Last night, the National Book Foundation finally announced the winners of the 2017 National Book Awards during their 68th National Book Awards Ceremony. I wasn’t able to watch the live stream because I was waiting for the start of Jay Z’s 4:44 concert at the Bridgestone Arena here in Nashville. But I was eager to know who the winner for fiction would be and was hoping it would be Jesmyn Ward.
I encountered Jesmyn Ward’s writing after I decided there needed to be a shift in my reading habits. I have been a fairly consistent reader for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized just how few African American authors I had read in recent years. Sure I had been introduced to Maya Angelou, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, and even August Wilson over the course of my high school and undergraduate literature studies. But it was rare for me to read something recent from an African American author. And, in some ways, these books were difficult to find.
I started by checking my local bookstore. I found very little on the shelves, so I did a quick online search just to see what African American authors had recently released books. I stumbled upon quite a few authors whose books were simply not in the bookstores. It was strange. I even had a difficult time finding podcasts or other book related programming discussing these authors. It was clear that in order to make sure I was reading more African American authors, I would need to do some real research in less traditional spaces.
I did, however, happen upon Jesmyn Ward in my local bookstore. I had heard of her before, but because my list of books to read is consistently long, I had never gotten around to reading her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones. Excited to find her work on the shelves, I bought it and almost immediately, I realized what I had been missing. I needed more stories about people who sounded like me, acted like me, struggled in similar ways as my own family, characters I could understand more intimately than those I had encountered for years in the pages of novels written by Caucasian writers.
Reading Salvage the Bones sent me on a search for all other writing by Jesmyn Ward and I have collected all but her edited volume The Fire This Time. So, when I heard she was releasing a new novel and would be doing a reading here in Nashville, I made sure to be present and ready to buy this newest work and add it to my reading list.
Meeting her was a thrill and her reading definitely made me excited to read this new book. But, as is often the case, life and time has made it a little more difficult to get to. So, this beautifully signed book is still sitting unread. But, have no fear, that will change very soon!
It really is only icing on the culturally specific reading cake to find out that Jesmyn Ward won the National Book Award for fiction again! In her acceptance speech she highlighted a critique she has often received when people encounter her work:
People will not read your work, because these are not universal stories.
It is this very ill-informed idea, that drives me to uncover those stories that are sometimes harder to find. It is also the reason I decided to blog about my reading and musical quests. Our understanding of humanity as a whole cannot be exclusive. In order to understand what it truly means to be human, it is important to encounter and embrace ideas, experiences and people who are different from us. And as we do so, we create spaces and opportunities for people to see themselves. So, I am grateful for Jesmyn Ward and other authors like her who do the work that is real to them. And it is my hope as I uncover new authors that I learn a little more about others and a lot more about myself.