the ascendant
DEC 2023/JAN 2024 Issue

Best-Selling Novelist Jesmyn Ward on Life in Mississippi, Love Through Grief, and Her New Novel

The author—who won National Book Awards for Sing, Unburied, Sing and Salvage the Bones—is out with Let Us Descend.
Jesmyn Ward in her coastal hometown of DeLisle Mississippi in September. Dress by Proenza Schouler earrings necklace and...
Jesmyn Ward in her coastal hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, in September. Dress by Proenza Schouler; earrings, necklace, and bracelets by David Yurman; ring by White/Space.Photographs by Akasha Rabut; Styled by Kia D. Goosby

As extraordinary ideas often do, the one for Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel came to her in the most ordinary of ways. More than seven years ago, the prolific author was driving from her home in DeLisle, Mississippi—population 1,712—to New Orleans, where she’s a professor of English at Tulane University. “I was listening to the local NPR station, which is WWNO out of New Orleans, [and] they were doing a [series] celebrating New Orleans’s tricentennial, so 300 years of New Orleans history and New Orleans culture,” she says. Of all that Ward absorbed from the 64-episode series—which ran from 2015 to 2018 and expounded on everything from the legacy of gay Carnival to Germans introducing the city to gymnastics—she was most enthralled by a segment on the city’s role in the American domestic slave trade. Ward grew up frequently visiting relatives in New Orleans, and her father lived there for several years when she was a teenager. Her upbringing, education, and career have minted her an ardent student of the Deep South. Yet, “I was shocked that I knew none of the history that they were covering in the radio show,” she says. “And that I think really drove home for me the fact that that history had been erased; so erased from the landscape that I had spent years of my life in that place and couldn’t see that history at all. I just remember being appalled in that moment and wondering, What if I wrote about it? Would that help to bring that reality back into the public consciousness, back into [the] public awareness?” And thus, Let Us Descend was born.

A searing and vivid work of historical fiction, Let Us Descend tells the harrowing, heartbreaking story of Annis, a young enslaved woman brutally shepherded from the Carolinas to Louisiana after her enslaver, who is also her father, sells her to a sugar plantation. Not long before, he sold her mother away from her.

Dress by Tory Burch; boots by Khaite; earrings and bracelets by David Yurman.Photographs by Akasha Rabut; Styled by Kia D. Goosby

The book is Ward’s fourth novel and seventh published work. Her 2008 debut, Where the Line Bleeds, charts the lives of poor, Black twin brothers raised by their blind grandmother and navigating life amid impossible circumstances. Ward followed it with Salvage the Bones (2011)—an account of a family’s plight during Hurricane Katrina, inspired by her own family’s experience—and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), centered around a road trip to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Prison. Her nonfiction works include the memoir Men We Reaped (2013) and the essay and poetry collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. Both Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book Award for fiction, making Ward the only woman and only African American to win it twice. All set in the fictitious Mississippi Gulf town Bois Sauvage, Ward’s first three novels explore themes that the native Mississippian knows intimately: poverty, oppression, racism, and grief; family, strength, community, and hope. The first person in her family to attend college, Ward graduated from Stanford in 1999 with a BA in English and earned an MA in media studies and communications there in 2000. Shortly after finishing her master’s, her brother Joshua was hit and killed by a drunken driver back home in Mississippi. The driver, who was white, was only charged with leaving the scene of the accident, not for her brother’s death, and ultimately served just two years of a five-year sentence. Ward spent two decades writing through that grief, during which she earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Then the devastation of loss struck again. Her husband, Brandon R. Miller, died in January 2020—from acute respiratory distress syndrome. He was 33.

Part of what is so difficult about grief is attempting to find a new normal, attempting to figure out what your life is going to be day in, day out, without this person that you still love so much,” she says, sitting in her home office against a backdrop of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. “Much of the past three years since my partner died [have] been about me attempting to figure out what that new normal looks like,” she says. “You don’t stop loving that person just because they’re not there.”

Ward once again wrote through her anguish, but took a departure from the present, instead bringing Let Us Descend to life in the antebellum South. Both the time period and subject matter are polarizing; some argue that it’s unnecessary for the horrors of slavery to be continually depicted in television, film, and literature. While Ward shaped Annis’s story, she wondered if there was room for it, especially given two other fictitious works exploring slavery, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer (2019). (Both Ward and Coates are Vanity Fair contributing editors.) She could hear the public response to Let Us Descend in her head: “Oh, not another slave narrative.” When Ward explained her doubts to Coates, he responded with their shared belief that “every enslaved person has a story to tell. All of them were people with wants and needs and desires.” Given her Southern roots, lived Black experience, and mastery of language, few writers are better suited to tell those stories than Ward.

“I grew up in Mississippi,” she says, her accent even more telling than her words. “The agenda that they’re pushing in Florida right now, saying that slavery was a good thing because it taught enslaved people valuable life skills, I encountered that rhetoric the whole time that I was in school from my classmates,” Ward says. She wants to push back on that erasure; otherwise, she adds, “people will rewrite those stories to meet their own ends.”

Among fallacies Ward aims to confront with Let Us Descend is the myth of the passive slave. “When I began writing this book,” she explains, “I’d be on social media and something contentious regarding race would happen, and somebody would say, ‘I’m not my ancestors,’ right? Like, ‘Oh, we’re not our ancestors; we’re going to fight.’ So the underlying assumption is that they didn’t fight.” Though Ward knew that to be untrue, the two years she spent researching—poring over nonfiction books like Slavery’s Metropolis by Rashauna Johnson, The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist, and Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul—were mitigating. Slavery’s Exiles by Sylviane A. Diouf “remade my understanding of all the ways that enslaved people resisted; all the ways that they pushed back against this system that spanned the entire world.”

