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Let Us Descend

A Novel

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About The Book

OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB PICK • Instant New York Times Bestseller • Named one of the best books of 2023 by The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The Boston Globe, Time, The New Yorker, and more.

“Nothing short of epic, magical, and intensely moving.” —Vogue • “A novel of triumph.” —The Washington Post • “Harrowing, immersive, and other-worldly.” —People

From “one of America’s finest living writers” (San Francisco Chronicle) and “heir apparent to Toni Morrison” (LitHub)—comes a haunting masterpiece about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War that’s destined to become a classic.

Let Us Descend describes a journey from the rice fields of the Carolinas to the slave markets of New Orleans and into the fearsome heart of a Louisiana sugar plantation. A journey that is as beautifully rendered as it is heart wrenching, the novel is “[t]he literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours” (NPR).

Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide. As she struggles through the miles-long march, Annis turns inward, seeking comfort from memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. Throughout, she opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. While Annis leads readers through the descent, hers is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.

From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this “[s]earing and lyrical…raw, transcendent, and ultimately hopeful” (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) novel inscribes Black American grief and joy into the very land—the rich but unforgiving forests, swamps, and rivers of the American South. Let Us Descend is Jesmyn Ward’s most magnificent novel yet.


Chapter 1: Mama’s Bladed Hands CHAPTER 1 Mama’s Bladed Hands
The first weapon I ever held was my mother’s hand. I was a small child then, soft at the belly. On that night, my mother woke me and led me out to the Carolina woods, deep, deep into the murmuring trees, black with the sun’s leaving. The bones in her fingers: blades in sheaths, but I did not know this yet. We walked until we came to a small clearing around a lightning-burnt tree, far from my sire’s rambling cream house that sits beyond the rice fields. Far from my sire, who is as white as my mother is dark. Far from this man who says he owns us, from this man who drives my mother to a black thread in the dim closeness of his kitchen, where she spends most of her waking hours working to feed him and his two paunchy, milk-sallow children. I was bird-boned, my head brushing my mother’s shoulder. On that night long ago, my mother knelt in the fractured tree’s roots and dug out two long, thin limbs: one with a tip carved like a spear, the other wavy as a snake, clumsily hewn.

“Take this,” my mother said, throwing the crooked limb to me. “I whittled it when I was small.”

I missed it, and the jagged staff clattered to the ground. I picked it up and held it so tight the knobs from her hewing cut, and then my mother bought her own dark limb down. She had never struck me before, not with her hands, not with wood. Pain burned my shoulder, then lanced through the other.

“This one,” she grunted, her voice low under her weapon’s whistling, “was my mama’s.” Her spear was a black whip in the night. I fell. Crawled backward, scrambling under the undergrowth that encircled that ruined midnight room. My mother stalked. My mother spoke aloud as she hunted me in the bush. She told me a story: “This our secret. Mine and your’n. Can’t nobody steal this from us.” I barely breathed, crouching down further. The wind circled and glanced across the trees.

“You the granddaughter of a woman warrior. She was married to the Fon king, given by her daddy because he had so many daughters, and he was rich. The king had hundreds of warrior wives. They guarded him, hunted for him, fought for him.” She poked the bush above me. “The warrior wives was married to the king, but the knife was they husband, the cutlass they lover. You my child, my mama’s child. My mother, the fighter—her name was Azagueni, but I called her Mama Aza.”

My mama set her spear down, stood with her palms open. They shone silver. “Come, Annis. Come out and I will teach you.” I started to crawl forward, her blows still stinging. “Don’t forget your staff,” she said. I inched back before dragging myself up and out, where I stood on the tips of my toes, one foot in front of the other, ready to run. Waiting for her to hit me again. “Good,” she said, looking at my feet, my swaying dance. “Good.”

I have grown from that night to this one. I am tall enough to look down on my mother’s head, her dark shoulders, beautiful and round as the doorknobs I polish in my sire’s house. My mother has a few gray hairs, but her fingers are still sure as daggers, and she is still upright, slim and straight in the full moon’s gloom. We come here, to our secret clearing with the burnt tree at its heart, only a few nights out of the month, when the moon shines full so we don’t need a fire. My mother inspects my hands, pressing each callus, massaging my palm. I may be bigger and thicker than her now, but I stand still as the gap-toothed child I was and revel in her touch, unfurled to her tenderness.

“Your fingers long.” My mother taps the center of my palm, and my fingers close fast. “You practice with my staff, tonight.

“Here,” my mother says, digging out the weapon Mama Aza left her. She runs her grip down the long, thin limb, stained black and warm from the oil of her hands, and Mama Aza’s before. Mama Aza taught my mama to fight with it, determined to pass along this knowing taught to her by the sister-wives across the great ocean.

