Shelf Life: Jesmyn Ward


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Welcome to Shelf Life,’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

<i>Let Us Descend</i> by Jesmyn Ward

Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward

In her fourth novel Let Us Descend (Scribner), Jesmyn Ward reimagines American slavery—taking readers on a harrowing journey from the Carolinas to Louisiana. The young teenage protagonist, an enslaved girl named Annis, follows a path inspired by Dante’s Inferno and “descends and enters the blind world” of the antebellum South.

Ward, a California-born writer, attended Stanford University and later received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan. She won the National Book Award for her novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing—making her the only Black woman (and the only woman, period) to win that award twice. Round out your end-of-year TBR list with some of her book recommendations below.

The book that:

…made me weep uncontrollably:

Heavy by Kiese Laymon. The first 30 pages gutted me. His honesty and vulnerability felt so familiar and heartbreaking.

…shaped my worldview:

The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist taught me so much about how American chattel slavery still resonates with us today.

…made me rethink a long-held belief:

Black Ghost of Empire by Kris Manjapra rearranged my thinking around emancipation.

…I’d pass on to my kids:

I have loved the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman for years. The protagonist, Lyra, is a fierce firecracker.

…I’d give to a new graduate:

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. I love her world-building and how immersive her work is. What better gift for a person starting to build their own world.

…I’d like turned into a TV show:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead…which they already did!

…I last bought:

How to Say Babylon, a gorgeous, empowering memoir about growing up Rastafarian by Safiya Sinclair.

…has the greatest ending:

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. It completely immersed me in Faulkner’s world, and it’s worth the work to get to the ending.

…helped me become a better writer:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She’s a prose master.

…should be on every college syllabus:

The Round House by Louise Erdrich, for its beautiful commentary about family, history, and culture.

…I’ve re-read the most:

I read and re-read Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson as a kid. I don’t know if I’ve read another quite as many times.

…I would have blurbed if asked:

Lauren Groff doesn’t need a blurb from me, but her new book The Vaster Wilds (and all of her earlier books, for that matter) is beautifully written and conceived.

The literary organization/charity I support:

Here’s an organization I would recommend—the Catherine Coleman Literary Arts, Food, and Social Justice summer program at the Margaret Walker Center, at Jackson State University. This is a program that invites emerging high school writers from Mississippi to engage with the rich legacies of creative writing, southern foodways, and social justice movements. It’s name in honor of the writer Kiese Laymon’s grandmother.

Read Ward’s Picks:
Headshot of Juliana Ukiomogbe

Juliana Ukiomogbe is the Assistant Editor at ELLE. Her work has previously appeared in Interview, i-D, Teen Vogue, Nylon, and more.  

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