Monday’s blog was before. This is after. I don’t want to leave my readers hanging, as in “I’m anticipating that her spoken words will be a beautiful as her written ones.” The short answer is they were.
The cacophony of the crowded ballroom in the Thad Cochran Center at the University of Southern Mississippi came to a hushed silence as tiny Jesmyn Ward entered in her red dress, as though the audience knew something special was afoot. Gone were the greetings of old friends and introductions of new that had filled the previous half hour as people of many ages and ethnicities gathered to hear this young Mississippi woman, one of their own, who had won the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones. We are nothing if not proud when one of ours “makes good.”
The silence remained as she held the audience spellbound with a speech prepared for them and readings from Men We Reaped. She talked of her conscious decision to love reading and how it had changed her life. Questions in the Q and A afterwards reflected intense listening on the part of her audience. Her thoughtful answers indicated a need to take her questioners seriously and to satisfy their wonder.
A couple of her answers have remained in my mind after it was all over. She was asked if and how librarians had touched her. She began with an answer that she never had a good one in elementary school which took her questioner aback, but then she continued. There was a middle school librarian who noticed that she spent all her free time in the library, alone, reading anything she could get her hands on. The librarian, with her own money, bought a set of the classics and presented them to her as her very own. She spread her arms wide to show how many books there were in the set.
The other answer that has stayed with me, and I hope will always stay, was to a questioner who wondered how her family had taken the honesty in her books. She hesitated before answering. She admitted that her mother was not pleased with her telling things like her brother’s selling crack at fourteen and thought she was needlessly putting her family up for scrutiny. She said it was hard for her as she wrote these things, but over and over, she came to the conclusion that she had a contract with her readers. Her contract was to tell the truth wherever it took her. She added that she hoped her contract and her truth would help call attention to problems around us and help us be aware of ways we can make our world a better one.
My own takeaway –
• gratitude for an English teacher who doubled as my librarian during study hall and handed me classics to read
• a commitment, that I hope is like hers, to keep my readers in mind as I write and never forget my contract with them