An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.

Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).

“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”

For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.

“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”

Read (or listen) to the selections at the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative website.

Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women.

Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman”) writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a baffling fact considering the robust reading habits of black women.

Collectively, they took steps to remedy that omission. “Taken together, the works don’t just make up a novel canon,” Greenidge writes in the introduction. “They form a revealing mosaic of the black American experience during the time period.”

Anisfield-Wolf fiction winner Jesmyn Ward was one of the six panelists who selected the works, ranging from poetry to plays, nonfiction to short stories and novels. Alongside Ward was Malaika Adero, a former vice president and senior editor for Atria Books; Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Margo Jefferson and author of “Negroland;” Ayana Mathis, a professor and bestselling author of “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie;” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a sociologist and author of “Thick”; and Imani Perry, a professor of African American studies whose most recent book is “Breathe: A Letter to My Sons.”

The 100 works are divided into five sections, spanning 160 years of literature: “A Fight For Our Humanity” (1859-1900), “A Rebirth of the Arts” (1924-1953), “Civil Rights & Black Power” (1959-1975), and “The Strength of Self Worth” (1976-1999) and “A Radical Future” (2000-2010).

Browse the list and you’ll find Anisfield-Wolf winners peppered throughout: Toni Morrison appears four times (“Sula,” “Song of Solomon,” “Beloved,” and “A Mercy”) and Rita Dove gets a nod for 1986’s “Thomas and Beulah.” Sonia Sanchez, our 2019 lifetime achievement winner, is recognized twice for her 1970s poetry collections: “We a BaddDDD People” and “I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems.”

As ZORA senior editor Morgan Jerkins debuted the list on Twitter, she noted: “For those academics who are scratching their heads over how to make their syllabi more diverse, here you go. You have 100 books to choose from and they were chosen from the best of the best.”

And to cap the birthday off, Amistad Press is giving away free electronic copies of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Visit www.CelebratingZora.com for downloading instructions.

Look closely at the multicolored mural in the old Irishtown Bend in Cleveland and you’ll spot a small teal “JW” in the lower interior of an archway.
Author Jesmyn Ward initialed the mural inspired by her Anisfield-Wolf award-winning book, Sing Unburied Sing, during her second trip to Cleveland this year, thanks to a suggestion from the Cleveland Foundation’s Alan Ashby. She got an intimate tour by the artists themselves, Danielle Rini Uva and Katie Parland from Agnes Studio, who completed the mural one month prior for Phase II of the Inter|Urban public art project.
“We were basically tasked with doing four murals – two pillars split by a road,” Uva said. “We liked the idea of having two pillars in conversation with each other, but they would never touch. There’s a lot [in Sing, Unburied, Sing] about ghosts and remembering the past. About parallel lives that never can connect in real ways.”
The trio journeyed to the installation a few hours before Ward took the stage at Case Western Reserve University to participate in its Writers Center Stage series. From first glance, Uva said, Ward was eager to soak it in.

“When we met with Jesmyn, she said so many people interpreted [Sing] in different ways and she never really got the same questions when asked about it,” Parland said. “The way we interpreted it was fresh and surprising for her.”
While Uva and Parland typically work on digital and print graphic design concepts, the task of creating an expansive mural, covering two full pillars under the RTA Red Line, was a new challenge.
“It wasn’t a basic mural – just a rectangle on the side of a building,” Uva said. “The physical feat of doing it pushed us in a way that we ultimately are pleased with.”
Their design came together over a few months — they decided to select six different colors for each of the six different arches, each representing one of the main living characters of Sing. The black interior archways mimic the spirit world, giving a home to the two ghosts that appear in the book.
“We’re hoping people will experience it multiple ways,” Uva said. “There are people who just will drive by and say, ‘This is colorful,’ and then there will be people who will walk or bike through the arches and experience it on a more intimate level. There are some surprises and discoveries throughout the whole piece.”

Photo © Bob Perkoski

Ward pronounced herself pleased by one of those surprises – a sentence Agnes Studio plucked from the book and memorialized in the mural. Pay a visit to read it there yourself.

 

When Jesmyn Ward took the stage with Ayana Mathis, each novelist glanced around the warm, lush Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland and toward the hundreds of faces turned in their direction.

“Here we are,” said Mathis, “two black women on a stage, two writers able to talk with each other; it’s really a beautiful thing.”

