Dear Tulane Community:
America has long produced some of the world's best literature, but only a handful of the greatest authors in U.S. history have received the coveted National Book Award for fiction twice. Who are those literary icons? They include William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Philip Roth, John Updike and this year's Tulane Commencement speaker, Jesmyn Ward.
Called the "heir to Faulkner," Jesmyn Ward is the first woman to win the National Book Award twice. This year, she was also awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant and TIME magazine chose her as one of the Most Influential People of 2018. She is truly a once-in-a-generation, transcendent talent who has so much to impart to our graduates about empathy, life, literature and sustaining hope in the face of tragedy and struggle. We are also enormously proud to call her one of our own. Those fortunate enough to have enrolled in her writing classes at Tulane have benefited from her knowledge and insight, but few have had this opportunity, especially since she is currently on a two-year leave from campus as a recipient of the 2016 Strauss Living for literary excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
One of the lessons that I know Jesmyn can share with the Class of 2018 is that success is rarely given, immediate or assured – but it can be earned through toil, persistence and grace. A native of DeLisle, a small town in south Mississippi, Jesmyn was the first in her family to attend college, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in media studies and communication from Stanford University. In 2005 she received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Michigan. Like so many New Orleanians, she survived Hurricane Katrina that same year, ending up stranded in a farm field with her family after the floodwaters destroyed their DeLisle home.
Jesmyn channeled the trauma of that and other life experiences in her first novel Where the Line Bleeds and subsequent works including Salvage the Bones, the 2011 National Book Award winner. These works, along with Sing Unburied, Sing (2017), The Fire This Time (2016) and Men We Reaped (2013) have won her wide recognition as one of the most powerful and original literary voices of our time.
But before all of that acclaim, she received so many rejections of her first novel that she was about to give up writing. It would have been a crushing blow for the small-town girl who in high school would look at her home state's literary map and wonder if she had a place on it. "I would look at that map," she said, "And here's Faulkner, and here's Welty and here's Richard Wright. And I think a part of me always dreamed or asked, 'What if? What would it be like to be on that map one day.'"
I don't think there is any among us who has not had a similar moment of wonder (and doubt) about where and how we might find our place in this world. And I know our graduates will benefit from the words and wisdom of this woman – this new literary icon – as they move forward to put their own name on the map.