Ward speaks at Hunter Lecture Series

Diana Levy, Staff Writer

The guest speaker for this year’s Hunter Chair in English Literature was award-winning Novelist Jesmyn Ward where she discussed her latest novel and her inspirations behind her writing.

Ward spoke on March 13 in the Chapman Auditorium at Francis Marion University (FMU).  Ward’s latest novel “Salvage the Bones,” is written based on her experiences while living on the Gulf Coast and her life during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This novel received the National Book Award in 2012.

Ward grew up in a small Mississippi town where she struggled through bullying, poverty and discrimination. Her mother had dreams of her becoming successful, but Ward had a different idea.

“[My mom] felt that I should aspire to study something more practical like medicine or law,” Ward said.

Ward said that her mother would have, had she been given the chance, go back in time and become an undertaker because “people are always gonna die.”

Ward continued writing and received a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from the University of Michigan. After she wrote her first novel, Ward was faced with difficulties in the publishing process.

“There was a time after I had written my first novel when no one would pick it up,” Ward said.

According to Ward, her agent kept sending her book out but it was rejected continuously. That is when Ward said she felt like she should quit.

From this experience, Ward said that she learned a valuable lesson once her first novel was published.

“You just need that one person to say yes,” Ward said. “500 people can tell you no, but if that one person sees value in what you are doing and appreciates it, then it doesn’t matter what the other people said.”

While writing her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” Ward used lessons she learned from her first novel to help develop her ideas.

“I realized I had to be more honest with the realities I was writing about,” Ward said.

The topics that come across in the book are what some may consider heavy or taboo subjects such as the act of dog fighting.

Ward said if she was going to represent a community similar to the one she is from, then she couldn’t “soften the narrative and fall in love with the characters.”

In “Salvage the Bones”, the characters experience the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, as did Ward in 2005.

“My family and I survived Hurricane Katrina, but we had to fight to do it,” Ward said.

She described her experience of being stranded in a field of tractors with her pregnant sister, after a family would not take them into their home because their house was full.

Associate Professor of English, Dr. Shawn Smolen-Morton said he noticed the way people viewed those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit, there was a lot of blaming the people for not evacuating,” Smolen-Morten said.

Smolen-Morten believes that Ward is “trying to change public opinion.”

Ward said if we could keep a longer interest in a problem and saw it in a long term sense, we could make a bigger difference.

“I wish that our attentions spans were more broadened,” Ward said. “We could create real change.”

Ward discussed how she feels journalism is perceived by others.

“I think we are taught to believe that journalism is a very objective thing, so it is interesting when you realize that it’s not,” Ward said.

Ward believes that in reality, journalism is subjective because it comes from someone’s point of view.

“I think that journalism and creative nonfiction have the power to educate people, to get them to sort of see outside of their lives and to care about other things outside of their lives,” Ward said.

Ward gave some advice to young writers who may not have access to many resources.

“Libraries are a great resource, because you want to be well read as a writer,” Ward said.

Ward also suggested that writers could show their work to friends if they are unable to get into programs that could further their writing.

“Use what you have and keep writing, “Ward said.