We know why the caged bird sings. It sings for Jesmyn Ward, who won the Fiction prize for her book Sing, Unburied, Sing — a story about a biracial boy and his Black mother meeting his White father upon the father’s release from prison — making the author the first woman to win the category twice.
“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,” Ward said in her acceptance speech.
“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 was named the 2017 National Book Award winner in Fiction by four-time finalist Jacqueline Woodson, a judge in the category this year. Ward previously won the NBA for her 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, which Entertainment Weekly describes as “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.
In the harrowing Sing, Unburied, Sing, EW says Ward “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.”
As EW points out, Ward’s win, in many ways, marks a turning point after decades of marginalization within the literary community. In 1988, Toni Morrison was denied awards recognition from the NBA and National Book Critics’ Circle Award for her groundbreaking novel, Beloved, an omission that enraged writers of color, including Maya Angelou. In 1993, however, Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Literature.