Author Jesmyn Ward experienced a period of writer’s block after the loss of her partner.
Esmyn Ward is currently in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, where she grew up and has based much of her literary works. While two of her children are attending school, her youngest is at home under the care of her new partner, with whom she shares parenting duties. During our Zoom conversation, the 46-year-old author expresses how both her personal and professional life have been greatly affected by recent events. Three and a half years ago, her partner and father of her two eldest children, Brandon Miller, passed away unexpectedly from acute respiratory distress syndrome. At that time, Ward was already three chapters into writing her fourth novel, Let Us Descend, but was unable to continue. It took her six months to return to writing, as she questioned whether she had written all the books she was meant to write.
It was always going to be challenging to write amidst this overwhelming grief, but Let Us Descend proved to be completely unsuitable for bringing her back to work. She explains, “I was so consumed by sorrow and shock, I had no motivation. I didn’t want to immerse myself in that world.” Grief had already played a significant role in Ward’s life – her 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, details the loss of her brother and four other men who were close to her. Her novels explore the shared grief of living in a region devastated by natural disasters and the ongoing effects of centuries of racist violence and neglect. Despite her lighthearted demeanor – quick to laugh and leaning eagerly in her chair – it seems to be a deliberate and practical choice for Ward. As she suggests, when you have young children, your partner suddenly passes away, and you are deeply involved in a novel about the horrors of American slavery, what else can you do?
The novel Let Us Descend was not a story that Ward was initially eager to write. The inspiration for the book came about during a car ride from DeLisle to her job as a teacher at Tulane University in New Orleans in 2015. While listening to a segment on local public radio about the city’s history of slavery, Ward, who was familiar with New Orleans due to spending time there during her adolescence, was shocked to learn about the city’s significant role in the domestic slave trade. Despite there being numerous slave pens in the city, there were only two markers indicating their existence, and one of them was not even in the correct location. Ward was taken aback by this information as she had no prior knowledge of New Orleans being a hub for the slave trade in the early 1800s, and how thousands of enslaved individuals were bought and sold to plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana.
As she delved deeper into the topic, she realized how much she didn’t know. She had no understanding of chattel slavery in America, including how plantations operated, the existence of slave pens, and the reason why so many enslaved individuals were brought to New Orleans. She learned that this influx was due to the failure of agriculture in the upper South, where crops like tobacco and rice were not as profitable as sugar and cotton. She was shocked by her lack of knowledge and felt ridiculous for not knowing these crucial facts. One of the biggest revelations for her was discovering the history of resistance among enslaved people. Ward acknowledged that this was not simply an oversight on her part, but a deliberate erasure of these stories from her upbringing. The fact that these people, who had endured unimaginable suffering, were not acknowledged in the landscape deeply troubled her.
After extensive background research, a new novel has emerged, telling the story of Annis, a teenage girl who is taken from a plantation in the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans. As with all of Ward’s works, the writing is both poetic and precise. Annis experiences the loss of her mother to the slave market, her lover to escape, and all those she holds dear to uncertain fates. Ward beautifully captures Annis’ feelings of longing for her mother, comparing it to a suffocating fishing net. The title of the novel comes from a line in Dante’s Inferno, emphasizing the theme of entering an unknown world. The book delves into the pain of not knowing, as Annis and those around her must create their own reality in a world where they are enslaved. Despite the challenges, Annis holds onto her strength, remembering her mother’s words that she is her own weapon and capable of finding a way out.
In her previous works, particularly Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing, author Ward explores the experiences of characters living in challenging circumstances, such as a family coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and individuals facing the harsh realities of Parchman prison in Mississippi. Despite their limited physical freedom, Ward’s characters still possess agency to some extent. However, in writing Let Us Descend, Ward struggled with the challenge of portraying a character who has been stripped of almost all physical control. She explains, “It was difficult for me to tap into Annis’ perspective. How do you depict someone who is confined and unable to move or act?”
Ward was concerned about the potential reception of a novel centered on this subject. She reflected on the audience and the resistance commonly found in Black America towards narratives about slavery and the portrayal of an enslaved person’s life through art. After author Colson Whitehead published The Underground Railroad, Ward questioned if there was space for her own novel. She feared that there may be fatigue towards these types of stories. However, a conversation with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates provided her with encouragement. Coates reminded her that there were millions of people who were enslaved and therefore, countless stories to be told. While the common element was their enslavement, each individual had unique desires, dreams, and griefs. This simple reminder was what Ward needed to hear.
