Nov. 15, 2017
Author Jesmyn Ward became the first Black American to win the National Book Award twice.
Growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi, “I read everything,” she wrote. “Still, I still felt as if a part of me was wandering. That there was a figure in me, walking the desert, waiting for a word. A word that would sound out of the wilderness to declare that it was speaking to me, for me, within me. The sonic sear of that voice: a new knowing of not only the world I walked, but of me.”
She became the first person in her family to go to college. She attended Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in media studies.
When a drunken driver killed her younger brother, she decided to become a writer in his memory.
After earning a master’s in fine arts in creative writing from the University of Michigan, she and her family were caught by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, but managed to take shelter with a family.
She won her first National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones,” which was set during the days of Katrina.
“When I hear people talking about the fact that they think we live in a post-racial America,” she said, “it blows my mind, because I don’t know that place. I’ve never lived there.”
She won her second National Book Award for “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” becoming the first woman and first Black American to win two National Book Awards. She also won a MacArthur “genius” grant, one of a handful of Mississippians to receive the award. In 2022, she became the youngest person to ever receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.