Jesmyn Ward: Hold Fast to Your Oars

Jesmyn Ward

“I grew up in a poor, rural mostly black community in Mississippi,” Jesmyn Ward began her talk before the 10,000 women at the 2019 Pennsylvania Conference for Women. She was a child of cleaning women, bootleggers, factory workers and landscapers.

Growing up, she thought the people around her lived the lives they did because of one colossal mistake: They did not choose a life of education. She did not yet know, she said, how history and cultural legacies had narrowed their choices. She didn’t understand that writing a different life for herself would also involve luck.

But her mother, who scrubbed floors for a living, told her nearly every day of her entire life: You will go to college. The subtext, said Ward, was: You will be free of this drudgery. You will be free.

She made her way to Stanford University. But after graduating, she didn’t know what to do for a living. So, she returned home, where six months later, her brother was killed by a hit-and-run driver. She moved in a fog of grief, she recalled, and got a job in a mall.

Later, at the urging of friends, she moved to New York City and began to do the work of becoming a writer.

“I took a step,” she said. She read widely, and she wrote bad poems, and she read more. “I made a choice. I took another step,” she continued, adding that she attended an MFA program. She also came to realize that becoming a writer would require her to work hard, face rejection and keep working hard until one day, she hoped, she could hold in her hands a book that she had written.

“I realized that education wasn’t one choice. Instead, it was a lifetime’s understanding. As an adult, I realized that finding the life I wanted would mean constant study and risk-taking and no easy paths to success.

She decided, importantly, that whatever response she received from others, she would uphold her end of the bargain. She would read, write and revise. She would choose learning again and again. She would submit her work again and again, and face rejection again and again. She would persist.

The lesson that came from this experience: “Success is not the result of taking one good choice, or one step. Real success requires step after step. It requires choice after choice. It demands lifelong education and passion and commitment and persistence and hunger and patience,” said Ward.

Finally, she concluded: “Be patient with yourself. Work hard. Hold firm. Take a step that would lead you to the realization of your dream. Hold fast to your oars.”


The Brilliance of Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward has the truly extraordinary distinction of being the first woman and the first person of color to win two National Book Awards for fiction. This is an accomplishment that puts this first woman in her family to attend college in the company of the greatest American writers ever.

But Jesmyn Ward, who is also a 2017 MacArthur Genius award winner, is giving voice to a different kind of experience than those who came before her: one that is profoundly important and deeply relevant for our times.

Salvage the Bones, the first of her books to win a National Book Award, explores the plight of a working-class African-American family in Mississippi as they prepare for

Hurricane Katrina and follows them through the aftermath of the storm.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, the second to win that award, has been described as a fable-like family epic that grapples with race, poverty and the psychic scars of past violence.

At an award ceremony, Jesmyn said: “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.”

The judges described her writing as “so beautifully taut and heartbreakingly eloquent that it stops the breath.”


Read more keynote recaps from the 2019 Conference