“Great American Novelist” has long been a pretty masculinized term, a way of jumping straight to names with the largest cultural visibility at the expense of women and people of color. And even as organizations like the National Book Foundation have made strides over the past few decades, a rather stunning fact has remained true: While eight men have won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction multiple times, including such legends as William Faulkner, John Cheever, and John Updike, no woman has ever done so.
Until Wednesday night.
Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was named the 2017 National Book Award winner in Fiction by four-time finalist Jacqueline Woodson, a judge in the category this year. Ward is the first woman to take home the award since 2012 (Louise Erdich), and was part of a general wave: Where last year all four winners were men, this year only one was (Frank Bidart, Poetry). Overall, only 17 women have been awarded the Fiction prize in nearly 70 years — but seven have won it in the last 16, including Ward twice.
Ward previously won the NBA for her 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, a gripping family saga that takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was her second published work after her debut Where the Line Bleeds; she’s also known for her 2013 memoir Men We Reaped, which earned acclaim, and for receiving the MacArthur “genius grant” earlier this year.
Ward has now been recognized for her harrowing work Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel which fuses a road narrative with a ghost story, placing classical literary elements into an urgent 21st century context. In her review for EW, Leah Greenblatt wrote, “Ward … has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Absorbing the harsh beauty of her writing isn’t easy; reading Sing sometimes feels like staring into the sun. But she also makes it impossible to turn away.” (You can read EW’s interview with Ward about the book here.)
Ward’s win, in many ways, marks a culmination point after decades of marginalization within the literary community. In 1988, Toni Morrison being denied awards recognition for her groundbreaking Beloved drew the ire of many prominent writers of color. In a letter published to the New York Times, 48 black critics and authors, including Maya Angelou, protested the book’s omission from the NBA and National Book Critics’ Circle Award. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve,” the letter read.
Other women to have come close to Ward’s achievement include Joyce Carol Oates, who won her first and only NBA way back in 1970, and Flannery O’Connor. Ward herself paid tribute to another groundbreaking female author, Harper Lee, after she died last year, in an essay for EW. She honed in on their shared Southern roots, admired the late author’s desire for privacy, and described why To Kill a Mockingbird was so close to her heart. “This woman … wrote such a seminal work of American literature,” she wrote. “I understood and appreciated Lee’s wishes: to live a life with privacy and anonymity. To live the life of her own choosing.”
In her victory speech at the awards ceremony on Wednesday, Ward spoke frankly and emotionally about the restrictions she’s faced as a female writer of color — and the thrilling change she’s starting to experience. “Throughout my career, when I have been rejected, there was sometimes subtext, and it was this: People will not read your work because these are not universal stories,” she said. “I don’t know whether some doorkeepers felt this way because I wrote about poor people or because I wrote about black people or because I wrote about Southerners … [But] you looked at me, at the people I love and write about, you looked at my poor, my black, my Southern children, women, and men — and you saw yourself. You saw your grief, your love, your losses, your regrets, your joy, your hope.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing is available for purchase.