“Let Us Descend” to Jesmyn Ward


“I hope my mother helms a tight-seamed boat with a large white sail on the celestial waterway between worlds… I hope she stands wide-legged on her deck, Mama Aza beside her… How they dance with the rocking deck. How them sing ” {Ward, 299}. Jesmyn Ward, the author of Sing, Unburied, Sing {2017} and a recipient of the 2022 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, writes these lines in the final chapter of her latest book Let Us Descend. Published on October 3, 2023, Let Us Descend is an historical fiction novel written from the perspective of an enslaved, African American woman named Annis. She tells her tale of being separated from her mother and lover, and being sold to New Orleans, where she must endure grief and torture at the hands of her new masters. Yet through her suffering, she finds love, earthly spirits, and a way out of her chains, proving that light still exists in the darkest of places. 

I have always been captivated by dark histories, time periods that most people don’t like to talk about in-depth because they are “touchy subjects.” Subjects like the Holocaust and the Catholic Inquisition of the 12th century have piqued my interest since I was a teenager. Something about the thought of humans committing unspeakable crimes on other humans makes me ponder the world around me. Let Us Descend is one of those unapologetically disturbing novels that makes me think about the sick side of human society, and exposes America for what it was back in the 1800s: a divided nation that profited off the labor of enslaved people.

I found this novel at the front of my local Barnes & Noble store during winter break. I was looking for something out of the mainstream media pool, something I never heard of before, something that screams “read me!” Let Us Descend intrigued me with its bright yellow cover and massive bee in the middle. It was displayed on the “Best Books of 2023” table, overflowing with newly published, critically acclaimed works. That caught my attention in a heartbeat.

The book reads like prose poetry; it comes across as a narrative, but is laced with poetic elements like metaphors and personifications. For instance, Ward uses the image of fire to describe She Who Remembers, a spirit that records and witnesses the injustices being done to the enslaved. Ward additionally compares aspects of the physical world like the ground and river to spirits, beings that take and expel things out into the air and ocean, beings that give. What makes this book even more poetic is that Annis has conversations with these spirits. They may just be parts of the earth, but they are all she has in her subjugation. They are the only things keeping her soul alive. Not only do they give the historical narrative a supernatural twist and fantastical tone, but they also symbolize Annis’ spiritual side and her willingness to hold onto her roots despite the hell she is living in.

Ward’s language and depictions of the tortures that the enslaved characters experience in the book are visceral, immersive, and raw. The way Annis speaks brings out her personality and frame of mind exceptionally well, which is not an easy thing for a writer to accomplish. Additionally, the way she describes the abuses is gut-wrenching. For instance, she explains the concept of the hole, a method of punishment, while narrating the torture of one of Annis’ fellow slaves: 

“We stop, crouching in the underbrush, looking at Emil, who struggles against the hands again, kicking and jerking like a fish on a hook. The hand elbows him again in the face, and Emil slumps in his arms. The other hand leaves them, walks over a few feet, and kneels. He grabs at the earth and a door opens in the ground. The other hand drags Emil to the doorway and shoves him and he falls over sideways, shouting, into the dark mouth of the earth” {Ward, 146}. 

There is something about the line “dark mouth of the earth” that makes me shiver. When I imagine the dark mouth of the earth, I think of a black pit that wants to swallow everyone and everything. It is simultaneously terrifying and poetic. Ward also compares Annis to a willful rabbit struggling to survive, which moves me as a writer. I would never think of comparing a woman like Annis to a rabbit, so I give props to Ward for being so creative with her figures of speech. She certainly inspires me to pick up a pen and write my own collection of poetry. Her words also make me contemplate the strength of the human spirit—this world is cruel, and death will constantly be lurking in the sidelines. But that does not give us a reason to stop fighting for a life worth living.  

“But you the one who snuffles. Smells. Wiggles. You the little one who jerks to a crawl. The little one who breaches the dirt and breathes. Your littermates still and stop breathing, their parts becoming down, scilla, smoke” {Ward, 163}. 

Ward’s voice is certainly unique, unlike any author I have come across over the years.

Let Us Descend came into the literary world four months ago. Slavery was in practice 160 years ago. As a result of that period in history, the media has produced various movies, books, and television shows portraying the bitterness of slavery over the decades. Even though slavery has been dead in the U.S. for practically a century, racism, bigotry, and arrogance are still very much rooted in our culture. We need books like Ward’s to help us remember those who have not received justice in the past or present. We need stories like Annis’ to remind us of our humanity, perseverance, and free will as human beings. And lastly, we need more writers like Ward who are not afraid to tell ambitious tales. 

Jesmyn Ward on Late Night with Seth Meyershttps://youtu.be/l88QkKFiHx0?feature=shared

Samantha Szumloz

Samantha Szumloz is a sophomore Writing Arts major at Rowan University. Her passions include writing poetry, short stories, and pop culture pieces.