Mama tosses the weapon to me and picks up her childhood staff, jagged as lightning. I sweat, fear spiking my armpits. My heart thumps in my ears. Mama whips her spear, and we begin to spar: with every spin, every strike, every stab, my mother becomes more fire, less herself—more licking, liquid flame. I don’t like it, but then I don’t have time to like it, because I must parry, block, jab. The world turns to one whipping, one humming, and us spinning with it.

When we return to the cabin, Nan and her two oldest children are asleep. Nan and her family share the cabin with us. Her youngest two are awake, and they cannot stop crying. They hold each other in their blankets, breath hitching from sobbing, while their mother and siblings doze. Nan has always diverted her love for her four children. She throttles it to a trickle, to an occasional softness in her orders: be still, hush, don’t cry, and the rest of her care is all hard slaps and fists. She won’t love what she can’t keep. My mother reaches out to me, and I grasp her hand as we tuck into our bedding. Mama has always been a woman who hides a tender heart: a woman who tells me stories in a leaf-rustling whisper, a woman who burns like a sulfur lantern as she leads me through the world’s darkness, a woman who gives me a gift when she unsheathes herself in teaching me to fight once a month.

THE NEXT MORNING, MY mother wakes me before the sun; she smells like hay, magnolia, and fresh game meat from last night’s midnight sweat. I’m exhausted. I want to roll over in our blanket, yank it over my head and eat more sleep, but Mama runs a firm hand down my back.

“Annis, my girl. Wake up.”

I pull on my clothes, tuck my blouse into my skirt as we walk toward my sire’s house. Can’t help the sulkiness dogging my tucks, dragging my steps. My mother walks a little ahead, and I punch down my resentfulness. Mama is almost running: she has to get to the oven, needs to light and stoke the fire within it, heat it so that she can do the morning baking. I know she is ordered to the house just as much as I am, what with all I have to gather and deliver and clean for her, to aid her in this morning, but I am short-tempered and tired until my mother begins to limp, a little stitch in her walk. Last night pains her, too. I trot to her, slip my hand through the crook of her elbow, and rub her arm. Look on the soft down of her ear, her woven hair.

“Mama?” I say.

“Sometimes I want something sweet,” she breathes, tapping her fingers on mine. “Don’t you?”

“Naw,” I say. “I want salt.”

“Mama Aza always said it wasn’t good to want sweets. I’d hunt them and eat so much my hands’d stain red and blue.” Mama sighs. “Now having a bit of sweet is all I can think about.”

My sire’s house hulks, its insides pinned by creaks. My mother bends to the stove. I gather wood and haul water and take both up the stairs, peeking into my sire’s daughters’ rooms. They are my half sisters; I have known this since my mother first taught me to fight, yet envy and distaste still burrow in me every morning when I tend to them. They sleep with their mouths open, pink scraped across their cheeks, their eyelids twitching like fish who swim in the shallows. Their red hair snarls in knotted threads. They will sleep until their father wakes them with knocks on their doors, far past the first blush of dawn. I tamp my feelings down, closing my face.

My sire is at his desk, in his dressing gown, writing. His room is stuffy with cold smoke and old sweat.

“Annis,” he says, nodding.

“Sir,” I say.

I expect his eyes to glaze over me as they do every morning, like water over a smooth stone. But his gaze snags on me, square, then trails me around his room as I fill his washbasin, gather his clothes, grip his chamber pot. He appraises me in the same way he studies his horses, his attention as sure and close as his touch on a long-maned neck, a muscled haunch, a bowed, saddle-worn back. I keep my eyes on my hands, and it’s only when I descend the stairs that I realize they are shaking, his mess sloshing in the pot.

I take care to hide from his gaze. It is something that I have always known how to do: I seal my mouth silent. As the day lengthens, I walk on tiptoe through the wide, dim halls of my sire’s house. I set buckets and basins down softly, ease the metal to the floor in a ring. I stand very still, just beyond the doorway of my pale sisters’ schoolroom, and listen to their tutor read to them beyond the door. The stories I hear are not my mother’s stories: there is a different ringing, a different singing to them that settles down into my chest and shivers there like a weapon vibrating in struck flesh. These girls, sallow sisters, read from the texts their tutor directs them to, ancient Greeks who write about animals and industry, wasps and bees, and I listen: “Bees seem to take a pleasure in listening to a rattling noise; and consequently men say that they can muster them into a hive by rattling with crockery or stones.” The youngest sister’s voice falls to a mumble and rises. “They expel from the hive all idlers and unthrifts. As has been said, they differentiate their work; some make wax, some make honey, some make bee-bread, some shape and mold combs, some bring water to the cells and mingle it with the honey…” I breathe in the pine halls and repeat the most potent words: wax, honey, bee-bread, combs.

