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Critically acclaimed novelist Jesmyn Ward to speak at Furman

Jesmyn Ward. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan. Used with permission.

Last updated February 29, 2024

By Tina Underwood

Two-time National Book Award winner and MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow Jesmyn Ward will speak at Furman University Wednesday, March 20, at 6:30 p.m. in Watkins Room of the Trone Student Center. Ward’s talk, “Tell It Whole: On Witness and Narrative,” is free and open to the public. It is the Crabtree-Stewart Lecture, named for beloved Furman English professors John H. Crabtree (1925-2019) and James T. Stewart (1923-2001).

Ward’s visit to Furman was originally set for 2020 – about the same time COVID upended travel and gatherings everywhere, said Willard Pate, professor of English. Pate, who arrived at Furman in 1964 and specializes in Southern literature, first learned of Ward’s work through a bookstore she follows in Oxford, Mississippi, which hosted the author for a reading. Pate began to read her novels, study them, and now she teaches selected works in her classes.

Pate doesn’t claim to have a favorite Ward novel. “I like all of it,” she said, noting Ward is often compared to William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

Ward is author of “Where the Line Bleeds,” “Salvage the Bones,” which won the 2011 National Book Award, and “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” which earned the 2017 National Book Award. Among other works, the Tulane University English professor is editor of the anthology “The Fire This Time” and author of the memoir “Men We Reaped,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and, Pate said, “one of the most powerful series of prose essays I have ever read.”

Because she’s taught “Sing, Unburied, Sing” three times, Pate knows it best. She’s equally impressed by Ward’s latest novel, “Let Us Descend,” whose protagonist is an enslaved woman in the antebellum South. Pate is reading through it for the third time.

Pate said the timing of Ward’s visit – on the heels of Black History Month and during Women’s History Month – draws attention to the struggles of Black women and the importance of women’s voices in general. She expects Ward will draw from her own journey during her talk and will likely share a more practical side of her craft.

“I think she’ll talk about how you turn an experience or awareness of something into a narrative,” Pate said. “She’ll undoubtedly talk about the experiences that people have, but how do you write them?”

Part of Furman’s Cultural Life Program, the Crabtree-Stewart lecture is funded in part by OLLI at Furman and supported by FurmanWIN (Women’s Impact Network). For more information, please contact the Department of English at 864-294-2066.

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