Over at Guernica:
Guernica: You said a moment ago that some people thought your first novel was “just a Southern book.” Does Southern literature get treated as a niche genre, with a limited audience, in your experience?
Jesmyn Ward: Publishing companies put labels on these books. For me, the labels are Southern and black and woman. For some reason, they think an audience depends on the author’s identity, and every time they add another box, the audience gets smaller in their minds. You know those numbers showing that in the workplace, a person of color has to work ten times harder or more efficiently than a white colleague? I hate to say this, but I feel like that’s the case with literature, too. I’m not saying I have to write a book that’s ten times better than my counterparts, but I do think that I have to concentrate my efforts on writing something that will really engage people’s humanity and will tie readers to my characters regardless of race. I have to prove that I can connect with a wider audience. I think I accomplished that with Salvage. I went to Mystic, Connecticut, for example, to a wonderful bookstore there, full of people who couldn’t have been further from the place I come from, but they really responded to my work and saw my characters as human beings and loved them that way.
Guernica: You’ve been more willing than many novelists to engage with bigger political and social issues. Do you regret there aren’t more out there with you?
Jesmyn Ward: I understand why some writers resist it. They fear being boxed in, relegated to a category of political or socially conscious fiction. But I just don’t think I have a choice. I’m writing about the things I see all around me. Growing up in Mississippi, I’ve seen how these backward ideas about class and race and healthcare and education and housing and racism impact everyday lives. For example, my mother wouldn’t let me go to my homecoming dance because the yacht club where they were having the dance threw a fundraiser for David Duke, an ex-Klan member, when he was running for governor of Louisiana. So I grew up seeing how personal politics could be. It’s something I can’t avoid if I’m telling the truth about this place and writing about this community and Mississippi honestly.