Another feather in the cap for BABEL

Jesmyn Ward to speak

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan


Jesmyn Ward, a multiple winner of myriad literary prizes, joins the celebrated Babel Lecture Series, sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center at 8 p.m. Thursday, November 15, at Kleinhans Music Hall.  It is the first Buffalo visit for the writer and associate professor at Tulane University, whose bestselling novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, a saga that weaves history and present-day issues affecting a Mississippi family, won the National Book Award in 2017.  She discussed that novel, which critics around the country placed on several top ten books of the year lists, in an e-mail exchange with Spree.


A major narrator is Jojo, a thirteen-year-old boy. How did you choose that voice?

Jojo came to me first when I conceived of Sing, Unburied, Sing. He was present from the very beginning: he was the first character who drew me into the world of the book, so he always felt very present to me. He’s a child forced into adult situations again and again, and I think that allowed me to feel a great sympathy for him, which helped me to feel and live every moment with him.


Why is storytelling so important to this family?

The family members tell stories for various reasons. They tell stories to pass along knowledge. They tell stories to remember. They tell stories to rewrite the past and forget. They tell stories to try to make sense of pain or difficult moments in their lives; if they can make sense of what is happening to them and around them, maybe they can figure out how to move through it, how to move beyond it and hold hope.


How do you create characters who are sometimes abhorrent in behavior and yet sympathetic?

I believe that part of my job as a writer is to create characters who become real for readers. This means that I have to make them as complex and human as I possibly can. Leonie and Michael are two characters who sometimes act in awful ways, but they are still human beings: they can be tender or kind or caring as well. If not, they would be villains, and I would have failed at making them real for readers.


The idea of home is a prevailing theme. Is this a particular point of reference for you?

I think that home is the place that defines you, that marks you. I think about the idea of home all the time, how the home of your youth may not necessarily be the home of your adulthood, and how sometimes home is about people instead of places. I wrestle with this idea often in my work.


What do you hope readers will take away from your writing?

I want readers to feel some kinship for the people I write about. I want them to feel sympathy and love for the imperfect women, rudderless children, and the errant men in my fiction. And I am looking forward to my first visit to Buffalo!   


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