Award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward discusses works with student body


Leo Saperstein

Novelist Jesmyn Ward (top left) speaks with Black Leadership and Culture Club (BLACC) leaders Sirus Wheaton ’19, Makeda Neavill ’21, Cameron Herring ’21 and Asian Students in Action (ASiA) member Neha Tummala ’23.

Leo Saperstein

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward spoke to the community about her work in an event organized by the Upper School English Department on May 19. Ward’s visit began with a virtual meet-and-greet and continued in a webinar on Zoom.

In the first Zoom meeting, HW Parents DEI Committee Co-Chair Stacy Messaye (Matthew ’22, Hannah ’23) moderated a conversation between Ward and community members. Ward said that despite their age, students should not feel restricted from pursuing their passions.

“I feel like I ran from [writing] for a long time,” Ward said. “One thing that I would want students to take away from my background and from my story is that it’s never too late for you to commit to doing something you love and to find that thing, or multiple things, that gives your life purpose.”

Ward gave a reading of “Salvage the Bones” before an interview with BLACC and ASiA members

During the following webinar, former and current Black Leadership and Culture Club (BLACC) leaders Sirus Wheaton ’19, Makeda Neavill ’21, Cameron Herring ’21 and Asian Students in Action (ASiA) member Neha Tummala ’23 interviewed Ward after she read an excerpt from her novel, “Salvage the Bones,” which is part of the sophomore English II curriculum. Ward said she has to be cautious in order not to confirm racial stereotypes while writing about underprivileged Black communities.

“Not only is it important to assert that trauma happens, but it is also important to assert that we thrive, and we live in spite of it,” Ward said. “I want to give the people that I’m writing about the chance to be complicated and as authentic and fully human as they could.”

Ward said the rejections she faced early in her career caused her to doubt whether her stories would resonate with people, but she learned from experience to keep putting herself in positions to be heard.

“You can face hundreds of rejections—thousands of rejections—in [creative] fields,” Ward said. “You only need one door to open for you, and that one door can lead you to another door further down the road.”

Students felt the event allowed them to enjoy Ward’s books more

Ava-Marie Lange ’23, who is reading “Salvage the Bones” in her English class, said Ward’s visit helped her understand the connection between the author and Esch, the protagonist of the novel.

“I knew that this book was very personal to Ward, but after that meet-and-greet, I saw just how personal this story was to her,” Lange said. “It showed that there [were many purposes] behind her view of Esch and the experience of the hurricane.”

BLACC co-leader Ash Wright ’22 said she was inspired by Ward’s mode of writing stories and her ability to persevere through adversity.

“I really enjoyed listening to Ward speak about her process in creating all her stories and how she felt like she was almost a vessel for these already-existing characters, just writing out what they would say or do themselves,” Wright said.