Biography of Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward is an award-winning African-American writer from Mississippi. She is the recipient of several awards, including the National Book Award, for her novels, Salvage the Bones (2011) and Where the Line Bleeds (2008), and for her memoir, The Men We Reaped (2013).

Raised in De Lisle, Mississippi—the real-world location on which the settings of both of her novels are based—Ward lived through Hurricane Katrina, seeking shelter with her family in her grandmother’s double-wide trailer. She has spoken frequently about her experience growing up in a black, middle-class community, particularly in the wake of Katrina, and about its influence on her fiction.

“I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive,” she said in an interview with The Paris Review. “I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.”

A first-generation college student at the University of Michigan, Ward earned her MFA shortly before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. She went on to receive a two-year Stegner fellowship at Stanford University in 2008 and subsequently served as the University of Mississippi’s Grisham Writer in Residence in 2010.

Infusing her experience of the storm’s impact on poor, black communities on the Gulf Coast, Ward wrote Salvage the Bones, published to wide critical acclaim in 2011. The novel received the National Book Award the same year, as well as an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Ward’s second novel, The Men We Reaped, was published in 2013 and pays tribute to five men in Ward’s life, including her brother and cousin, who died of various causes, ranging from drugs to suicide, over a period of five years.

In 2014, Ward joined the creative writing faculty at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she drove through parts of the city that had been leveled by Hurricane Katrina during her commute each day.

After receiving the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Strauss Living Award for literary excellence in 2016, Ward took time off from her professorship at Tulane and is currently at work on a new novel.

Study Guides on Works by Jesmyn Ward

The title of Jesmyn Ward’s wistful memoir about growing up in Mississippi and the men who shaped and defined that live derives from come from one of the quotes attributed to Harriet Tubman. Tubman was talking about the pain of losing the men so...

Salvage the Bones is Jesmyn Ward’s second novel and the recipient of the 2011 National Book Award.

Deeply in dialogue with the Southern Gothic genre, Ward's narrative functions as a gritty yet dreamy first-person account of Hurricane Katrina's...

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a 2017 novel by Jesmyn Ward. The story follows a biracial family living in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. There are three narrators that relate the story's events in alternating chapters. The narrators are...