Hailed as “the new Toni Morrison” by the American Booksellers Association, two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward joined Colorado AcademyUpper School English teacher Ali Kittle and her students in their Southern Gothic Writers course for a fascinating discussion. The course looks at the disintegration of Southern traditions and aspirations and how the South is burdened by its past, especially the Civil War, and how those ghosts continue through today’s writers. Students taking the course not only explore Southern authors, but they also have the opportunity to add components of the genre into their own writing. Ali called the occasion “a really exciting opportunity” for her students.
Ali asked questions regarding Southern Gothic literature and its evolution over time. “Racism is entrenched in the South, and there’s a glorification of the antebellum South,” Jesmyn explained. “It took until the year 2020 to remove the confederate flag from the state of Mississippi.”
According to Jesmyn, Southern writers seem to feel a great sense of responsibility for wanting to wrestle with the history of the South, and her novels are no exception. This is seen through the various racial communities and multiracial families that she explores in her stories and in her strong ability to stay true to what she has seen and experienced in the South.
The students learned that quite often, authors have themes they continuously return to and explore in new ways throughout their writing. Jesmyn’s work explores the theme of loss and the impact it has on someone’s life. “Loss can change you,” Jesmyn said. “I think about how losing people traumatizes people.” You see this reflected in Salvage the Bones or with Leonie grappling with the loss of her brother and her mother in Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is Southern Gothic at its finest—a modern-day Faulkner. The deliberate choices Jesmyn makes as an author resonate with and inspire young authors. There is a realization that you can create characters that surprise you as they evolve throughout your plot, just as the mother in Sing, Unburied, Sing surprised Jesmyn. Jesmyn told the students, “It’s the gift to write in the first person, particularly when it feels as though you’re tapping into something outside of yourself, and the characters begin to tell their own stories. There’s a freedom that comes with creating more nuanced female characters that are a representation of those from your community. There’s curiosity found in the exploration of spirituality.”
Jesmyn is well known for her 2018 commencement speech at Tulane University, “Navigate Your Stars,” in which she talks about the value of hard work and the importance of respect for oneself and others.
“The writing is never done,” Jesmyn told the students about the two-year process of creating a draft of a novel. “One has to be patient with themselves and work hard, and luck and timing play a part in one’s success.” May all our inspiring writers continue to navigate their stars, and continue the journey of lifelong learning like Jesmyn Ward.