Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood Awards for essays, drama, and fiction. She has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and a Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. Her debut novel,Where the Line Bleeds, was an Essence Book Club selection, a Black Caucus of the ALA Honor Award recipient, and a finalist for both the Virginia Commonwealth University Cabell First Novelist Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. This year she won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.
Spurred by the death of my brother, my first novel was something of a love letter to the kind of young black men that I grew up with: these young men were tender, fierce, worldly, and sometimes, painfully naïve. In my second novel, I wanted to write a book that revolved around the kind of young women I grew up with; I wanted to pen a love letter to them. Specifically, I wanted to write about a young girl who is growing up in a world full of men, and I wanted to explore how she understands womanhood, how she fares under all the pressures that bear down on poor black girls in the South. I’d also wanted to write about the character that would become Esch’s brother, Skeetah, and his pit bull, for years. There was something about the strange love that Skeetah felt for his dog that fascinated me. As I wrote the novel, I discovered that the strange love Skeetah felt for his dog was only one of many loves that would be central to the book and influence Esch’s understanding of womanhood and motherhood.
I wanted to write Salvage the Bones because I loved these characters so much I wanted them to speak. I wanted readers needed to know what it means to be a young black girl in the South, what it means for Esch to find models of womanhood in the world, for readers to understand how these models affect her and girls like her. I also wanted to write about Hurricane Katrina once I was able to crawl out of the despair the hurricane inspired in me because I wanted to write against the stereotypes that I encountered about people who didn’t evacuate for the storm. I wanted to reveal that people who stayed here for the storm did so because they had always done so, that their refusal to evacuate was dictated by habit, a lack of means, and a sense of loyalty: as they’d always done, they would face this storm in their homes. In this way, the Batiste family is like many families on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Even though Esch’s and Skeetah’s and their family’s stories are specific to a certain time and place, I hope that readers understand that in larger ways, they aren’t. Just as Esch is able to read books about Greek mythology and find something of herself in them and them in her, I’m hoping that readers read Salvage the Bones and find themselves in my characters, and my characters in them.