Jesmyn Ward becomes the 1st woman and Black author to win National Book Award for fiction twice
Jesmyn Ward’s sprawling, definitively Southern novel Sing, Unburied, Sing has rightfully been rewarded by the National Book Foundation with the National Book Award in the genre of fiction. The novel sees Ward return to the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, which was also the setting of Ward’s 2011 National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones. The win positions Ward in rare American novelist air, as she is both the only woman and the only Black author to win twice. In her emotional acceptance speech, Jesmyn Ward communicates a deep and profound love for Blackness, especially Southern and poor Blackness:
“Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners. As my career progressed and I got some affirmations, I still encountered that mindset every now and again… To those who asked what they they could possibly have in common with her characters, you answered, ‘Plenty’… You looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women and men — and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope.”
Ward’s win continues and in some ways corrects a legacy of Southern writers who are deeply connected to the places they write of. It is easy to make the connection between Ward and fellow Mississippi native William Faulkner, who also wrote of lofty and entirely human themes such as love and loss and connection, but there is also a connection to Ward’s win and the shunning of the eternally luminary Toni Morrison in 1987.
The awarding of a novel so distinctly grounded in Southern, poor Blackness both echoes the evolution and the sorrow of the National Book Foundation’s original sin of failing to rightly award the American genius that is Toni Morrison when she rightfully deserved it. Thus Ward’s win is in many ways the National Book Foundation coming full circle some thirty years later, in addition to awarding one of the most spectacular and timely books of the year.
Jesmyn Ward’s win is not just a win for the ages, a win that sets her apart from both writers of her time and age and discipline. It is also a win that personally vindicates those who similarly focus on Blackness and family and Southerness in their own work. It is a win for Mississippi, it is a win for Louisiana, it is a win for Texas, it is a win for every Black writer who has ever been told that their writing is too regional to matter to a national audience. Ward’s win announces in the words of UGK’s Bun B, “The South is in the house and they can’t do nothing about us.”