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"When the finalists for the (2011) National Book Award in Fiction were announced last month," wrote Ron Charles of The Washington Post, "I’m embarrassed to admit that I was among those critics grumbling about the obscurity of some of the authors.”
For a while, I struggled to make sense of that word. Obscurity sounded almost like an act of weather—a kind of fog that settled spontaneously on women of color and shrouded their writing.
Except two years ago, when I went to the Lillian Vernon House at NYU to attend a reading, the fog began to coalesce into identifiable features—a face and a name, Jesmyn Ward, and a novel, Salvage the Bones—a fiercely moving tale of a poverty stricken family in rural Mississippi bracing for Hurricane Katrina. Ward, who had just received the National Book Award in Fiction for Salvage the Bones, was there to read with another fabulous author, Heidi Julavits. And when I got there, things quickly came into focus. Scantily publicized on Facebook about a week in advance, it was an audience of roughly thirty people—mostly other writers and MFA students—and, to my knowledge, Ward’s only major reading event in New York City.
Now, in case you don’t know, winning the NBA is kind of a big deal. In the book world, it’s the equivalent of winning the Golden Globe. Often, the winners become fixtures on public radio and TV and along the beaten reading circuit, including The Center for Fiction, 92 Street Y, and a handful of known indie book stores in Brooklyn. Stores like Greenlight, where a few weeks ago I stood in line for an hour with a numbered ticket in hand—a line which stretched out the doors and around the block—waiting my turn to have the copy of George Saunder’s latest collection, Tenth of December, signed by the author. Saunders, a master of short story, was never up for the NBA. Perhaps he should be. But already his book tour included appearances on PBS Newshour, Charlie Rose and the Colbert Report.
So what happened to Salvage the Bones?
“If it had not caught the attention of a handful of important readers," LA Time’s Carolyn Kellogg explains, "Jesmyn Ward's "Salvage the Bones" would most likely have quietly faded into obscurity.”
There is that word again.
I happen to know one of those important readers. He is also a very important writer. His name is Victor LaValle. But LaValle's vote was not why Salvage the Bones won the National Book Award. It won because its inexorable countdown of twelve chapter-days exacted as much courage, fury and humanity as did Katrina herself. Because like all great storytellers, Jesmyn Ward confers upon us something vital and new. And while so many no lesser authors craft and chisel, Jesmyn Ward—she screams. And that scream, the scream of Salvage the Bones, cut through the fog of obscurity because in the wake of Katrina it achieved something only great literature could: it shook us; it transformed us; it inspired empathy.
According to Kellogg, after the NBA victory and “because of the award's prominence, (Jesmyn Ward’s) publisher Bloomsbury ordered an additional 50,000 copies the very next day, tripling its print run.”
I won’t bother with facts and figures. The absence of black female writers is palpable. And “obscurity” is just a new word that shelters the old air of white literary elitism—something that ruined the publishing industry in the first place. Bloomsbury is a great press and I’d never fault them for intentionally suppressing Ward’s writing. But, as the old song goes, “You're Nobody till Somebody Loves You.”