“Aristotle refers to the heads of the hives as kings,” the tutor says, “but scientists have found they are female: actually queens. In ancient Greece, Artemis’s priests were known as ‘king bees.’ Bees, too, were credited with giving the gift of prophecy to her brother Apollo.” The tutor gives a dry laugh. “This is blasphemous superstition. However, Aristotle’s advice on those who labor and the fruits of that labor are sound: leave a hive with too much honey, and a beekeeper encourages laziness,” he says, his voice high and soft, nearly as soft as those of my unsure sisters. I know he is speaking about bees but not—that he is using the bees and the old Greek to speak on all of us who labor. I know he’s talking about my mother making biscuits and stews on the stove in the attached kitchen, about Cleo and her daughter Safi and me, who tidy rooms, beat dust from rags, wipe their floors until they gleam like burnished acorns.

I hurry downstairs to my mother, who reads me as quickly as the tutor reads his passages.

“You’ve been listening again?” she asks.

I nod.

“Have care,” she whispers, and then bangs her spoon on a black pot. The kitchen is thick with salt meat. “He wouldn’t take kindly to knowing.”

“I know,” I say. I want to tell her more. I want to tell her that I envy my sire’s twin daughters, their soft shoulders, their hair pale and thin as spider’s silk, their lessons, their linens, their cream-colored, paper-thin dresses. I want to tell her that when I listen at their doors, I am taking one thing for myself, one thing that none of them would give. I say the tutor’s words in my head again, trying not to feel guilty at my mother’s worried frown, the way her anxiety makes her stab her spoon into the pot. Wax, honey, bee-bread, combs. How to apologize for wanting some word, some story, some beautiful thing for my own?

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I say as I retreat outside to gather more wood.

A lone bee meanders through the kitchen garden: plump, black striped, beautiful. It lands on my shoulder, soft as a fingertip, and I wonder what message it brings, from what spirit worlds. They are queens, the tutor said. When the bee rises and disappears into a nodding yellow squash flower, wind beats through the trees, and I think for a moment I hear an echo drifting down through the branches: Queens.

WHEN I TURN DOWN my sire’s bed, he watches from beside the cold fireplace. Normally, he is downstairs, sipping amber drinks and visiting with other planters, all buttoned-up vests and murmured conversation punctuated by bluster. Tonight, he sits in an upholstered armchair, part of his dead wife’s dowry. At dinner, he complained of fever and congestion, and asked my mother for a remedy: a mixture of mushrooms and herbs. It is this I set before him in a ceramic cup. He holds the cup with two fingers, his legs long before him, his boots caked with spring mud. His eyes shine with the light of the candles, and I look at my hands: smoothing, plumping, folding. I will myself to move faster so I can get out of this room and into the moonlit night.

“You’re taller than your mother,” he says. Where the tutor’s voice is high and breathy, my sire’s voice is deep, grating. I can’t help but startle, dropping his quilt. “Come,” he says. “Remove my boots.”

I have never done this before. I stand away from the bed, looking down at my own beaten shoes, so worn at the sides that I can see my toes. I can’t move.

“You heard me,” he says. His red hair glints. It is not a question.

My mother has told me the story of how my sire violated her. Of how he came across her, alone in one of the upper hallways of the house, outside of an empty bedroom. How he shoved her into that bare room and bore her down to the floorboards. How he flayed the softest parts of her. How he raped her that time, and then another time at the river, and another, and another, until she stopped counting and became pregnant with me. Years later, he married the white woman, yellow haired with thin wrists, who would later die in the bearing of his twin girls.

As I kneel at his feet, I wonder if my mother felt her heart beating as quickly as the heart of a rabbit hunched in a field at twilight, shying from the shadow of the hawk. I pull at his laces, as far away as I can be from him, so that I have to reach. My arms burn with my awkward cowering, but I unknot and shuck his boots as quickly as I can. His socks smell of overripe cheese. He raises one arm, makes as if to palm my head, grab my hair, pull me toward his lap, but I rise and lurch away from him and am out of the door before he can touch one curl. Still, I see the way he seems fixed on my mouth, my mane, which falls dense and shiny, so resistant to braids, and reflects his own copper glint in its strands.

I would shave it all off, every bit.

