Mississippi figured prominently in American popular culture in 2017 thanks to the powerful and recently lauded works of authors
Jesmyn Ward was awarded her second National Book Award for Fiction in 2017 for her third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing about a young, biracial boy whose drug-addicted mother takes him and his sister from their grandparents’ home on a journey across Mississippi to meet their father who has recently been released from prison.
Like her two previous novels and her 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, about the men in her life who have died premature, sometimes violent deaths, Mississippi is an active character in all of her work, its racial and social and economic forces weighing heavily on the characters she enlivens with humanity and complexity.
Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut Mudbound is set in the Mississippi Delta of the 1940s and follows two farming families, one African-American and one Caucasian, during and after the period when they’ve each sent a family member to fight in World War II. Her haunting imagery and beautiful prose speak to life from many characters’ points of view and reveal the chasms both large and small that exist between these two families in the post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-era deep south. Directed and co-adapted by filmmaker Dee Rees this year into a film of the same name, the film was recently released in the theaters and on Netflix to critical acclaim.
How surprising it is, how lucky we are, when a confluence of small, random moments prompt us to shift our gaze to another place, for many of us a foreign place that we might never visit or contemplate. And in doing so we are invited into other seemingly faraway cultures that exist within our shared United States.
And while we can always turn to the voices of renowned Mississippian authors like William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright and Tennessee Williams, let’s take a moment to consider these other contemporary voices. These are accomplished writers who invite us in to explore a place and people and culture in the heart of the south:
- Beth Henley, dramatist whose 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest, among her other Mississippi-set plays, combine humor and insight into relationships as they exist in the deep south.
- Kathryn Stockett, whose 2009 bestselling debut The Help chronicles African-American women working as domestic help in Caucasian 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi homes through the lens of an aspiring journalist returning home after college.
- Donna Tartt, 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner, whose novel The Little Friend takes place in 1970s Mississippi when a young girl decides to investigate the mysterious hanging of her brother years ago.
- Natasha Trethewey, former Poet Laureate of Mississippi and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection Native Guard, a reference to one of the first black regiments to serve in the Civil War.
- Jesmyn Ward’s 2011 Salvage the Bones winner of her first (of two) National Book Awards, the gripping tale of a pregnant teenage girl in the rural coast off the Gulf of Mexico in the days preceding Hurricane Katrina.