I recently blogged about how disorienting it can be to lose an architectural structure that has provided something to stop our eyes and send back a familiar message–an echo. Now I want to speak to another kind of echo that enlivens me because it suggests a future that can hold something new but that reminds me of older things. By this I mean a literary echo, a new piece of writing that keeps sending me back to an earlier piece of writing, a new writer who speaks in ways and on subjects that connect me back to an older writer. Jesmyn Ward is a black Mississippian with several titles to her credit, two of which have won substantial awards. Two of her novels–Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing–won National Book Awards in 2011 and 2017. Her trenchant memoir, Men We Reaped, was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography.
Though I haven’t yet read Salvage the Bones, a story framed around the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on various populations in New Orleans, I have recently read the memoir and her most recent novel about a black family coping with personal and institutional violence and with the power of story and memory to keep the tangibly dead importantly alive. Why do I hear echoes of Morrison in Ward? Both women think deeply about the effects of decades of slavery on descendants of the enslaved yet both present their “theories” about this through stories of people we come to care deeply about and about people whose actions we may condemn (Cholie in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Leonie in Sing, Unburied, Sing) but whose own pain we are forced to see and reckon with before we pass easy judgments. Both women did not come to the public’s attention until they were in their thirties (Morrison was 39 whenThe Bluest Eye was published and Ward was 34 when Salvage the Bones appeared). Both authors say they write stories about people not often found in mainstream fiction.
For me, as a person who is never satisfied by contemporary minimalist literature, the strongest echo I hear in Ward’s work is her obvious passion for finding the precise word or metaphor, the most germane descriptive detail, or the finest emotional nuance with which to embody whatever broader idea or mood she wants to convey. Because both care so deeply about language, I feel trusted by each to employ my best honed reading abilities. I can’t just “pick up” a Ward book; she deserves my full attention just as Morrison has for decades. So, knowing that Jesmyn Ward is at work right now on her next novel enlivens my imagination as I look forward to what she will gift me with next. She has said that the new novel is set in New Orleans in the 18th century, just as the trans-atlantic slave trade was fading, a cruel fact that necessitated a worsening of conditions for enslaved Africans and their progeny, more and more of whom were products of thoughtless rapes of black women by white slavers. I know I can depend on Ward to write about the horrors of the domestic slave trade in this country with precision and grace, just as I’ve always awaited Morrison’s next book with similar certainties.
So, while I wait for the new novel, I’ll dig into Salvage the Bones. And, if this new book takes longer than I might wish, I’ll return to Sing, Unburied, Sing, knowing that I will find all sorts of things I missed on first reading. Because the tight plot line will have remained in my consciousness, I can pay closer attention to particulars. I can look for more instances in which Ward forces me to feel kindly toward Leonie who tells us late in the story that she loves her children but has no idea how to tell or show them that,and that this emotional lacuna pains her terribly. Or I’ll read all Pop’s italicized stories he tells to Jojo to help him grow from boyhood to manhood without succumbing to despair or destructive anger. Or I’ll listen to the whisperings from Given and Richie, who deserve to have their stories and endings embodied in the world of the still living. Or I’ll weep again as I rejoice that Kayla is going to have the “gift” to see and hear from those no longer breathing but just as surely not yet completely dead. And, what more cogent echo could I ask for than Morrison’s amazing story of eponymous character in her novel, Beloved. Just as there is the unavoidable echo when we learn that Ward’s character, Pop, killed Richie as an act of love, just as Sethe killed Beloved to save her from re-enslavement and as Eva killed her boy Plum in order to spare him a slow death from heroin addiction.
And so, as I continue to find ways to resist what the president and his minions are doing to destroy the America I value, I will cling to Ward as a positive echo of a woman whose body of work (11 novels, numerous essays/speeches, several children’s books) helps me understand the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and whose characters urge me to feel empathy for characters who do not always act exactly as I might want them to. Upon the publication Between the World and Me, Morrison said she had feared that, upon James Baldwin’s death, she would not have anyone to tell her what it’s like to live as a black man in America, but that Ta Nahisi Coates was emerging as that person. So I feel that with a continuing publication of new work, Jesmyn Ward may be the woman who can carry on Morrison’s legacy for a new generation of readers, both black and white.