THE YOLK OF THE moon is high in the sky by the time my mother wakes me and we creep from the cabin, from Nan and her children grinding their teeth and talking in their sleep. We walk barefoot to the clearing, making as little noise as we can, stepping on the balls of our feet carefully in bare dirt patches. I sweep our footprints behind us with a tree branch my mother twists from a pine. Ever since I’ve been old enough to remember, my mother has asked me to tell her. Tell me, she says, if anybody ever touches you. It’s what she said to me the first time she told me the story of how my sire stalked and violated her. Please, Annis, she said. I want to tell her about my sire before we spar, but she digs out the spear and staff so quickly, tossing them through the silver-washed air, that I cannot do more than swing my staff up to block hers, and then we are whirring and whirring, shuddering to a stop before attacking each other again. With every block, every strike, every jab, there is a coil in my chest, and it winds tighter and tighter before it begins to burn. What is the point of this? I ask myself. What is the point of this if I cannot use it?

The moon rises, and I am wrung dry, the fury of our fight leaving behind only a slick of resentment. I jab at her and try to forget.

“What was Aza’s mama’s name?” I ask.

Mama bids me swing, and I squirrel through her defense and touch her stomach.

“Don’t know. Mama Aza never told me. Say when her father took her off to give her as a wife to the king, her mama followed them into the morning. Trailed them for miles ’til her father stopped and argued with her mother, saying it was an honor for Mama Aza to serve, that she would be fed and clothed and revered: a king’s wife. Say her mama took her face in her hands and kissed her on each cheek and her forehead, tried to whisper something to her, but couldn’t talk for crying.” Mama pushed my elbow lower. “Mama Aza say once her and her father got to Dahomey, where the king live, the spear became her mama. The cutlass her daddy.”

Mama frowns, her face wrinkled as a tablecloth.

“The warrior wives had servants. But all the wives was servants, too. Had to train and parade. Had to move at the king’s direction. And warriors couldn’t have a family, couldn’t have no babies. Was against the king’s law.”

I stop, digging Mama’s staff into the dirt, beaten hard by our feet.

“Tell me about my granddaddy, please,” I say, looking at my toes, our feet the same shape. Mama stops. She’s told me this story many times, the first when I was a girl, in one of our earliest lessons.

“Mama Aza loved a soldier who stood guard outside the castle walls and took him as a lover.” She frowns. “The king sent her and the man who loved her to the coast. They was walked to the white men, to the water that don’t have no edge. The whites made her walk through a door to a beach, and then put her down in a ship.” My mother reaches out, pinches my shirt, and tugs before letting go. “They stole her. Bought her here.” She tugs again. “Why you ask?”

I shrug. Her second toe longer than her big toe. My second toe longer than my big toe. Shoes always hurt our feet.

“Mama Aza knew the power of men before she got to that boat. When her daddy brung her to the palace, the king tell her father: I take her for my wife, but she bound to the cutlass, the bow, the axe. Mama Aza said there were hundreds, hundreds of wives, and one king.”

Mama swings, and I block it.

“No other men allowed to live in the palace besides the king,” Mama said.

There wouldn’t have been any other men there with the power to weigh and measure Mama Aza, to appraise her like my father did me. No man but the king: stout, jewelry laden, finely clothed. Perhaps his tononu, master of the house and eunuch, at his ear.

I wonder what the royal household saw in my grandmother. If they saw something in her that spoke of power, that told them she could bear more than the weight of her frame. When my mother tells Mama Aza’s stories, I see her in my head, lean and long like my mother. But sometimes I think I’m wrong, that the royal women looked at Mama Aza and saw a girl like me: gangly, water muscled, cup hipped. Maybe Mama Aza had learned to hide her fierceness so good, all the women and the king saw was a thin girl with a spindly line running from head to toe that pulled her upright, defiant.

When the king designated Mama Aza an amazon, did she feel relief? Joy at knowing she wasn’t beautiful enough to be one of his true wives? That she would not have to submit beneath him, to bear him on her body and then deliver him blood, babies, and breast milk? Was she happy to know that she would learn how to satisfy his other desires, for blood and loot? That she would serve him in battle, hunting elephants, with a knife and spear? That she would bear bundles for him that contained heads instead of infants? Or did it grieve her that she was bound by another invisible rope, had to surrender herself in this palace full of women in thrall to one man?

“I don’t understand why Mama Aza wouldn’t share her mama name. She taught me that the ancestors come if you call them. That if you having trouble, you pray to them, and they give help,” Mama says, swinging again. I miss the block. “Maybe she think her mama should have tried harder to keep her, and she carried the pain of it, still.” Mama jabs, and I parry. The night quiet of people, loud with bugs around us. “Some think those that die come back if they die in a bad way, a way so awful Great God turn they face. Fon believed spirits come for you no matter the why, no matter when, if you call. You swing now,” Mama says. I swing and she blocks and swings. I barely knock it away. I am breathing harder than I should be. Mama steps back and holds her spear out, ready. “Don’t think of me like that, you hear? I always come for you. Beyond this time, into the next. Always.” She steps close, so near our knees almost touch, and wipes wet from my face: half caress, half swipe. “Now, why you ask for Mama Aza’s story again?”