Bathed in applause, Mathis acknowledged that this wasn’t their first public duet. When contacted about staging a conversation, Ward, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, requested Mathis, whose debut novel, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” garnered an Oprah Book Club selection in 2012.

Seated comfortably, each in boots and black trousers, the pair gave an intimate master class in the craft of fiction, part of the Skirball Writer’s Center Stage series produced by the Cuyahoga County Public Library.

Mathis, 45, began directly, opening her black Moleskine notebook to a page of jotted questions. She asked Ward about place and the centrality of Mississippi to her fiction.

“Place determines everything about character,” Ward said,” how people see themselves, see their place in the world. . . When I talk about place I’m talking about the history of the place.”

Ward, 41, a Southern writer who made a deliberate decision to return home to the Gulf Coast to live and work, said it was important for her to learn that wealth was once so concentrated in Mississippi that half of all U.S. millionaires lived in Natchez County in 1850.

“It deepens my understanding of how invested slave owners and white plantation owners were in the institution of slavery,” she said.

“It was foundational history,” said Mathis, who grew up in Philadelphia.

“Foundational, exactly,” Ward replied. “It allowed them to build what they saw as an idealized version of society for themselves. I feel that, that past, and it allowed me to make my characters richer.”

Mathis, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., observed that Americans have a contentious relationship with poor people. Ward responded, “I grew up poor, my family has been poor, both sides. All those generations in southern Mississippi have lived in poverty.”

“I’m reacting in some ways to the negative, preconceived notions people have about poor people: they are spoken about but never spoken to,” Ward said. “One reason I am so attracted to writing first-person point-of-view is because then the characters speak for themselves.”

“Hmm, hmm, hmm,” affirmed Mathis, whose own fiction focuses on characters who otherwise might go unremarked. She brought up William Faulkner, who, like Ward, created a fictional rural Mississippi county populated with poor folk.

Ward said that she revisits “As I Lay Dying” and “Absalom, Absalom!,” soaking up Faulkner’s lyricism.

“But I don’t think he serves his black characters well,” she said. “They are not given the rich interior lives, and I am very aware of that. He doesn’t allow them the same humanity and complicated quality that Faulkner’s white characters possess. I am always thinking about my characters — I feel them, feel for them, and I feel conscious of the ways black characters are short-changed in his work. I don’t know if readers who aren’t writers notice this.”

Both women spoke about their aversion to outlining fiction; how they find the characters they create surprising them, chuckling about its almost mystical coloring. “The process of writing the rough draft is very intuitive,” Ward said. “It’s as if the character is next to me telling me things. .  . I feel real sympathy for children made to bear adult burdens. I tell stories about them because I am very interested in how they survive, how they are marked.”

Ward has said once she discovered how to enter “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” with Pop and JoJo slaughtering the goat for the boy’s 13th birthday, the writing flowed. Her next novel is set in New Orleans – her first venturing outside Mississippi – in the late 1830s, early 1840s during the domestic slave trade.  She said she has its beginning in hand.

Both Mathis and Ward tell stories of family and young people, for whom sympathy is easily extended.  Ward said she had to pause in writing “Sing” one-third of the way in because of her hostility to Leonie’s failings as a mother. Ward realized that she needed to pause to better understand the wellspring of Leonie’s pain, and made it concrete in the death of Leonie’s brother.

“There were times when I still disliked her,” Ward admitted, “but I love her. Leonie’s great character flaw is she can’t sit with her loss, can’t sit with her grief. So she lashes out, uses substances.”

Mathis observed dryly that readers judge mothers harshly; “fathers are allowed to go out more.” She then asked Ward if she saw her writing in the Southern Gothic tradition.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” started as a road story, Ward said, but once she began researching Parchman Farms, the Mississippi state penitentiary, she realized she needed to make the boy inmate Richie a ghost. “He had to have some of the power he’d been denied in life,” she said of this character’s agency, “so ok then, we’re going to have to make a ghost story work.”

As far as genre, Ward said, “There is so much suffering. Part of what Southern writers are struggling against is the past, our obsession over the past. History has its weight on what we see. Southern  Gothic might be writers trying to wrestle with the veneer of gentility, over the crime of slavery,” she said, “what made southern life possible started with the genocide of indigenous people, the crime that enabled that civilization to flourish.”

Each book, Ward said, teaches her how to write it:  “Writing ‘Sing’ made me feel like I had taken a seat at the table and now I am loathe to let it go.”

