A Note to My Friend, Jesmyn Ward
Dear Jesmyn, It feels odd that I’m writing you a letter.
And truth be told, I struggled with it. Here I am, on the precipice of reviewing your latest novel, Let Us Descend, knowing that I could easily bump into you around town tomorrow. We haven’t had more than five minutes to catch up in quite some time. COVID stole our last few Christmas visits. We haven’t shared a long car ride for two or three years, and nothing’s on the schedule. So I’m writing you this letter, laying bare the fact that, yes, we are old friends, but rest assured (and you, too, dear reader) we are many years past false flattery. My thoughts and feelings as I read Let Us Descend are clear and true.
Let Us Descend
By Jesmyn Ward
And my God, Jesmyn. It’s stunning. On so many levels.
Your story of Annis, the young, enslaved girl that we follow through to womanhood, is simultaneously painful and beautiful. She has no control over her body or future. Annis’s self-worth, sourced in the love of her mother and stories of her African grandmother hunting elephants, appears to me to be the only weapon she has against the institution of slavery.
Annis’s father is a plantation owner in the Carolinas, controlling her and her mother, and you never give him a name. In first-person narration through Annis’s voice, he is always referred to as “sire.” A sire is an animal’s father, and within the world of a plantation, Annis, and anyone with black skin, was nothing more than a mule. Every time that Annis uses the word sire, I feel as if she were retching it out, spit-sire, bile-sire, vomit-sire, expelling him as waste. Shit-sire.
You never reveal how old Annis is when her mother is taken away from the Carolina plantation, ripped from Annis, but my guess is 12 or 13, “There is a sinking at the heart of me, a whirlpool sucking down and down,” Annis thinks in shock. “Surely the earth is opening to us. Surely this terrible world is swallowing me. I grab my mama’s wrists, sinewy as corn sheaves, and howl.” The Georgia Man takes her away, sold chattel, gone forever.
This scene is so powerful because you effectively bring us into Annis’s thoughts at the moment she encounters the situation. You take me into the interior world of Annis so that I can see through her eyes as she mulls and considers a reaction within the limited range of possibilities of what will keep her from the fiery ire of the sire who owns her.
What hangs over Let Us Descend as a shroud is the terror of inevitability, of knowing there is no plausible way out for Annis. I turned the pages as quickly as I could, knowing that you, a gentle soul, a loving mother of three, would somehow find a way to an inner peace of some measure for Annis, whom you created so perfectly and completely that I think of her as your fourth offspring, flesh, blood, breathing, grieving, crying, resisting. She’s your daughter, so I know she’s strong, determined, resourceful, kind—and a survivor. But my God, Jesmyn, what that poor girl must do to retain her dignity in a world of pure hatred.
Safi comforts Annis after her mother’s removal. They are both young, searching, passionate. “I step near to Safi when she rises from smoothing a bedspread and put my palm under her elbow, my lips to her downy neck, long and elegant as a crane’s … I hum until a thump sounds at the doorway, and Safi and I lurch away from each other, lips still wet and warm, to see my sire.” The “cost of that kiss” is evident two days later when the Georgia Man comes for Annis and Safi.
Your use of micro-details offering insight into a character’s inner thoughts and the gravity of the situation at hand are masterful. As Safi and Annis are bound together with rope, and the enslaved men in chains, they begin the long walk from the Carolinas to the slave market in New Orleans. “We smell the swamp before we see it. It reeks like the rice fields at first: black water, mud on the bottom, plant and animal turning to sludge in the deep. That scent of the dying giving way to the living.”
You don’t let up, you continue in Annis’s voice, “When we walk our feet sink. We lean into the rope and slog… It’s hard to stay upright. On the bigger trails up north I walked half-asleep, half awake and half not, but I can’t here. The trail grows spines and sends up sharp-rooted teeth.”
I momentarily stopped reading as I could feel the humidity, the unspoken pain, the dripping sweat under the cloudless sky, and saw Annis in front of me. Annis in the bottomless pit of enslavement, no way out, nothing to do but lean into the rope of never-ending work in fields, half-awake like an endless nightmare.
Using very small moments of attention, you open wide the vista and scope of the scene, illustrating the larger world surrounding the characters. Your writing is pure and clean. Your metaphors are perfectly suited for expanding the meaning of the moment.
In the end, Annis finds, or so it appears to me, some measure of contentment within a small world she creates in a burned-out hut at the edge of a river. She exists alone, except for the baby growing within her.
Harold Bloom writes in The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry about the influence of a prior poet’s works on an author as he or she writes in the present. Because any new work is therefore derivative, it is weaker or at the least weighted with the influence or shadow of previous work. Original vision, in Bloom’s theory of literary influence, is nigh impossible.
You turn this concept of influence on its head. You’ve inhaled all that preceded you and exhaled the most beautiful original narrative encompassing all that came before it. Your focus is solely, it seems to me, on the Black female experience. You’ve created a singular voice in Annis to speak for the indignity of the suffering masses of Black women. Through this very narrow but deep characterization of Annis, you open a channel for the rest of us to begin to empathize and understand how Black women suffer uniquely and unrelentingly, even today, from racism, sexism, and classism. And how damn strong they must be to survive.
Because I’ve learned so much through Annis from the well of original experience, I’ll reread the work of others with a fresh set of eyes, a re-excitement, an empathy and perception, that I did not have earlier. Toni Morrison’s Sula and The Bluest Eye, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Margaret Walker Alexander’s Jubilee, and Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez will now have an infused grace and subtextual consciousness that I missed before. And oh yes, I cannot forget Zora. It will be like reading these novels for the first time.