Revenants’ return

7 months ago 81

In Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward’s elegiac fourth novel, “searing, virulent grief” is threaded through the pages, while sorrow, which first “falls like a fine rain”, becomes “a wrung rag” in the narrator’s throat. This is Ward’s first novel to be set outside the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. It is also the first she has written since the death of her husband in 2020. “How that love, with nowhere to go, aches”, Ward’s narrator observes, “wind snagging ragged over frosted winter rocks.”

Let Us Descend is narrated by Annis, a young woman who works alongside her mother as a house servant on a brutal Carolina slave plantation, where she learns that the violent master is her father, a man who turns his predatory gaze towards her. Annis is protected for a while by her powerful and resilient mother, who teaches her to spar with whittled wooden weapons that are secreted away in a clearing, and who passes down stories of Mama Aza, Annis’s African warrior grandmother. “The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand”, the novel begins. But when her mother is sold to another slaver Annis “know[s] only grief in this new world”.

She finds sexual and emotional solace with Safi, a fellow slave. “I try to blink away the missing of my mama. Feel what it might be to feel, to love again”. As she catches snippets of her white half-sisters’ tutor recounting Dante’s descent into hell – “let us descend and enter this blind world” – she pictures not the Italian poet, but “her mother toiling in the hell of this house”. When her master stumbles on Annis and Safi in a tender moment of embrace, both women are taken away by the Georgia Man, an overseer who “chains the men, binds the women with ropes, leaving the children to walk behind as far as they can, not caring if they drop dead at the side of the road in this red-earthed place”.

In the course of her own descent into “cry-choked hell”, a torturous walk to New Orleans during which she is bound to her fellow slaves, Annis opens herself up to the spirits around her, who dwell in the earth and water. One, in the form of Mama Aza, instructs and guides her, one of several instances in which Ward’s novel carries echoes of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), also a story of trauma, motherhood and memory. Annis remarks that she has “only the detritus of my mother’s life, the leftovers of her leaving”. She wonders what would happen “if I die in this moment, if I could stay in this memory” – a line that recalls Morrison’s notion of “rememory”, the haunting and persistent nature of the past. “What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head”, Denver explains in Beloved. “I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

For all this, Let Us Descend perhaps more readily invokes Corregidora (1975), a novel by Gayl Jones. Edited, published and championed by Morrison, it tells the tale of a blues singer whose story is interspersed with that of her ancestors. In both the Ward and Jones novels the past intrudes into the present – revenant women, erased from history, return to tell their tales. Early in Ward’s novel Annis tells us that, in the company of her master, “I seal my mouth silent”, but she is determined to “walk through a world of my own making”. When her mother warns her that the master will come for her, she proclaims: “I will use my elbows like hammers, my legs like staffs … I will make my knees fists. When she is bound by her captors, she declares: “I wish I had my mother’s spear with me now, I could knee the horses, strike the Georgia men in their mouths, set their teeth to flying”.

Let Us Descend is recounted with a lyrical economy. “I am less. We are all less”, Annis remarks after the “walking, lifting, throwing, clearing, and trudging”. As she walks deeper south the land is “wet, veined with rivers and marshes”; in New Orleans “the air smells of burning coffee and shit”. On occasion the prose tilts towards folk idiom. “We weed until the sun collects all the color from the day, and night pours over the sky” could have come from Zora Neale Hurston. Ward’s visceral writing exposes the suffering experienced by slaves, but also the environmental devastation caused by sugar plantations. “The white mansion eats our labor in great gulps”, Annis observes. “I have never seen so much land razed of forest and bent to growing.”

Ward’s oeuvre, which engages with pressing social and historical themes, has become widely studied as well as read. Jesmyn Ward: New critical essays, the first book-length critique of the author’s work, aims “to provide a diverse spectrum of approaches to Ward’s writing, within its key cultural, political, social and historical contexts”. Ward, who is the only woman, and only African American, to have won the National Book Award twice for fiction – for Salvage the Bones (2011) and Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) – has a growing global readership, underscored by the geographical reach of contributors to this volume. In addition to the US, the scholars in this collection are based in Austria, Denmark and the UK.

In a lucid introduction the editors reflect on Ward’s essay “On Witness and Respair: A personal tragedy followed by a pandemic” (Vanity Fair, September 1, 2020), a reflection on the death of her husband during the onset of Covid-19. The short essay concludes with an account of her husband panting “Can’t. Breathe”, a moment that connects personal tragedy to the global scope of protest following the death of Eric Garner in 2014, as well as to Ward’s earlier work. In her memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), Ward recounted the loss of her brother, cousin and three close friends at the start of the millennium.

The collection is most concerned with the ways in which Ward’s writing engages with nature and climate, history and memory, community and family. The chronological organization of the collection helps to give us insight into the development of Ward’s oeuvre; we are also introduced to her less well-known works, including an anthology she edited, The Fire This Time: A new generation speaks about race (2018), a volume of essays and poems on the subject of race that responds to James Baldwin’s landmark essay on the civil rights movement, The Fire Next Time (1963).

The contributions to Jesmyn Ward: New critical essays, which mostly avoid jargon and unwieldy academese, showcase their subject’s varied talents as an essayist, editor, a novelist and writer of short stories. In common with many academic studies, however, the emphasis is largely on social and political themes, as opposed to the author’s formal qualities as a writer. This is a shame, because there is much to explore in Ward’s poetic prose, which draws on the traditions of Southern gothic literature, and which bucks the trend of contemporary American fiction with its distinctive – and unfashionable – lyricism.

Douglas Field teaches at the University of Manchester. His book on James Baldwin and his father will be published next year

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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