Jesmyn Ward, the two-time National Book Award-winning author of "Salvage the Bones" in 2011 and "Sing, Unburied, Sing," in 2017, has continued to garner acclaim as a leading contemporary author. From her first published book, "Where the Line Bleeds," the youngest Library of Congress's Prize for American Fiction recipient has been praised for creating projects that are easy to read, as is the case with her latest book, "Let Us Descend."
"Let Us Descend"
Her latest book is a fictional heart-wrenching story that explores the traumatic experience that Black Americans, especially women, endured during slavery. Ward examines the topic of slavery through the eyes of Annis.
The novel Oprah’s Book Club Pick begins with Annis being taught by her mother to fight for herself in the North Carolina woods. Soon, her mother is sold, leaving Annis alone to fend for herself. The story follows Annis in excruciating detail as she is chained and trekked to Louisiana and sold as well.
Ward uses Annis to explore slavery from the eyes of an enslaved person with limited physical agency. While Annis is born into slavery, she is revealed to have other types of agencies, including emotional, imaginative, memory, and spiritual, that "gave her a way to move through the world that was not confined."
The Spark behind "Let Us Descend"
It took more than seven years to bring "Let Us Descend" to our bookshelf, a journey sparked by Ward's astonishment at how little the history of slavery in the South she knew. Or rather, how much of the history of slavery had been erased.
She was driving from her DeLisle, Mississippi, home to New Orleans. "I was listening to the local NPR station, which is WWNO out of New Orleans, [and] they were doing a [series] celebrating New Orleans's tricentennial, so 300 years of New Orleans history and New Orleans culture," she told Vanity Fair.
The series had 64 episodes covering a wide variety of historical subject matter about New Orleans. However, it's the "Sighting the Sites of the New Orleans Slave Trade," in which historian Erin Greenwald expounded to journalist Laine Kaplan-Levinson and the audience New Orleans's role in the American domestic slave trade that caught her imagination.
She was particularly astonished to hear that "there were only two plaques in New Orleans that accounted for the slave trade, and one of them was in the wrong location."
She was shocked that despite living in the South and interacting with its culture through upbringing, education, and career, she didn't know the history historian Erin Greenwald shared. "It was devastating to know that so many enslaved people had been sent for sale to the lower south, had endured barbaric conditions and treatment, and then had their experiences erased," she told Library Journal. "It was painful to know that I moved through this landscape, a landscape that had soaked up their sorrow and pain like a sponge, and I was blind to it. It seemed immensely unjust."
That's when she got the idea to bring the dark history of the South back to public consciousness. "I immediately asked myself: What if I write about it? What will happen if I bring it to life through a character, a woman? This is how I first began to get glimpses of Annis."
While the idea for the book had its genesis in trying to explore the less-known trauma of slavery, Ward had to endure personal trauma of her own after the loss of her husband during the pandemic.
"I was in the throes of fresh grief," she told CBS.
Her experience with grief helped her appreciate Annis's experience. "And so, I think that grief allowed me to better understand Annis and what she was going through and her journey to figure out what her new future, or what a new life without her mother and without these people that she loved," she said, before concluding, "I think that sort of served as a model for me to begin to figure out what this new version of my life would look like."