Jesmyn Ward’s Story of Rejection and Perseverance is Familiar to Black Writers

As she accepted her National Book Award, Ward raised questions about whose stories are allowed to be “universal”

Jesmyn Ward accepted her second National Book Award for fiction at last week’s ceremony. In her speech she laid bare that even at this stage in her career the dismissal of her work and its content continues. As Jesmyn spoke I heard and felt those same types of rejections, knowing without further explanation the wording used. It was both a relief and disappointment to know she heard this too.

Throughout my career when I’ve been rejected, there was sometimes subtext and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories. I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people, or because I wrote about Black people or because I wrote about Southerners.

The subtext of rejection, especially for marginalized writers, often translates to an inability to “reach the mainstream,” a lack of “connection.” The term “universal stories” gets thrown around as though it’s an easy method to master. As though “universal stories” truly means universal, when in fact it is its own code. Sometimes there’s no subtext at all, just clear confusion and disinterest. Art is subjective, yet subjectivity also comes with our own inherent bias stemming from our experiences.

Writers like myself have and will continue to decipher these types of messages. As artists we already contend with self-consciousness about our work, be it voice, execution, structure, characterizations, or something else. Pitching and querying means constantly putting your writing into the world hopeful for understanding or in anticipation of dismissal. Sometimes those rejections don’t see the work for what it is, but solely for what it isn’t; your work is being judged from a viewpoint that may not truly understand your existence, no matter how much you try to describe it.

As my career progressed and as I got some affirmations I still encountered that mindset every now and again. I still find myself having uncomfortable conversations with reluctant readers who initially didn’t want to read my work because they said, what do I have in common with a pregnant 15-year-old? They said, why should I read about a 13-year-old poor Black boy or his neglectful, drug addicted mother? What do they have to say to me?

I write application after application about my essay collection that explores my working class family’s migration from the South to New York City: a request for time at a residency, a plea for grants, submissions to workshops and applications for scholarships to said workshops. When I sit down to the blank page, ready to answer the questions posed as to “why” — Why this story? Why this time? Essentially, why should we care? — I also have my own. Will anyone actually care about the offspring of sharecroppers leaving an all-Black town? Will they care that my grandparents’ story isn’t one tinged with the drama of a runaway slave narrative, but filled with the personal fear of leaving what you know along with the hope that there is better than here? Will anyone want to read how the definition of working class changes, a line moved in the sand affecting some demographics more harshly than others? Quite frankly, will anyone want to read about the Black people I’m describing because they’re close to my heart, because they are incarnations of those I’ve met, known, and am? What will a panel of my supposed peers recognize in my words? What if my family and I don’t speak to them on a level they care to understand?

What will a panel of my supposed peers recognize in my words? What if my family and I don’t speak to them on a level they care to understand?

There’s a scene in Lean on Me where Robert Guillaume’s character vibrates with rage as he yells at Morgan Freeman. “You will Step-in Fetchit!” he cries, meaning Morgan must perform for those in power. He will submit to their desires and shake off his hardened veneer. What he wants and who he is is unimportant because Stepin Fetchit is the amalgamation of negative Black stereotypes, the representative for the Black person others feel comfortable watching not the one who exudes the depth of who we are.

And you, my fellow writers and editors and publishing people and National Book Foundation folks who read my work, you answered: plenty. You looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my Black, my Southern children, women, and men and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope.

The day after the National Book Awards, Zadie Smith was honored with the Langston Hughes medal. She spoke on Black writers, being a Black writer, and the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on her as a Black British woman. Zadie said she wouldn’t be speaking to us today as a writer if it weren’t for Zora Neale Hurston. How many writers have said they wouldn’t be here if not for Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and, of course, Jesmyn Ward? How many of us recognized our own reflections in their work, their characters, their worlds and words, to the point we aimed to not only emulate theirs but create our own? I understood their existence meant that there’s a viable place to sell and see our stories. Black stories. Poor stories. Northern/Southern stories. That our voices could be in the printed page, on a shelf, available for reference and purchase. We, like others, saw ourselves in these stories and maybe even pushed ourselves to be better than we were before. And I can and have imagined the amount of subtext they read before finding the home and audience and understanding their work needed.

When ‘Good Writing’ Means ‘White Writing’

“Universal stories” takes on a different meaning when you see yourself in the work so thoroughly — despite the skin color, despite the gender (or non-gender) affiliation, despite locale and a host of other things. In Salvage the Bones I found myself rooting so hard for the family dog China that I almost missed my subway stop. That’s universal. My grandmother leaving a small town to meet her high school sweetheart in a metropolis is not necessarily a “universal story,” yet the yearning for upward mobility, and change, the need to come into your own is that connective thread that makes her a person I see in myself, not only due to DNA, but through a need for independence. These are the aims of writers like myself, writers like Jesmyn, to hold that mirror up for us all to recognize a bit of ourselves.

And I am deeply grateful to each and every one of you who reads my work and finds something that sings to you, that moves you. I hope to continue this conversation with you for all of our days.

On stage Jesmyn stood regal in a fuchsia gown that sparkled with or without the overhead lights. Her speech culminated with the gratitude of being seen, of giving voice and affirmation to those she knew, from the land she’s from, of the stories she continually sought to tell. Sitting near the stage in my own gown, I remembered what sang to me in Sing, Unburied, Sing. The mother not ready to be a mother. A boy forced to be an adult before he’d even reached adolescence. The plausibility and — here’s that word again — universality of knowing children don’t always get the luxury of innocence, nor do we have the opportunity to truly understand those who raised us.

I, and many other writers, may never end up on that same stage. We may never get that opportunity for redemption to know our stories were not only successful but eagerly sought out, that our connections were fluid and recognized in ways we couldn’t imagine. Consider how many writers have already gone off the path and quit due to subtext. The subtext doesn’t stop everyone, but can before we even try. But there are those of us who’ll keep the conversation going, write those stories anyway, even with the laundry list of questions in our own head wondering if anyone else will care. And maybe, hopefully, I’ll think back on this speech to know that I’m not alone in this, and that these journeys have a place in the world whether or not it’s on a stage.

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