On February 29, 2020, Jesmyn Ward visited Amherst College to headline LitFest and host a masterclass with students. The below interview is adapted from her public conversation with The Common’s Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker.
[JA]: I think what comes through so clearly in that passage are all of the details of that property and all the norms of the community. So I want you to just tell us a little bit more about this place you’ve created, Bois Sauvage. Tell us what this place is like, and why it’s a fictional place, because it is very much inspired by your home.
[JW]: When I came up with the idea of creating a fictional town that’s based on my hometown, one of the reasons I wanted to do so was because I felt like the place where I’m from is so small that it would be harder to write about if I didn’t transform it. Sometimes I feel like the Bois Sauvage that I write about is this idealized version of my hometown, and not my hometown. Even though Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in 2016-2017, I feel like Bois Sauvage is the idealized version of DeLisle, my hometown, from maybe in the 1980s when I was a child, when it was even more rural than it is now. Both DeLisle and Bois Sauvage are small rural places where community is very important, where families have been living for generations, because everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s history. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate or explore in Bois Sauvage is this idea of community and what community looks like in a place like that, and how a community can help its people survive in very specific, particular ways. I think I am also trying to convey the beauty of that area and that region.
Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner
Sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie. She’s at the front door, paper grocery bags obscuring her, hitching the screen and kicking it open, and then edging through the door. Kayla scoots toward me when the door bangs shut; she snatches up her juice cup and sucks before kneading my ear. The little pinch and roll of her fingers almost hurts, but it’s her habit, so I swing her up in my arms and let her knead. Mam says she does it for comfort because she never breast-fed. PoorKayla, Mam sighed every time. Leonie hated when Mam and Pop began calling her Kayla like me. She has a name, Leonie said, and it’s her daddy’s. She look like a Kayla, Mam said, but Leonie never called her that.
Mark your calendars! For the fifth year, The Common is preparing for LitFest, a weekend of events to recognize and celebrate contemporary literature. In conjunction with the National Book Awards and Amherst College, The Common will celebrate extraordinary voices such as Jesmyn Ward, Susan Choi, Laila Lalami, and Ben Rhodes.
LitFest will be held on the campus of Amherst College from February 27th through March 1st. For more details, visit the LitFest website. But first, read on for recommendations from the participating authors.
Recommendations: Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward; Trust Exercise by Susan Choi; Battle Dress by Karen Skolfield, and The World as It Is by Ben Rhodes.