Acclaimed author Jesmyn Ward will join the Tulane English Department as a tenured associate professor starting July 1. Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction for her second novel, Salvage the Bones.
“I grew up in the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Tulane has a great reputation here,” says Ward. “It’s known as a serious institution of learning with deep roots in the region.”
Ward, who has been named to the first-ever Paul and Debra Gibbons Professorship, hails from DeLisle, Miss., a small town about an hour from New Orleans. Salvage the Bones follows a family in coastal Mississippi, in a fictional town based on DeLisle, during the ten days preceding Hurricane Katrina and immediately following.
Themes of family and what it means to grow up black and poor in the South run through her work. “Jesmyn Ward…chronicles our American story in language that is raw, beautiful and dangerous,” Tayari Jones wrote in The New York Times review last year.
Ward received her undergraduate degree in English and a master’s degree in media studies and communication from Stanford University. She was inspired to pursue writing after her only brother was killed by a drunk driver in 2000.
“His death taught me that our time here is finite,” Ward says. “He taught me that I would have a decision to make about what I would do with my life. He taught me that I would have to find meaning with him gone. Once I realized that and asked myself how I would go about making my life worthy of being lived, I committed myself to writing.”
In her third book, Men We Reaped, a memoir released last year, she writes honestly and lyrically about her brother’s death. His fatal car accident was followed in quick succession by the separate deaths of four young men from DeLisle—her cousin and three friends. The five deaths were “seemingly unrelated,” Ward writes. They were killed between 2000 to 2004 in traffic accidents, a suicide, a drug overdose and a murder. But as Ward examines the deaths, she realizes that the men died because of the realities of their lives—being poor, black, Southern.
Her memoir began as a seed in Thomas Lynch’s creative nonfiction class at Michigan. “I ran from my memoir for a long time,” she says, adding that she started writing when she couldn’t run from the subject matter anymore, strength she hopes to pass along to her students. “So perhaps I can help my students find the courage to write about those things that they are running from, those things that scare them. Perhaps I can help them write toward what hurts."
Ward, who is working on another novel, doesn’t shy away from the tough topic of racism, and her arrival at Tulane will greatly enhance the conversation already taking place.
“I’d like to add my voice to the chorus of those teaching at Tulane who are already part of this conversation about equality and racial tension,” Ward says. “I hope the discussions we have in our work and around campus will aid us in finding our way toward an answer to the question I’m asked whenever I speak about these issues: So what do we do now—how do we change?”
Ward received a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the University of Michigan- Ann Arbor; was a Stegner Fellow in the creative writing department at Stanford University; and a Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi.
Michael Kuczynski, chair of the English department, is thrilled about Ward coming to Tulane. “I much admired her writing before I ever met her,” he says. “It’s great for the English Department, and it’s great for Tulane, and it’s great for New Orleans.”
Kuczynski describes meeting Ward through a mutual friend and working with School of Liberal Arts Dean Carole Haber, Provost Michael Bernstein, and an enthusiastic English Department faculty to bring her to Tulane as “one of those wonderful serendipitous moments for a department chair.”
Ward’s appointment is in the School of Liberal Arts, but she will work closely with the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South and also with the Newcomb College Institute to raise the profile of women writers on campus, Kuczynski says.
Kuczynski is impressed with Ward’s enthusiasm about teaching both advanced and entry-level writers.
She has been teaching writing for ten years at the University of Michigan, the University of New Orleans, Stanford, University of Mississippi and is now Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama.
“I love teaching. I love reading and writing and talking about reading and writing with students,” Wards says. “I love working with student writers to help them revise and polish and transform their work, and I love watching students find their voices. It really is very rewarding work.”