She continuously wrote and revised the initial chapters; as she describes it, “unsuccessful attempts after unsuccessful attempts”. Then in January 2020, Miller began to feel unwell and visited a clinic for blood tests. “Nothing during that visit suggested that he would pass away two days later.” While Miller was hospitalized for more tests, Ward went back home to their children without any worries. “So when I received a call from one of his aunts saying ‘You need to return to the hospital, he may not survive’, I was completely baffled.”
It still makes no sense. Twenty years earlier, Ward’s 19-year-old brother had been killed by a drunk driver. She had lost countless friends to murder or drug addiction, and wrote brilliantly about them in Men We Reaped. But Miller’s death threw her into a different kind of grief, deepened by the fear of what it meant for her children. “How do I raise them in a world in which they’ve lost their father? I feel like I haven’t figured out the answer to that, and I’ll be figuring out the answer for the rest of my life.”
She didn’t want to work, especially after losing her partner. It was difficult for her to connect with the characters and she questioned if this was the end because she wasn’t working or writing the book. However, she heard an internal voice, which she describes as an intuitive voice that has appeared in her life before. The voice reassured her and reminded her that this is not what her partner would want – for her grief to silence her. He loved her and she couldn’t give up. So, she returned to working on the novel.
Life has changed in ways that align with the country’s experiences: Covid-19 emerged two months after Miller’s passing and, according to Ward, it surprises her how little we have discussed the aftermath of the pandemic. “More than a million lives were lost. Countless others have lost loved ones and are struggling with grief and sorrow. And yet, we remain silent. It’s surreal and frustrating. Some days, I don’t even know what to say or think about it. Because when you consider the number of deaths, you also have to think about the ripple effect on their families, chosen families, and friendships.” She looks shocked. “That’s millions of people.”
During the initial stage of grief, Ward describes it as a time of intense reconstruction. After experiencing the passing of her brother and then Miller, she was aware that she would have to go through a similar process for two years. Grief can change a person significantly, and it requires them to create a new version of themselves and their life. Living in the same town her whole life, except for college and a brief time in New York, allowed Ward to rely on deep connections for support. However, there is a limit to how much others can do while someone is grieving. Despite being a natural part of life, Ward believes that grief can feel isolating and should be more visible with more community support. Yet, she acknowledges that there is something about grief that forces one to face it alone; facing realizations, moments of loneliness, and yearning can only be done by oneself.
After three and a half years, Ward has a new partner and a young son. Her life now consists of a mix of familiar elements and unexpected changes. Her older children attend the same private school she did, which her mother was able to afford through her wages as a domestic worker and with the help of one of the families she worked for. This experience both transformed Ward’s life and caused deep trauma for her. In her book Men We Reaped, Ward exposed the school for its casual racism when it was still predominantly white. Despite this, she chose to send her own children there because it offers one of the best educations on the Gulf Coast. Ward is now on the school board in order to contribute to making her children’s experience at the school different from her own.
She is constantly considering leaving DeLisle, but it is a difficult decision as none of the options are ideal. Lately, she has felt a strong urge to move north. She explains that with Trump as the frontrunner for the Republican party and the governor of Florida dismantling diversity efforts at universities that receive state funding, living in Mississippi feels very hostile. The threat of physical and emotional violence is always present, and at times, it becomes too much. Although she knows these issues exist everywhere, she believes they are not as prominent in other places, including the US. She struggles with the desire to uproot her family and move elsewhere, thinking about finding a job in a different location.
The price would be living close to her relatives and watching her kids enjoy the same carefree childhood she had: “Spending summers playing outside in rural Mississippi, driving go-karts and getting dirty. Being carefree. I would have to let go of that. It makes me sad and I grapple with it.” These are the concerns that Ward deals with every day – how to find contentment and be true to herself – and they are the driving forces behind her writing.
In writing Let Us Descend, she came to realize that although Annis lacked physical control, she possessed other forms of control such as emotional, imaginative, and spiritual agency. It was necessary to find a way to tap into these non-restrictive forms of agency, rather than those limited by physical restraints or fear of harm.
In the end, Ward was able to reconnect with Annis by facing her own emotional pain and uncertainty. She realized that Annis’s constant feeling of loss was a way for her to understand her character better. Ward also drew parallels between her own struggle with grief and Annis’s struggle to cope with it in difficult circumstances. Despite the changing world around them, both Ward and Annis were left with the same questions: How do I learn to live with this grief? How do I integrate it into my new normal instead of ignoring it? These questions remained even as everything else changed.