The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf honoree, made the announcement. The 2018 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are:

  • Shane McCrae, In the Language of My Captor, Poetry
  • N. Scott Momaday, Lifetime Achievement
  • Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Fiction
  • Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, Nonfiction

“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners deepen our insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., who chairs
the jury. “This year, we honor a lyrical novel haunted by a Mississippi prison farm, a book of exceptional poetry on
what freedom means in captivity, and a breakthrough history of the hoax that speaks to this political moment. All is
capped by the lifetime achievement of N. Scott Momaday, the dean of Native American letters.”

We invite you to join us September 27 as we honor these winners at the State Theatre in Cleveland, in a ceremony emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of the third annual Cleveland Book Week, slated for September 24-29. Join our mailing list to be the first to know when the free tickets are available.

Shane McCrae 

Shane McCrae interrogates history and perspective with his fifth book, In the Language of My Captor, including
the connections between racism and love. He uses historical persona poems and prose memoir to address the
illusory freedom of both black and white Americans. “These voices worm their way inside your head; deceptively
simple language layers complexity upon complexity until we are shared in the same socialized racial webbing as
the African exhibited at the zoo or the Jim Crow universe that Banjo Yes learned to survive in (‘You can be free//Or
you can live’),” says Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove. Raised in Texas and California, McCrae taught at Oberlin College for three years before joining the faculty of Columbia University last year. He lives in Manhattan with his
family.

N. Scott Momaday 

N. Scott Momaday remade American literature in 1966 with his first novel, House Made of Dawn. It tells the story
of a modern soldier trying to resume his life in Indian Country. The slim book won a Pulitzer Prize, but Momaday
prefers writing poetry, the form his work most often takes. Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Gates says Momaday “is at
root a storyteller who both preserves and expands Native American culture in his critically praised, transformative
writing.” He is also a watercolorist, playwright, scholar, professor and essayist. Momaday was born a Kiowa in
Oklahoma and grew up in the Indian southwest. He earned a doctorate at Stanford University, joined its faculty,
and taught American literature widely, including in Moscow. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded
Momaday a National Medal of Arts. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward is the only woman in American letters to receive two National Book Awards, one for her first novel,
Salvage the Bones, and another last year for Sing, Unburied, Sing. Both are set in fictional Bois Sauvage, a place
rooted in the rural Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Critics have compared Bois Sauvage to William Faulkner’s fictional
Yoknapatawpha County and Ward’s prose to Toni Morrison’s. Sing, Unburied, Sing serves as a road book, a ghost
story and a tale of sibling love. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates called it “a beautifully rendered,
heartbreaking, savage and tender novel.” Ward, who won a MacArthur “genius grant” last fall, lives with her family
in Pas Christian, Miss. She is a professor at Tulane University.

Kevin Young

Kevin Young is a public intellectual, the editor of eight books and the author of 13, including Bunk: The Rise of
Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. He spent six years researching and writing
this cultural history of the covert American love of the con, and its entanglement with racial history. After 12 years
teaching at Emory University, Young became the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,
and the poetry editor for The New Yorker. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker calls Bunk “rich, informative,
interesting, original and above all timely,” and Juror Joyce Carol Oates says “it should be required reading in all
U.S. schools.”


Jesmyn Ward, whose fiction is drawing comparisons to William Faulkner’s, received a new honor this week: her 2017 novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” will kick off a new book discussion led by the New York Times and the PBS NewsHour. Called Now Read This, the organizers hope to become a go-to resource for reading groups across the country.

Ward, the only woman to win a National Book Award twice for fiction, continues to live in rural Mississippi, the source of her family life and much of her inspiration. Born in 1977, Ward attended Stanford University and had decided in 2008 to turn away from the writing life and, at her mother’s urging, enroll in nursing school when Agate Publishing picked up her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds.” It tells of two brothers on divergent paths and is set on the Gulf Coast. Ward followed this work with “Salvage the Bones,” arguably the best fiction to arise out of Hurricane Katrina. In 2014, Ward came to speak at the Cleveland Public Library, where she described her reading and writing and her strong identification with communities on the margins.

Last year, Ward received a no-strings $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. “I don’t shy away from tough topics,” she says on the foundation’s video, praising the Gulf, the bayous and the regional habits of storytelling.

The pages of Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” smell of Mississippi.

Set in the same fictional town, Bois Sauvage, as her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” her latest fiction returns to tell again of family bonds, tested by unresolved trauma and unrelenting Southern poverty. She undergirds the sense of place with a seven-line epigraph from Derek Walcott’s “The Gulf.”

