By Walter B. Shurden
I am one of those people who hate being late for meetings, church, dinner engagements, or appointments of any kind. And while I get massive heartburn from people who are cavalier about time and who seem to make an occupation out of being tardy, I find myself being repeatedly late at finding good books and good writers.
One of the most important gifts good friends have given me over my lifetime has been to introduce me to their friends. Grady Nutt (blessed be his name!), for example, should have been awarded an honorary Ph.D. in “Introductions.” He constantly linked people up with each other. Grady loved for his friends to get to know others of his friends. He held his friends close, but he was not greedy with them. He shared them. He turned them loose to make new friends, to widen the circle.
So I want to introduce you to a friend, a writer at whose doorsteps I have only lately arrived. She has become a mentor. Some of the readers of this journal will surely know her and have read her, but some may not. And even if you have heard her name or seen her book titles, you may not know how relevant she can be for Christian ethics.
Her name is Jesmyn Ward. A native of the deepest part of the South, she grew up on the Gulf Coast in the little rural town of DeLisle, Mississippi. At present, she is a professor of creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Even though it may be a bit early to say so, literary critics have already crowned Jesmyn Ward as the successor to such bright lights as William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Ward is one of only six writers to have twice won the National Book Award for Fiction. (You may want to read the previous sentence again.) The other illustrious five are John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, William Faulkner and John Updike. Significantly, Ward is the only woman and the only African American honored in this way.
Jesmyn Ward’s name appears thus far on the cover of five books. She published her first book, a novel, Where the Line Bleeds, in 2008. The book was a finalist for a couple of prestigious literary awards. In 2011, Ward published Salvage the Bones, the first of her novels to win the National Book Award for Fiction. In 2013, she published her third book, Men We Reaped. One of two books of non-fiction by Ward, it was an awards nominee for autobiography. The Fire This Time, a volume edited by Jesmyn Ward and dedicated to Trayvon Martin, includes a collection of essays and poems by a new generation of writers about race in America. It contains a very important autobiographical chapter about Ward herself. Published in 2016, Fire was a New York Times best seller. In 2017, Ward published her fifth, most-celebrated, and enigmatic book: Sing, Unburied Sing. Her third novel, Sing is her second National Book Award for Fiction.
Someone asked Ward, “As a writer from the South, you are fated to be compared with Faulkner. How do you contend with this legacy?” She answered, “The first time I read As I Lay Dying, I was so awed I wanted to give up. I thought, ‘He’s done it, perfectly. Why the hell am I trying?’ But the failures of some of his black characters—the lack of imaginative vision regarding them, the way they don’t display the full range of human emotion, how they fail to live fully on the page—work against the awe and goad me to write.”
Here’s what Ward did for me and why I think the readers of Christian Ethics Today will profit from her writings, especially her novels. She opened wide—very wide—the doors to the homes of black families in rural Gulf Coast Mississippi, and she graciously ushered me in. She gave me a detailed and unvarnished tour of those homes. She introduced me not to stereotypes, but to real black families—families rife with human emotion whose characters are fully alive. These families, plagued by the weight of Southern history and racism, have survived even in the face of some of life’s most terrifying storms, including Katrina. Ward excels at the very place where she thinks Faulkner failed. Her black characters “live fully” on every page. I predict a long life for her characters, especially for Jojo, Leonie, Skeetah and Esch, full-time human beings in her two award-winning novels.
James Cone castigated Reinhold Niebuhr because Niebuhr had “eyes to see” but lacked the “heart to feel” black suffering. Jesmyn Ward gives you both “eyes to see” and a “heart to feel” black suffering. But she does not drown you with black suffering. She also helps you “see” and “feel” black everydayness, black persistence and black hopefulness.
Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County. Wendell Berry memorialized Port William, Ky. Ward localizes her riveting stories in Bois Sauvage, a fictional village for her small hometown of DeLisle, on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Without Ward’s tragic, colorful, rural Mississippi environment and her authentic portrayal of black families, her stories would surely fail to arrest. Before she became a celebrated writer, a hometown friend once asked her what she wanted to write about. “Books about home,” she said. “About the hood.” And she has done it lyrically, beautifully.