I tell my mother, haltingly. The words crowd one another as the panic I felt in that room froths up out of me, and I have to close my eyes to speak, to get the story out.

“He was,” I say.

Mama nods.

“Watching me like a hound,” I say.

She blinks.

“His shoes. His feet.”

She settles, still.

“Grab my head,” I say.

When she is sad, my mother presses her lips into a thin crease and turns her head away, her cheek a drawn curtain; I saw it first when I was young enough to climb in her lap whole and be held by her, after I had fallen while running and cut a long gash in my calf. When she is angry, my mother folds her arms across her stomach, as if she could hold in her fury; I saw it when my sire crushed his daughters to him in their finest black dresses as they lowered his wife into her grave, knew it was because he spent the week before throwing every dish my mother set on the table at the floor, the wall, the ceiling, in his grief. My mama and me spent them days on our hands and knees, scrubbing, scrubbing. My mother holds her stomach now, her spear in the V of her elbow.

“Why,” I ask. “Why we do this if we can’t do nothing with it?” I let my staff drop.

My mother closes her eyes, sets her spear aside, and crouches on her haunches. I sink down next to her, let my arm rub against hers.

“Mama Aza taught me this,” Mama says, looking up to the roux-dark sky, her arms still tight around her stomach. “Was about the only thing she could teach me. This and gathering.”

I rub her arm with a finger, all our hard strikes gone from this clearing.

“This place, these people, this world,” she sighs, “was new to her. She ain’t know how to move through it. Didn’t know the order of it. Just a few short months after the ship, she found out. The old master come into the cabin after she birthed me, and he laid claim to me, me wet with birthing blood and bawling. This owning from birthing to the grave, and on down, through children—this world overwhelmed her.”

I grip the soft sliver of meat under my mama’s armpit, one of the few tender, fatty pieces on her.

“This place horrified her,” Mama whispers. “When I got older, I thought I knew. Thought I understood how wrong this place was, but I didn’t.” Mama squeezes her middle. “I didn’t understand how wrong until you came squalling out of me.”

In that one place, my mama’s flesh is soft as pig stomach, the pale plush of intestines.

“Teaching Mama Aza’s way of fighting, her stories—it’s a way to recall another world. Another way of living. It wasn’t a perfect world, but it wasn’t so wrong as this one.”

Mama squeezes my fingers.

“Best we don’t forget,” she says.

The trees wave and whip their fronds above us. The ruined tree creaks.

“You remember what Mama Aza did first as a king’s wife?”

I nod.

“She ran,” I say.

Mama snorts.

“He come at you again, you run,” she says. “Knowing when to stand and when to go, when not to fight, well, that’s a part of fighting, too. Knowing when to wait and bide and watch and duck. You got to know that, too.”

We sit in the clearing until just before dawn, both of us too anxious to do more than lean into each other, hugging, blinking and slipping into sleep in little nods. When we rise and bury our blunt weapons, I pour the last palmful of sand over the wood, and the wind silences. Everything is quiet, until there is a buzz at my ear, a brush of sound. It is an inky bee, drifting in the dregs of the night, in this fighting clearing. Mama and I walk back to the cabins with our arms locked and linked. Her leaning on me, me bearing her up.

WE GLANCE PAST THE silent cabins and walk directly to my sire’s house.

“We start early,” Mama says as she lights the kindling in the stove, blows in its belly. “Mayhap we finish early,” she says, and I know why. She thinks to hurry our work so I do not have to kneel at my sire’s feet again.

“Yes, Mama,” I say, and set to hauling water.

But the hours unspool anyhow. My sallow siblings want extra water to wash. The tutor wants me to clean and polish the shelves in the nursery turned schoolroom, complaining of dust. My sire wants fresh bed linens, tells me that fever made the ones I’d turned down the evening before reek of sweat. When evening falls, I still am not done. When the family’s bedtime approaches, I find myself sloppily tucking and folding my sire’s linens on his bed, kind Cleo and sulfur-eyed Safi already gone downstairs. When they left me to finish, I wanted to call after Safi, beseech the thoughtful girl who has always run to hoist too-heavy buckets with me, has always been quick to grab the opposite edge of a bedsheet so we could fold its length together. She would’ve known I needed help. But my voice has withered. My breath rasps. Run, I say to myself. Mama said run.

