December 5, 2024 | 6:00 p.m.
Wait Chapel

Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward

MacArthur Fellow, National Book Award Winner, Novelist, Memoirist

This event is held in partnership with Wake Forest University’s Leadership and Character Program. This is event is free and open to the public.

Face to Face Speaker Forum Keynote Society members and Season subscribers will receive guaranteed front of house seats.


MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient and two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward has been hailed as the standout writer of her generation, proving her “fearless and toughly lyrical” voice in novels, memoir, and nonfiction. Betsy Burton of the American Booksellers Association has called her “the new Toni Morrison.” In 2017, she became the first woman and the first person of color to win two National Book Awards for Fiction—joining the ranks of William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth, and John Updike.

Jesmyn Ward’s first historical novel, the instant New York Times best seller Let Us Descend, tells the astonishing story of Annis, an enslaved teenage girl who is sold by her white father after being separated from her mother. Let Us Descend incorporates elements of Dante’s Inferno, magical realism, and slave narratives. It is a book about grief, resilience, imagination, and kinship, and stitches the Black American experience into the very land, exploring what lies beyond this world: in our lived experiences and after our deaths. The book was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and a finalist for the Carnegie Medal for Fiction.

Ward’s stories are largely set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where she grew up and still lives. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, Ward was forced to evacuate her rapidly flooding home. Her writing is deeply informed by the trauma of Katrina, not to mention its unimaginable social and economic repercussions. Her novel Salvage the Bones, winner of the 2011 National Book Award, is a troubling but ultimately empowering tale of familial bonds set amid the chaos of the hurricane. Likewise, Ward’s debut novel, Where the Line Bleeds, depicts what Publishers Weekly calls “a world full of despair but not devoid of hope” in the aftermath of natural disaster.

A singular Southern odyssey that strikes at the heart of life in the rural South, Sing, Unburied, Sing, earned Jesmyn Ward a second National Book Award in 2017. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a road novel through Mississippi’s past and present that explores the bonds of a family tested by racism and poverty. Margaret Atwood called it a “wrenching new novel…[that] digs deep into the not-buried heart of the American nightmare. A must!” Sing was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times and TimeThe Washington Post and Publisher’s Weekly also called Sing one of the year’s best books, and the novel nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, delves into the five years of Ward’s life in which she lost five young men—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that follows poor people and people of color. Lauded by Kirkus Reviews as a “modern rejoinder to Black Like Me [and] Beloved,” Men We Reaped is a beautiful and painful homage to Ward’s ghosts and the haunted yet hopeful place she calls home. Men We Reaped won the Heartland Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

She is the also the editor of the critically acclaimed anthology The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which NPR named one of the Best Books of 2016. Taking James Baldwin’s 1963 examination of race in America, The Fire Next Time, as a jumping-off point, this groundbreaking collection features essays and poems about race from the most important voices of our time—including Edwidge Danticat, Natasha Trethewey, Isabel Wilkerson, Mitchell S. Jackson, Kiese Laymon, and Claudia Rankine.

In her talks, Ward shares her writing process and how her experiences growing up poor and Black in the South continue to influence her work. Ward’s book, Navigate Your Stars, is an adaptation of her 2018 Tulane University Commencement speech that champions the value of hard work and the importance of respect for oneself and others. As she said in her acceptance speech at the 2011 National Book Awards, “I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the Black and the rural people of the South, 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.”

Ward is a professor at Tulane University in New Orleans where she teaches creative writing. In 2016, she won the Strauss Living award, given every five years by the American Academy of Arts & Letters for literary excellence. In 2017, she was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant for her work “exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African-Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential.” In 2018, she was recognized among Time‘s 100 Most Influential People, and she is the winner of the 2022 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

Ward received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood Awards for her fiction, essays, and drama. She held a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and served as the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. A contributing editor for Vanity Fair, she is at work on two additional new books: a novel for adults set in New Orleans at the height of the American slave trade, and a young adult novel about a Black girl from the South with supernatural powers.

Learn more about our other speakers

Peyton ManningAnderson CooperDavid BrooksJohn Legend