This is Southern stuff. As with much great literature a sense of place is crucial. But also with great literature, universality transcends locality. Universal themes ride piggyback on local ones. Regarding her first National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, Ward said, “The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal one.” In Salvage the Bones Ward portrays a black, motherless family bonded by fierce loyalty that survives hurricane Katrina. An absorbing story of humongous loss, not all of it property, Salvage hides nothing and reveals much about black families in the South. Katrina literally leaves bones; yet even Katrina is not the last word in Bois Sauvage. New life is on the way.
In her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s themes again go far beyond Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and the South. Critics claim that Sing is a journey novel, a family novel, and a novel about the oppression of Southern history. Surely it is all of these. A raucous journey from the Gulf Coast to Parchman Penitentiary and back dominates the heart of the novel. And as with all of her novels, it is all about the conflicts, struggles and love of a rural black family in the modern South. The Mississippi history in the novel is thick and heavy. It impinges on the present and the two, past and present, can hardly be separated. But Sing, Unburied, Sing also croons and chants worldwide aches and hopes.
For me, Sing asks and answers the big question: What kind of world is this? Ward answers with gripping dialogue, emotional language, and a worldview embracing unmitigated evil and some hope that is tamed but real. Another universal theme, indicated above, is the overwhelming weight of history on the present. We have no key to hit that will delete history. Ward, of course, demonstrates this with Southern history. But what is true in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, is also true in the most isolated parts of India or the most bucolic areas of Brazil. We are all tangled up in our history.
“Home” is another universal that dominates Sing. We should not find this strange in a novel about a black family, but In Sing “home” seems accentuated to me. We are all a little bit lost, and we live in a world where we all are trying to find our way home, to a sanctuary of acceptance and security, to a place with a future, to a place where we can “sing,” in spite of the ghosts of the past. In some ways, the saddest character in the book is an adolescent ghost named Richie with a gruesome past. At one point, Richie says, “Home ain’t always about a place, the house I grew up in is gone. Ain’t nothing but a field and some woods, but even if the house was still there, it ain’t about that.” Then he adds, “Home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all all one and it beats like your heart.”
Here is the best guidance I can give you for getting to know and hopefully appreciating and hearing Jesmyn Ward “sing.” First, before reading any of her writings, go to YouTube and watch her adorable face and listen to her quiet, humble voice give the 2018 commencement speech at Tulane University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRvdCAYh4uU.
Take note near the end of her speech of her plaintive, pleading, repetitive line to those Tulane graduates: “Take another step; take another step.” As much as sermonic exhortation, these words are heartfelt autobiography. The call to the Tulane students regarding the critical importance of choice and persistence throughout life echoes also in all three of her novels of black families. And at the commencement speech don’t miss the proud introduction of Jesmyn Ward by the president of Tulane University.
Second, read Ward’s 2013 book of non-fiction, Men We Reaped. While I suggest that you read the entire book sequentially, you will find her personal memoir in chapters 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. “All theology is biography,” is a legendary dictum. Ward’s literature, too, is rooted in her biography; so I urge you to read her life before you read her novels.
After listening to her Tulane speech and reading her memoir, experience her three novels in the order in which they were published. Where the Line Bleeds, published in 2008, recounts the lives of fraternal twins who have recently graduated from high school. As she does later in both Salvage and Sing, Ward flings wide the door and again ushers you into the home of a rural, African-American family on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. You discover the importance of food, what they eat, how they celebrate, the vast reach of “family,” the pervasiveness of drugs, the admirable responsibility of some, the enervating irresponsibility of others, absent parents, a blind grandmother, devoutly loved, who feels “her family spinning away from her,” and what young black men without a college education face in adulthood. Cascading downward into a predictable violence, the story ends hopefully, somewhat like both Salvage and Sing, with an open but unknown future. But future there is.
After you read Where the Line Bleeds, go to the two novels that have catapulted her into national literary prominence—Salvage the Bones maybe my favorite, and her more cryptic Sing, Unburied, Sing. Like some of the best books ever written, her books are not specifically about religion. But they are all profoundly religious, containing immense and profound ethical themes. Good friend Frank Tupper, and one of my favorite theologians, speaks of the evil in our world in this graphic way: “There are bodies strewn everywhere.” This young American writer from DeLisle, Mississippi, knows those bodies. She can name them, the dead ones as well as the living. But in the face of all the detritus, she urges, “Take another step.” Persist. Hang on. Black families have been doing it for years.
— Walter B. Shurden is Minister at Large at Mercer University