My sire trips into his open doorway: he has hurried here. I jab the last corner under his mattress, rise, and stand, balancing on the balls of my feet. I take a step toward the door. Run, my mama said, run. But I ain’t got nowhere to go, a little voice says. I take one breath, and then another, the air cool in the room but burning down my nose, and I know I can’t surrender to what he wants to do to me. I know that I don’t have my mother’s self-control, know that I will struggle with him, that I will use my elbows like hammers, my legs like staffs, that I will make my knees fists. I think of Mama Aza squatting in the cabins, infant in her arms, afterbirth still in her, and this man’s father, my grandfather, standing over her, and how it must have rung through her head: This is wrong wrong wrong. I hear it now. How the knowing sink in my stomach.

“Annis?” my mother’s voice sounds from the hallway beyond the door. She has opened the door, and stands in the open palm of it. “We done.” Her arms band her stomach. Her head is down, but then she raises it and I know that eyes can be weapons, too, that they can glitter like small knives, like them used to gut a fish. I have never seen anyone look past my sire as my mother does now, him a buzzing gnat, unworthy of notice, of even a waved hand. “Come,” she says.

My sire has his own signs for anger, but I don’t look for them. I edge past him to my mother, her bladed hand, the long, dim hallway, the creaking stairs, the quiet kitchen, the murmuring garden, the loud night. We walk past the cabins, past the fields, into the forest to the clearing. We walk as far away from my sire’s house as we can. We do not dig out our weapons. We make a bed in the soil we have beaten soft with our feet and pillow our heads with our arms. My mother curls around my back, her breath soft on my neck.

“There are herbs,” Mama says. “I’ll look for them tomorrow. We should have them.” She circles my stomach and pulls tight. “He won’t stop. Every time after the first, I grabbed this,” Mama whispers. She pulls something out of her braided hair that looks like a white awl, thin as a needle.

“What’s that?”

“It was Mama Aza’s. A piece of a elephant tusk. She got it on one of her hunts.” Mama puts it in my hand, and it is smooth and warm as her skin.

“Once I got myself past the feeling of hitting him with it, right here”—she touches my neck, below my ear, where my heartbeat thrums—“I tried to remember that I still had plenty inside he couldn’t take.”

The shoulders of the trees shake with wind.

“Mama Aza said bringing down an elephant is a good way to teach somebody small how to beat somebody big. How you have to be cunning, have to be smart. If you not, you don’t live through it.” Mama slips the ivory awl back into her hair. “You remember that, too, you hear. You don’t need this ivory or them spears. In this world, you your own weapon.”

The moon blanches the sky; she is nearly set before we sleep.

In the hour before dawn, there is a perfect silence. I wake, my mother’s snoring hushed in my ear. I slide my hand up her forearm to the muscley meat before her shoulder and squeeze, hard enough to feel the push of her flesh under my fingers, soft enough not to wake her. I turn on my back so I can see her face: her open mouth, her cheekbones fallen with ease. The moon has set behind the trees, but its light still suffuses our clearing: milky glass. Some nights I steal these moments for myself; what my mother demands in fighting, I take back now. My mama’s face is slack as a child’s; her limbs are so close, they could be my own. I put my hand on her neck, feel the rush of blood there, the red river that binds her to me. I feel as I only can with her.

A buzzing hiccup sounds from the ruined tree above us, and suddenly, the clearing fills with a grating whisper. I squint against the sky and see trailing garlands of black dots rising from the trunk in a humming chorus. I rub the down of my mother’s arm. It takes moments more, each one stretching thick as honey, to decipher the dark rising, the sibilant singing: a beehive has taken root in the tree, and now they wake and go forth with the dawn. A little more, I think. I will let my mother sleep a little more, drift skyward in the place of dreams, before rousing her, waking her, pulling her back here.

One breath more, I think, feeling my mother’s heart in her neck. One breath.

MONTHS LATER, WHEN I see the Georgia Man standing at the head of the trail leading from the cabins to the fields, my sire beside him, pointing at me and my mother, I dig my nails into my mother’s hand to stop her.

“Mama, no,” I say.

“Come,” I say, echoing the first time she roused me to fight.

“Please,” I say.

I turn back toward the cabins, the woods, the far clearing. I pull my mother’s arm, try to rouse her to run, but she will not. She stops still and grabs me by my collar. Tears are already leaking down her face, and she does not try to wipe them, to hide the glaze of her sorrow. The sky is thick with clouds, the air heavy with coming rain, the smell of water cloying. My mother has eyes for nothing but me, only me. She smooths her hands over her hair and then does the same to mine, and something sharp knifes my scalp: the ivory awl sliding into place. And then I feel only the press of her palms on my cheeks, my ears, as she holds my face to look at her.

