Newcomer: Jesmyn Ward

Photo: Tony Cook

For the second year in a row, the National Book Award for fiction went to a near-complete unknown. Jesmyn Ward, 34, author of Salvage the Bones, a Gulf Coast family drama set just before Katrina, had faced tough odds before.

How did you react to the victory?
I was prepared to just keep chugging away, writing my books and having a handful of people read them. When I explained it to my family, I told them that this is like the Oscars for books.

It’s based on your hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi—a hard place. Why do you still live there?
I ask myself that when I get especially frustrated. But what is more important is that I’m around my family and the people I love. I can deal with all the other craziness that makes me really angry about being in the South—but I need that in my life. I feel like I’m fighting those battles with what I write.

What battles?
It really bothers me when people say we live in a postracial America. Growing up, I encountered racism all the time, and not covert or institutional racism, but in-your-face, I’m-gonna-call-you-a-nigger racism. There was nothing postracial about my experience, and there still isn’t.

Newcomer: Jesmyn Ward