At the heart of “Sing” is Jojo, a 13-year-old narrator focusing on his budding manhood. His role model? Pop, whose days are spent taking care of his cancer-stricken wife, Mam, Jojo’s toddler sister Kayla, and to a lesser extent, his daughter Leonie, Jojo’s mother.

Ward, a Mississippian and Tulane University professor, excels with a narrative that knits together three generations with precision. So much is in the details: early on, she establishes Leonie’s place in the family with Jojo’s decision to address his mother by her first name.

“Sometimes I think I understand everything else more than I’ll ever understand Leonie,” he says to himself as he watches his mother fumble on his birthday with a tiny baby shower cake and “the cheapest ice cream, the kind with a texture of cold gum.”

Both Jojo and Kayla are estranged from their father Michael, a white oil rig worker turned meth dealer, who’s finishing up a three-year bid at the state penitentiary. But when he’s released, Leonie insists that her two children and a family friend make the drive to bring him home. An unexpected visitor joins them on the journey, heightening a fraught trek.

The bond between Jojo and Kayla is the emotional core of the novel. Even Leonie knows she is on the outside looking in. When she spies them napping together, jealousy takes hold: “…a part of me wants to shake Jojo and Michaela awake, to lean down and yell so they startle and sit up so I don’t have to see the way they turn to each other like plants following the sun across the sky.”

Her efforts fluctuate in trying to be the mother she thinks her children deserve: one minute she’s hunting in the field for a homegrown remedy to ease her daughter’s sudden illness, the next she’s gone missing, with no clue to her whereabouts. Despite this, and despite her drug use, Leonie comes off as a sympathetic character. Her chapters are frustratingly good.

One compelling character, Leonie’s late brother Given, could have used more airtime. He appears in the book mostly as a ghost, haunting Leonie when she’s high. But he’s a dynamic figure, even from the afterlife, and Ward could have tucked in a bit more of his life before his untimely death.

Ward, 40, writes to tell the truth or, as she remarked to the National Book Award audience in 2011, “so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important as theirs.”

This month, she received two pieces of recognition for her storytelling: one, being named a finalist again for the National Book Award and two, a selection as a MacArthur Fellow, with its $625,000 no-strings-attached award. (She responded to the latter on Twitter with a Prince gif.)

Ward has a page-turner on her hands, a slow burn of a book that dives deep into the waters of the South, exploring race and class in the context of memory. Of everything that happens to us, what leaves a scar? What holds us hostage?

Those scars are on full display in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” and its colors are heartbreaking – and beautiful.

the-fire-this-time-9781501126345_hrThere are 108 tally marks on the cover of The Fire This Time, the new essay collection that brings forth 18 perspectives from a new generation of writers, working in the tradition of James Baldwin. Each mark represents a black life lost too soon, a visual representation of the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter.

In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, Jesmyn Ward went to Twitter to share her frustration, but found the platform too ephemeral. She was much more struck by the pertinence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ward, editor of this anthology, decided she wanted a book that “would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America.”

The results are mostly successful. The Fire Next Time contains a broad spectrum of essays that tackle everything from Phillis Wheatley’s mysterious marriage to Rachel Dolezal’s recent identity hoax, an engaging concoction of both the historical and contemporary. Eleven of the 18 pieces are original, with the rest published between 2014 and 2015.

The Fire This Time opens with Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” a 14-line poem that links the imagery of a brilliantly colorful meadow with the brutal deaths of John Crawford, Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Its early inclusion instructs us to get unsettled. (Brown won an Anisfield-Wolf book award last year for The New Testament.)

After a sturdy and moving introduction, the book falls into three parts – Legacy, Reckoning and Jubilee. In “Da Art of Storytellin’” Kiese Laymon’s fuses of his grandmother’s 30 years of hard work at a chicken processing plant with the Southern stank of Outkast’s Atlanta classics. Emily Raboteau criss-crossed four of New York’s boroughs to capture anti-police brutality murals in “Know Your Rights!” Isabel Wilkerson, who won a 2011 Anisfield-Wolf award for her Great Migration history, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” revisits 150 years of U.S. history in a slim three pages called “Where Do We Go from Here?” Her precise retelling comes with parting encouragement: “We must know deep in our bones and in our hearts that if the ancestors could survive the Middle Passage, we can survive anything.”  

