Nation’s top literary awards go to African-American Women

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Jesmyn Ward takes fiction prize, Nikky Finney takes poetry prize

— Move over Toni Morrison and William Faulkner!
Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, a harrowing and heartfelt tale of rural Mississippi blacks leading up to and facing Hurricane Katrina, won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction last week.
“I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South,” said Ward in her acceptance speech, “so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.”
Ward, 34, who grew up in Mississippi and currently teaches at the University of South Alabama, told Our Time Press that young writers in Central Brooklyn should not give up writing and that they should be true to their voice and own experiences.
“These young people are saying things that need to be heard,” she said, adding that rap and hip-hop language was influential and utilized in her award-winning novel.
Ward also noted that the publishing industry needs to become more accepting to young urban writers.
“In order for the (publishing) industry to grow, it will have to become more flexible and expand their mind to urban fiction,” she said.
Salvage the Bones is Ward’s second novel. She is currently working on her third book, a memoir about growing up in rural Mississippi.
The National Book Award for Poetry went to Nikky Finney for her fourth collection, Head Off & Split, published by TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press.
Finney is an alumni of Cave Canem, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Brooklyn and dedicated to the growing new black poetry movement.
Finney told Our Time Press that going to Talladega College in southern Alabama, which is one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges (HBCU), was very influential in her early years as a poet.
“I remember studying underneath Hale Woodruff’s Amistad murals and thinking how inspiring they were,” recalled Finney.
Finney said she sees direct correlations between formal poetry and rap lyrics.

“Too often, people try to separate poetry and rap but they are cousins. They are one family and you have to treat language like that,” she said.

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