A Q&A with Jesmyn Ward, Author of November Indie Next List Top Pick “Let Us Descend”

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Independent booksellers across the country have chosen Jesmyn Ward’s Let Us Descend (Scribner) as their top pick for the November 2023 Indie Next List

Let Us Descend follows Annis, an enslaved woman who makes the long journey from the Carolinas to New Orleans after being sold.

“Jesmyn Ward is one of the most important writers of our time. This may be her best to date. Heartbreaking and gorgeous, Annis carries us through her story of loss and brutal enslavement — a story of strength, love, enduring, and finding a way,” said Jeanne Costello of Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colorado.

Here, Ward discusses her work with Bookselling This Week.

Bookselling This Week: Throughout Annis’ story she refers back to Dante’s Inferno, comparing her journey to Dante’s trip through Hell. Even the title Let Us Descend is a reference. It’s a compelling parallel. Would you tell us more about your decision to incorporate Dante?

Jesmyn Ward: For two of my prior novels, I have looked to books from the past for inspiration. Or maybe it’s that I see parallels with the past in the present, and certain texts speak in a universal way to these issues. For my novel Salvage the Bones, about a family in rural Mississippi in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the antecedent was from Greek mythology, with Medea. For Sing, Unburied, Sing, also set in contemporary rural Mississippi, a road novel with ghosts from the past, I looked to William Faulkner, and As I Lay Dying. Descending into hell seemed an apt comparison to what enslavement must have been like. Annis, the protagonist in Let Us Descend, overhears her half-sisters being taught about The Inferno, an opportunity Annis would never have. But she’s a bright girl and curious about literature, so she memorizes some of the lines and carries them with her as she is marched south.

BTW: You’ve mentioned this before, but it’s certainly worth bringing back up. There were several points in the book where I stopped reading to research something (like Terre Gaillarde) that I knew nothing about. Let Us Descend expertly points out and fills (or prompts us to fill) some of the glaring holes in our education on slavery in America. Would you like to talk more about this?

JW: We are not educated about slavery in this country. I certainly wasn’t! This glaring hole was made evident to me when listening to my local NPR station, out of New Orleans, about how, at that time, there were only two plaques in the whole city marking sites related to slave markets. New Orleans was the center of the domestic slave trade after the international slave trade became illegal, and yet there’s little acknowledgement of that, which I found heartbreaking and upsetting when I heard that NPR program maybe seven years ago. This is when the first glimmer of this novel came to me. Shortly after that, Annis appeared. Writing this novel was my own education in slavery in America. As it stands, in so many places, even today — and maybe particularly in places like Florida or in school districts that ban books — we haven’t acknowledged this terrible past of ours.

BTWDo you have any hints about what’s next for you? 

JW: My next book will be a departure, a book for children, likely middle grade. When I was a child, I was a voracious reader, and there were so few books available where I could see some version of myself. I’ve always imagined a book about a Southern Black girl with magical powers. Beyond that, I don’t know what shape it will take. I’m now the parent of three children, and my eldest has been asking me for years, when are you going to write a book for me? She’s in fifth grade, so I’d better get moving, before she and her younger brothers are too old to appreciate it.

BTWCould you talk a little bit about the role of books and indie bookstores in your life?

JW: I’m always happy to talk about independent bookstores! Indie bookstores play two roles in my life. As a reader and consumer of books, independent bookstores are my refuge. When I was a child, my reading material always came from the library. We didn’t have money to buy books, but I’ve been more than making up for that as an adult! I’m very fortunate to live in a state with excellent bookstores. My local bookstore, Pass Christian Books, is the center of my community. The owners are my good friends. Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, is one of the best bookstores in the country, and their support of me and my work goes back to my first novel, Where the Line Bleeds. In Jackson, we have the great Lemuria Books.

In indie bookstores around the country, I have always felt at home. I’ve always felt supported. I’ve always felt seen. This isn’t something I take for granted, and I want all indie bookstores to know how meaningful it is to me. So, thank you, to all the indies over the course of my career. And particular thanks on this occasion for all of the supportive Indie Next blurbs and votes that led to a number one Indie Next selection.