The details of Annis’s story—the fact that her maternal grandmother was an African warrior, the indignities she faced on the trek from the Carolinas to Louisiana, how she coped with and fought against the realities of her life—were all realized as Ward wrote. “I am not the fiction writer or the kind of novelist who can plot everything out, or who knows everything about their characters before they start,” she says. “I tried to work that way once; I tried to know a lot about my characters and outline and then write from that. I got three chapters into my first novel, and then I was like, Okay, this doesn’t work.” Her writing is a process of discovery. When she began writing Let Us Descend, all she knew of Annis was that she was enslaved.

With so many misconceptions about slavery permeating public discourse, Ward sought to render Annis as accurately and wholly as she has contemporary protagonists—with the same “love and respect and tenderness and complication.” One of those complexities is Annis’s relationship with the supernatural, a theme Ward first explored in Sing, Unburied, Sing.

“This place always seemed to harbor spirits,” Ward says of her tiny hometown, where she grew up listening to relatives tell stories of the mystical and magical. She has always believed them to be real, and thus the spirit that connects with Annis is too. “This is not a figment of her imagination; this is not mental illness. This is actually a spirit in the world that she’s encountering.” Were it not for that spirit, Ward is unsure if Annis’s would have come to fruition. “Part of me has to believe that there is something more for them and for us, right? Because [if] I didn’t believe that there was something more, then I would just despair. And then I wouldn’t be able to bear witness in my work at all.”

The idea of bearing witness to the unimaginable is one Ward revisits in life and work. Her essay “On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic,” which was published in the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair, guest-edited by Coates, recounts the final moments of her husband’s life as she watched doctors try to save him. In it she writes, “…if the person I love has to endure this, then the least I can do is stand there, the least I can do is witness, the least I can do is tell them over and over again, aloud, I love you. We love you. We ain’t going nowhere.” There is a scene in Let Us Descend where Annis listens as her friend and lover is raped. It’s the type of passage that may prompt the reader to take a break. “It’s not easy, and I don’t want to give the impression that I witness everything,” Ward says of the parallel between the experience she had and the one she wrote. “But I do witness what I can. I really believe that witnessing is an act of love.”

Let Us Descend is dedicated to Ward’s brother and her late husband. “They taught me so much about grief and about what it means to love someone and then lose them,” she says, “and then to live afterwards with that love and with that loss.”

Though the book was garnering praise from critics before it even hit shelves, as a writer, Ward identifies more with the young woman she was while struggling to find a publisher for Where the Line Bleeds. “I got a $6,000 advance for that book,” she says. “It sold a decent amount of copies; I definitely made my advance back. But [it wasn’t] a big debut novel. None of the big important critics reviewed it.” In retrospect, she’s thankful for the humble beginning. “That was a very grounding experience. I think it’s one of the reasons that I identify with underdogs so much, because I think that especially in this industry, I’ve often felt like an underdog, like this person who is just getting it out of the mud.” That Ward would go on to win two National Book Awards and a litany of other accolades was completely unexpected. “I didn’t even ask my mom or anybody from my family to take off from work to go with me to the NBA ceremony for Salvage the Bones, because I was like, ‘I’m going to lose.’ When that didn’t happen, it was a pleasant surprise, a pleasant shock, but it felt like an anomaly.”

Clothing by Dior; belt by Khaite; earrings by Mateo; necklace and bracelet by David Yurman; ring by Pomellato.Photographs by Akasha Rabut; Styled by Kia D. Goosby

The reality of Ward’s success slowly began to sink in following her second, history-making National Book Award, but she’d rather not have any daily reminders of it. “My NBAs and any of the awards that I get, I bring them all to my mom’s house,” she says. “It is helpful for me not to have those in here where I work, so that I’m less aware of the fact that I’ve done all these things,” she says, and she can do her work “with a little less obsession over audience.”

Following the death of her husband, Ward became the sole parent to their two children, who turn 11 and 7 this year. In late 2022, she welcomed a third, “who was a total surprise,” she says. The author is aware of the appearance that she’s thriving both personally and professionally. And while that’s true to some extent, the whole picture of her life is far more nuanced. “There are some people who see that I am in a new relationship, that I have had a child, and people just make these assumptions about grief,” she says. “They just assume that I’m over the death of my partner and everything is A-OK again, and everything’s all sunshine and roses, and it’s not. I still wake up every day and miss my partner [and] the life that I had.” Maintaining her career while caring for herself and her family is an ongoing challenge. “I feel like some days I don’t manage well at all. Thank goodness that I have a psychiatrist [and] I go to therapy. I think often that that is one of the only ways that I’m staying afloat.” Being home in small-town Mississippi helps too.

DeLisle is teeming with the oppression and lack of opportunity that Ward portrays in her work, and there are days when she tells herself, “I don’t know how much longer I can stay in this place.” But if she’s choosing to write about the kind of people that could be her siblings or aunts or cousins or friends, she says, being in Mississippi keeps her honest. And it’s given her one of a writer’s most cherished gifts. “This place taught me to sit very still, and to observe and to listen, and then to take what I observed and to translate that into language,” she says. “This place taught me poetry.”