did. One of the first things she talked about in relation to her writing, was that she did not live in “fiction land” as she wrote, but that she let her experiences and her life bleed into her writing, letting her pain be her characters’ pain and her triumphs theirs.
In her talk, she read from both Salvage the Bones as well as Men We Reaped. From Salvage the Bones She read ,maybe, the most intense scene of the book. The moment that Esch’s world was flooded. With the metaphor of a water rush as a wide nosed snake devouring her home and consuming her life, Jesmyn brought to life the undulated fear and panic that comes with the anticipation of drowning.
From Men We Reaped ( her memoir) she recounted experiences shared between her and her brother (the one lost to a car crash) of their childhood together. The excerpts from her memoir were not chosen at random, as she read of her first experience of adult drug abuse at age 9, or that she remembers her first experience with alcohol at 16, followed by weed at 18. She was not fondly reminiscing about the time she found out that her brother (who lived with their father) had turned to hustling and was selling crack to their neighbors in order to help pay the bills.
With great tact and finesse, Jesmyn Ward pointed to the greater issues that wreak havoc uppon our society, not just her small southern Mississippi town. At the end of the talk, a member of the audience asked why she chose Esch as the character to voice the story of Salvage the Bones. Jesmyn replied that Esch found her, and that the story started as a woman’s experience of a predominately male world. She quotes Esch from after the disaster of Katrina
“And then I get up because it is the only thing I can do. I step out of the ditch and brush the ants off because it’s the only thing I can do; if this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I do.”
When asked if Jesmyn has hope for the future; that things will get better, she says yes! She said this evening that one of the reasons that she chose the word “Salvage” in her title is because of its closeness to the word “savage”. My first reaction was of shock, isn’t to be savage a bad thing? But graceful as ever, she went on to say that to be savage is to do what ever it takes. To fight, to stand up when one has fallen; to live. “If this is strength, if this is weakness, this is what I can do.”