Literary Speaking: Loud and Clear: Two South Mississippians Exhorting Power With Pen
In this day and age where there has come a revived strongest need for Black Expression since the Civil Rights Movement and the 1970s, two African American South Mississippi-born artists have blasted into the literary scene and are on a roll, both having won prestigious national accommodations for their works over the past several months.
Not to mention, they have also turned their own personal tragedies into triumph.
JESMYN WARD won her second National Book Award for fiction last September for “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a dark, fablelike family epic set in contemporary Mississippi that grapples with race, poverty and the psychic scars of past violence.
Critics have compared the novel to works by acclaimed author Toni Morrison. The book’s story about Jojo, a 13-year old boy dealing with his thoughts as he, his drug-addicted mother and his sister travel to meet Jojo’s white father when he is released from prison, was described by the National Book Award judges as “a narrative so beautifully taut and heartbreakingly eloquent that it stops the breath.”
Ward acquired her second National Book Award six years after she took home the top prize for “Salvage the Bones, a fictional story about a family’s traumatic journey of surviving Hurricane Katrina, set at Ward’s hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi and inspired by her own personal experience in 2005.
Ward’s autobiography, “Men We Reaped,” gives riveting accounts of her life that involved losing several relatives and friends to drugs, car accidents, and violence.
In her acceptance speech, Ward noted that even today, it’s still a challenge for a cross-section of readers to look at the plights of the Black Southerners and relate to the story as their own.
“They said, ‘Why should I read about a 13-year-old poor black boy or his neglectful, drug-addicted mother?’” she said.
Ward, 41, also received a grant from the MacArthur Foundation in 2017. She is now an associate professor of English at Tulane University.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY has also reached levels of national and international prominence, primarily as a poet, but also as a writer and teacher.
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1966, Trethewey’s poetry draws her own memories as well as a researcher of other experiences centered primarily on her being the daughter of an African-American mother and a white father. Since her parents were married at a time in the South when interracial marriages were illegal, she freely incorporates racial injustice into her thoughts.
Trethewey received the 22nd Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities category in October 2017 (complete with a $250,000 cash award), presented by the Heinz Family Foundation.
Tretheway’s structural poetic style combines free verse with traditional forms like the sonnet and the villanelle.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007 for “Native Guard: Poems,” Tretheway served as the Poet Laureate for both Mississippi and the United States in 2012. She served her second term as the United States Poet Laureate in 2014.
Prior to joining the faculty of Northwestern, Trethewey taught as the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she also directed the Creative Writing Program.
Trethewey gained national attention with her first collection of poetry, “Domestic Work,” which won the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for exceptional work by an African-American poet. The poems were inspired by her grandmother, whose multi-faceted life involved being a housekeeper beginning 1937, then an elevator operator, beautician, factory worker and seamstress.
Trethewey’s third volume of work was the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Native Guard: Poems,” which connected her personal family history with the forgotten history of the Louisiana Native Guards, a black Civil War regiment that won a key battle of the Gulf Coast.
Trethewey’s memoir is entitled “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” She now teaches in Northwester’s Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program, a new joint Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and Master of Arts in English degree program.