Still, reading most of these essays feels heavy. The collective thesis is that Black life in America, like Claudia Rankine posits in her essay, is “the condition of mourning.” But as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote to his son, echoing the advice of generations before him: “That this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within all of it.”

Edwidge Danticat, who took home an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2005 for The Dew Breakers, closes the book with a powerful message to her two young daughters, born in the “Yes We Can” era of Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Danticat, born in Haiti and raised partly in New York, offers a view of refugee status — a position held both by immigrants and some U.S. citizens: “The message we always heard from those who were meant to protect us: that we should either die or go somewhere else.”

Still, Danticat fortifies her daughters against this, encouraging them to seek joy: “When that day of jubilee finally arrives, all of us will be there with you, walking, heads held high, crowns a-glitter, because we do have a right to be here.”

 

On a freezing, overcast March day, the writer Jesmyn Ward made her first foray to Cleveland.  She barely smiled as she stood behind a lectern in brown leather boots, red corduroy pants and a gray sweater set. Yet several in her audience at Cleveland Public Library murmured that the piercing, prepared remarks Ward read should be published immediately. Others were visibly moved and brimming with questions.

Ward, 36, who won a National Book Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” spent the morning with Cleveland students from Glenville High School and the afternoon exploring the question of who is allowed to speak: “We all feel inadequate when faced with a blank page, an empty canvas or a silent instrument.  We must battle self-doubt or negative introspection with every sentence, every punctuation mark.”

Growing up poor and black in rural Mississippi, Jesmyn wore hand-me-down clothes and ate meals stretched by food stamps. She envied classmates who could buy Scholastic books, even as she walked to the library, gravitating toward headstrong protagonists:  Mary in “My Secret Garden” and Cassie in “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and Claudia in “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.”

“Their environments were other worlds where I hid from the heat or my mother or my father or some other grown-up in my life,” Ward remembered.  When her father lost his job at the local glass factory, her family moved in with Ward’s maternal grandmother.  Fourteen people wedged into the house in coastal DeLisle, Mississippi—Jesmyn, her parents, two sisters and a brother; a cousin; her grandmother’s four sons and three daughters; plus the matriarch herself: “It was the first and only time I lived with so many people I loved.”

Ward’s fiction and her arresting 2013 memoir, “Men We Reaped,” beckons readers into this community. The title comes from Harriet Tubman: “We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was the dead men we reaped.”

The memoir centers on the October 2000 killing of Ward’s teenage brother Joshua by a drunk driver, and the violent, early deaths of four other young black men in their circle.  Now a professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama, Ward said she keeps returning to the site of her story — despite the poverty, racism and lingering damage from Hurricane Katrina, whose wrath Ward makes memorable in “Salvage the Bones.”

An active blogger and Twitter user, Ward identifies with communities on the margins. When a Cleveland reader – speaking for her book club — asked repeatedly if Ward was trying to foment social change, the author mildly eschewed the grandiose: “I hope that it changes the way readers think about people like me. If I can affect one reader, then by word-of-mouth, that makes a change over time.”

“The word ‘salvage’ is so close to ‘savage’,” Ward told her listeners. “It connotes resilience, fierceness and courage.”  She describes her novel’s pregnant, teenage narrator, Esch Batiste, brushing off the ants and standing up after the hurricane, as the only thing she could do. “This is savage – you make a future from it, you tell your story, you survive.”

Ward said that when Hurricane Katrina cornered her own family, she swam to escape alongside her pregnant sister. The Wards sheltered in a tractor in an open field during a Level Five hurricane, she said, while a white farm family refused to take them in.

The Cleveland audience listened intently. One man called Ward’s voice “a smooth, velvet instrument.” One woman compared her writing to that of Edwidge Danticat, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book award in 2005 for her novel “The Dew Breaker.”  (Ward allowed that she had loved Danticat’s work since the novel “Krik? Krak.” ) A professor from Kent State University said she had added Ward to her syllabus.

Ward stressed the necessity of discipline and craft; she said her characters Skeeter and China (a pit bull) came out of a writing exercise during her MFA years at the University of Michigan. Still, Ward said, “my mother sometimes thinks I should return to school and study nursing. She is suspicious of writing.” Ward said her first stabs were stilted attempts to write about cellos and lives she didn’t know.  “I was young and black and poor and a girl and I didn’t believe there was anything about my life worth exploring.”

She broke that barrier with a college entrance essay. It opened the door to Stanford.  Like all of Ward’s work, it said “We are here. This is what life is like for us. Hear us.”