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Two-time National Book Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward on her novel 'Let Us Descend'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In her new novel set before the Civil War, author Jesmyn Ward drops readers into the life of a young enslaved Black woman named Annis in the American South. We follow Annis through a hellscape as she's separated from her mother, sent to an auction and sold to another slave owner. But despite her journey through one horror after another, Annis also finds brief moments of tenderness.

JESMYN WARD: (Reading) After the rain passes, the sun dogs us for days. It burns me red. The wind scrapes my face, blowing incessantly for a week. Its rush is strange and loud and so relentless that I miss the sound of flowing water. We are all startled by the Georgia men telling us to halt in a sudden clearing. There's a green hill, trees all around us in an overturned bowl, a waterfall tossing down into a pool the same deep green as the trees around us. It's so beautiful I feel a turning in my chest, my heart a small bird stirring in its nest. For a moment, I don't feel bound. I forget what holds me, but the ache of me through wrist and hip and thigh tunnels me back down into my body along with this rope. I yank when we stop, pull the wire of it with my arms just so it can beat back that beauty. I want it to turn my awe to bitter.

RASCOE: Jesmyn Ward is a two-time National Book Award-winning author, and her new novel is titled "Let Us Descend." Jesmyn Ward, welcome.

WARD: It's good to be here.

RASCOE: So how did you come to understand Annis's life as you wrote her story? Was this something that required a lot of research? What were you tapping into?

WARD: It definitely required a lot of research. I mean, I read for around 2 1/2 years before I actually began writing her story. So for the first - I don't know - like, four years of me actually, like, working on her story and, like, writing her story, I was having problems. I couldn't write past, like, the first three chapters. It was hard for me to access who she was as a person, and I think that's because I was so hung up on the fact that I was writing about an enslaved person. And I feel like in our imagination, especially Black Americans, I feel like it's very difficult for us to get beyond the fact that enslaved people had little to no physical agency. And I think it makes us just flatten them, right? Like, they're flattened to just be victims often, and even I was struggling with it.

And honestly, it wasn't until I suffered a deep loss. My partner actually died in 2020, and I was dealing with, like, the fresh grief of that and struggling with the fresh grief of that, of his loss. After, you know - I don't know - like, six months of me trying to figure out whether or not I would ever finish "Let Us Descend," I came back to the book. Like, I figured out that my partner, you know, who I lost would not want my grief to silence me.

RASCOE: You mentioned your loss. And I am so sorry for your loss and offer my condolences.

WARD: Thank you.

RASCOE: Did you look at the book "Let Us Descend" - and reading it, it is like going lower and lower, like, descending into something, sinking down into something very dark. Like, did you look at it as a physical representation of grief kind of embodied by the story of Annis?

WARD: I did. I looked at it as a physical representation of grief and also as a descent into a kind of hell, which is why I aligned it with Dante's "Inferno," right? But at the same time that it was a descent into a kind of hell - you know, the hell of Mississippi and Louisiana and the New Orleans slave markets in the early 1800s - I also feel like it is a descent into an afterlife. In part, the book is about Annis finding her way through her grief to a different life than the one that she thought she might have and the one that she wanted. And in that, I very much identified with Annis, like, with her character because for me - like, that's one of the hardest things about grief - is that this life that you thought you had - once you lose that person, that life, that possible life - it doesn't exist anymore.

RASCOE: For much of the book, Annis is communicating with a spirit that she calls Aza, and it kind of seems to appear to her as a storm or, you know, wind that moves through the trees. That idea of using this sort of spirituality, talking to the ancestors, talking to the land's spirit - why was it important to you to deal with this form of spirituality in this book?

WARD: Because I think one of the ways that Black Americans were able to survive the system of slavery is through an expansive evolving spirituality - right? - the kind of spirituality where they could sort of learn to read the land, where they could learn to use herbs and roots and mushrooms - right? - to heal them - where they just, I think, saw or understood that there was more to this world than their enslavement.

And I wanted that to be present in this novel because I felt like I couldn't write this novel about a person who was enslaved if it was rooted in social realism because I feel like that novel is not reflective of the kind of reality that I've been trying to construct in all my fiction. And it's not true to the way that I think that I think about the world and the way that, you know, the people that I come from down here in Mississippi - that they think about the world, right? I mean, we think the world is suffused with spirit. You know, I thought it important for this tale, you know, this origin story, this woman that appeared to me of Annis - that her reality should reflect that.

RASCOE: In the advance copy of this book, you wrote - and it's, like, on the cover - it seemed like you want to get the message out there that it is difficult to walk south with Annis, but you said, but I promise that if you come with me, you will rise. It will be worth the work, worth the walking. What do you mean by that phrase, you will rise?

WARD: I recognize that there's a certain resistance to reading books about enslaved people because it is hard to relive trauma, and so I acknowledge that. But I think that this book specifically and this story is also suffused with hope. This book is suffused with resistance because I think that hope is at the heart of resistance. It was very important to me to depict that and, hopefully, in depicting that, to attempt to change people's understanding of what enslaved people live through, you know, and to counter that narrative that they chose to be victims, or they just didn't resist, and they just accepted their fate. No. They fought every step of the way because they believed in the sanctity and the sacred nature of their lives and of their existence. They believed that their lives mattered.

RASCOE: That's Jesmyn Ward. Her new novel is called "Let Us Descend," and it comes out October 24. Thank you so much for joining us.

WARD: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDED BABIES' "EAGLE MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.