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Mississippi Authors Ward, Laymon are March 9 University Forum Online Presenters

Wed, 03/03/2021 - 11:01am | By: David Tisdale

Jesmyn Ward (left) and Kiese Laymon Two acclaimed Mississippi writers who are keeping the state’s tradition of literary excellence vibrant will be the guest presenters for the next University of Southern Mississippi (USM) University Forum Online, set for Tuesday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m.  

Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon will engage each other and their audience in a wide-ranging conversation about writing, race, and Mississippi in an event co-sponsored by the USM Honors College and the USM McNair Scholars Program, along with generous support from USM’s Graduate School and College of Arts and Sciences. To attend, visit where you can sign up for a reminder or, on the night of the event, click a link to attend.

The only woman and only Black American to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice, Ward is the author of five books, including the novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing; a collection of essays and poetry, The Fire This Time; and an autobiography, The Men We Reaped. At the age of three she moved with her family to DeLisle, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast, and the state has played a prominent role in her writing. Parul Sehgal wrote of Ward in The New York Times: “Not for her the austerity and self-conscious ironies of so much American fiction; her books reach for the sweep, force and sense of inevitability of the Greek myths, but as translated to the small, mostly poor, mostly black town in Mississippi where she grew up and where she still lives.”

Laymon is a native Mississippian who still lives in the Magnolia State. He has written a satirical novel, Long Division, and two memoirs, including Heavy, an account of his troubled relationship with his mother that won the 2019 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. Jennifer Szalai described Heavy in The New York Times as a “gorgeous, gutting book that’s fueled by candor yet freighted with ambivalence. It’s full of devotion and betrayal, euphoria and anguish, tender embraces and rough abuse.”

“Ward and Laymon have built on the legacy of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty by giving voice to the Black experience in Mississippi,” said University Forum Director and Associate Professor of History Dr. Andrew Haley. “I am looking forward to their conversation, and expect them to challenge each other and the audience to see the world more fully and more vividly.”

Dr. Renée M. Bailey, coordinator for the USM McNair Scholars Program, has previously heard presentations by Ward and Laymon, and approached Dr. Haley about considering them as guest speakers for University Forum.

“Jesmyn Ward is no secret to readers and writers, but after she published the beautiful and painful essay ‘On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic ( in Vanity Fair, I couldn’t help but think of how close she was to USM,” said Dr. Bailey. “With the McNair Scholars Program, we seek to bring speakers who exemplify the types of voices and successes our students can model. I saw the same in Kiese Laymon. Both authors write about the realities of being Black in Mississippi, and they both work in conversation with each other.

“In Heavy, Laymon details so much of his life in his body through multiple lenses, but perhaps the most relevant to McNair and USM students concern his struggles during his college years. While Ward and Laymon write in various genres, Ward’s National Book Awards apply to her fiction. Her narratives, like Salvage the Bones, are visceral, authentic, and so tense, you could bust your knuckles turning the page. The tangibility of every scene makes readers feel as if they are touching the Earth in her stories, which comes back to why we are so excited to have both Ward and Laymon speak at University Forum—Mississippi writers can offer us the world.”

Presented annually each fall and spring semester by the USM Honors College, University Forum is free, open to all, and now entirely online. To learn more about how to attend University Forum online, to register for an optional email invitation, or to find out more about its spring 2021 speakers, visit To keep up with everything about University Forum, ‘like’ the University Forum Facebook page at; follow on Instagram; follow on Twitter at @USMForum; or email forumFREEMississippi.