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Launching a literary career

A 2005 graduate of the University of Michigan Creative Writing Program has received the National Book Award for fiction.

Jesmyn Ward, who in her acceptance speech cited her U-M teachers for their encouragement and instilling discipline, won the prestigious literary award for “Salvage the Bones,” a compelling story about a Mississippi family struggling amid the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

The National Book Award black-tie ceremony was held in New York on Nov. 16. In addition to the award for best fiction, honors were given to authors in the categories of poetry, nonfiction and young people’s literature.

Below is a link to the National Book Award website. Ward’s speech occurs at 35:00 of the video.

Ward gave one of the night’s most emotional speeches, noting she was inspired to become a writer by her younger brother, who was killed in a car accident shortly after she graduated from college. Grieving, she turned to writing to understand the depth and unpredictability of life.

“The more I wrote, the more I understood I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the south so the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal and as fraught and lovely as theirs,” said Ward, who is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. “This is a life’s work and I am only at the beginning.”

“Salvage the Bones,” published by Bloomsbury USA, is Ward’s second novel. She turned her MFA thesis into her first work, “Where the Line Bleeds,” which was an Essence magazine Book Club Selection.  She is currently working on a memoir.

Along with the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award is considered the pre-eminent venue for launching and affirming a writer’s career.

“Jesmyn Ward has claimed her place both as a contemporary witness of life in the rural South and as a descendant of its great originals,” said Nicholas Delbanco, who is Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature/Chair, Hopwood Committee at the University of Michigan.

“(Ward’s) memorable clan deals with the threat and then the actuality of Hurricane Katrina in much the way that Faulkner’s folk once dealt with fire and flood,” he said. “The voice here is lyric, unsparing and fierce. You won’t forget this book.”

Ward visited U-M earlier this fall, and read excerpts from “Salvage the Bones.”  Delbanco observed her transformation as a writer. During her student days, he said, she was initially quiet, yet self-assured, and developed rapidly as a writer.

“I remember her, to start with, as silent, anxious, and withdrawn – scared of the ‘big city,’ and our northern snows,” said Delbanco. “But Jesmyn settled in with growing ease, won a clutch of Hopwoods and, when she came back (in September) was graciousness itself.”

Her former teachers savor Ward’s success.

“We’re thrilled for Jesmyn, and proud and delighted the Michigan MFA program was able to support her as a young writer,” said Michael Byers, Zell Director, MFA Program in Creative Writing at U-M.

First-year and postgraduate fellowships, distinguished visiting writers, a visiting faculty position, and other program initiatives are funded by generous donations, especially from Helen Zell. The creative writing program is administered within U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA).

U-M’s Creative Writing Program is listed as number two by “Poets & Writerss” rankings of creative writing graduate programs. For more information, please visit