“Annis, my Arese,” she says, her voice fluttering. “I love you. I love you, my little one.” One of the Georgia Man’s men walks toward us and grabs my mother by the same soft meat of her arm as I have done so many times. Cries rise from the people around us; a bolt of summer lightning flashes in the distance. The Georgia men are grabbing men and women and children on their way to their labor. The Georgia men are separating those to be sold. They have come for their goods to march to New Orleans. There is a sinking at the heart of me, a whirlpool sucking down and down. Surely the earth is opening to us. Surely this terrible world is swallowing me. I grab my mama’s wrists, sinewy as corn sheaves, and howl.

“Mama,” I say.

“I always be with you,” my mama says, and No she not, I think, no she not, as the closest Georgia Man, broad armed and dirt faced, wrenches her away. Pulls her back. My sire done chose her for the markets.

“No,” I say.

One more, I think, and yank my mother from the man, whip her like a spear to me. He grabs her again and pulls, and we are three of many, tussling in the path, until the Georgia Man standing next to my sire pulls a gun from its holster and fires it in the air. Panic stills us but cannot calm my love, my frantic need to keep my mother here, here, here. I fall to the dirt, wrapping myself around her legs.

“Mama,” I mouth into her skirts. Her free hand finds my scalp.

One more breath, I think.

Reading Group Guide


“‘Let us descend,’ the poet now began, ‘and enter this blind world.’”—Inferno, Dante Alighieri

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward stuns in a new lyrical novel about an enslaved girl who must walk on foot from North Carolina to New Orleans. Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, seeks comfort in the memories of her mother and stories of her African warrior grandmother. During her journey, Annis opens herself to a world beyond this world, one teeming with spirits: of earth and water, of myth and history; spirits who nurture and give, and those who manipulate and take. In this story of rebirth and reclamation, Ward guides readers through the descent—painting an intimate, searing portrait of Black grief and joy.​​
Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Annis describes her mother as “a woman who hides a tender heart” (page 4). Name a few moments when Mama reveals her tenderness. How does she conceal her “tender heart” and, in your opinion, what is she protecting by hiding it?

2. Turn to page 6. Read from “I take care to hide . . .” to the text break on page 9 (“Queens.”). Bees appear as a motif throughout the novel. According to this passage, what might bees symbolize in Let Us Descend?

3. On page 33, Annis listens through the door as her half-sisters are taught a passage from Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Inferno is a literary antecedent for this book—just as Annis is accompanied on her walk south by Aza, Dante was lead through the nine circles of Hell by the spirit of Virgil. Chart Annis’s journey from the Carolinas to New Orleans. Can you identify any “circles of Hell” she might have waded through? What distinguishes one from another? How did Ward’s allusions to Inferno impact your reading of the novel?

4. Consider the role of spirits in Let Us Descend. They can be sinister, with selfish needs and malicious plans, or angelic guides offering counsel and comfort, and everything in between. How would you characterize Aza when she first appears to Annis in Chapter 3?

5. When she arrives in New Orleans, Annis finds a new world she has never encountered—many brown people, some even lighter than she is, are free, able to “walk through the world as if every step they take is their own” (page 92). These women avert their eyes from Annis, Phyllis, and the other enslaved people. Shortly after, a group of young boys stare at Annis, but their mother whisks them away. Why are the free people of New Orleans reluctant to look at the captives as they walk by? On the other hand, why is it so hard for Phyllis and Annis to look away from the free Black people?

6. Turn to page 113, where Annis narrates, “New Orleans is a hive, and us the honey.” What do you think she means?

7. Discuss Annis’s encounter with They Who Take and Give, the spirits of the ground, while she is confined to “The Hole” on pages 158 to 164. How do you characterize her emotional journey across this encounter? Does this interaction alter her perception of the spirits? Did it alter yours?

8. By cutting her hair, Annis attempts to take control over one element of her life—she severs an obvious connection to her complicated ancestry. What makes Annis’s hair meaningful in this way? Why do you think she offers her hair to They Who Take and Give?

9. Consider Aza’s physical changes. For example, on page 184, she shrinks, changing form so that it almost looks to Annis that they “could be sisters.” Note also how Aza takes on Mama Aza’s appearance throughout. Why does Aza shape shift in this way? What, if anything, is she hoping to get from Annis as a result?

10. Reflect on the events of Chapter 13. Annis, pregnant and alone in her new home, seems hopeful, healthy, and strong. From where does she draw this strength? How do you envision her new life once her child is born?

11. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Aza is an imposter—she has stolen Mama Aza’s name and hungers for Annis’s love and devotion. Naming is one way to preserve history and culture, and Aza admits to taking Azagueni’s (Mama Aza’s) name so it would live. Consider the custom, practiced throughout antebellum American history, of renaming enslaved persons so that they shared a surname with their enslavers. In this historical context, what is the power of a name?

12. Discuss the roles the various spirits play in this novel. What is their fate? How do you imagine they might endure, or not, through history and into future generations?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Jesmyn Ward’s previous books have earned her two National Book Awards, a MacArthur Fellowship, and other prestigious honors. Read Sing, Unburied, Sing: What role do ghosts play that novel? Compare Leonie and Given to Annis and Aza. Or, read Salvage the Bones: What role does nature play in that novel? How is its ferocity depicted in that novel in comparison to this one?

2. Read Beloved by Toni Morrison. How do the two books exist in conversation with one another?

3. Watch Roots, the 1977 miniseries that told the saga of American families by tracing the connection between their origins in Africa and their present in America. What is the significance of family legacy in African American history?

4. Let Us Descend is filled with references to historical practices, places, and events. Research the histories of plaçage women, the Great Dismal Swamp, and maroon colonies.

About The Author

Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has received the MacArthur Genius Grant, a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency, the Strauss Living Prize, and the 2022 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. She is the historic winner—first woman and first Black American—of two National Book Awards for Fiction for Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) and Salvage the Bones (2011). She is also the author of the novel Where the Line Bleeds and the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and the Media for a Just Society Award. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Tulane University and lives in Mississippi.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 24, 2023)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982104498

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Raves and Reviews

"[Ward's] most masterful work yet... Pitting ancestral wisdom and human connection against the arbitrary brutality of slavery, this book will have readers torn between wanting to savor the richness of every sentence and needing to know, immediately, what happens next."
—Oprah Daily

“Overwhelming . . . This is a novel of triumph. . . . Running up against the limits of faith in the face of calamity, Annis eventually hammers out a relationship to the spirit world, complete with a rough-hewn existential philosophy that is both revolutionary and entirely consistent with the tools at her disposal.”
—Washington Post

“Ward is one of America’s finest living writers… Ward’s mesmerizing sentences, her dazzling descriptions of the natural and unnatural, the way she coerces time and guides readers between a heartbreakingly familiar story of torment and moments of sublime tenderness, suggests a protean artist in her element.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Superb . . . Angry, beautiful, raw, visceral, and heartfelt, Let Us Descend is the literary equivalent of an open wound from which poetry pours. . . . Ward has taken Black history in a time of racial and political turmoil and used it to scream about grief and injustice, but also about beauty, queer love, history, determination, and joy.”

"Jesmyn Ward does not miss. The fourth novel from the two-time National Book Award winner, MacArthur 'Genius' fellow, and heir apparent to Toni Morrison is every bit as haunted, furious, and beautiful as 2017’s Sing, Unburied, Sing... Let Us Descend is another triumph."

“Ward finds a traveling companion in [Toni] Morrison’s style . . . even as she makes them her own. Let Us Descend joins a list of distinguished neo-slave narratives.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“In 2017, I read Sing, Unburied, Sing as a tour de force declaration of Ward’s full emergence as an artist in total command of American English and a master of the novel form. Her new novel doubles down on that declaration.”
—Boston Globe

“Jesmyn Ward is reimagining Southern literature…competing with giants like William Faulkner, while mapping territory all her own…Let Us Descend asks us to imagine how we are to live a life here in the present, honoring the past while not being beholden to it.”
—New York Times Magazine

"[A] powerful historical novel.”
—New Yorker

“Searing and lyrical...raw, transcendent, and ultimately hopeful...A shimmering and breathless proclamation of loss and deliverance set against the monstrosity of human slavery...One of the most important voices in contemporary literature.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A searing and vivid work of historical fiction.”
—Vanity Fair

“Harrowing, immersive, and other-worldly, this tale of survival and rebirth in the dark heart of the American South is another triumph for two-time National Book Award winner Ward.”
—People Magazine

"A devastating, deeply moving masterpiece."
—Good Housekeeping

"Annis’s story, told in Ward’s musical prose, is nothing short of epic, magical, and intensely moving."

“Imaginative... Combining magical realism with historical fiction, two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s fourth novel tells the story of Annis, an enslaved girl in the antebellum South... To survive, she must tap into the mystical in this heart-wrenching narrative of the American South in the age of slavery.”

"Ward’s writing is breathtaking in its brutal honesty of life among slavers and is also lyrical in the moments of imaginative escape."
The Denver Herald

"A new novel from Jesmyn Ward is always a reason for celebration… In this magical realist masterwork, Ward writes with lyric brilliance about women’s resilience in the face of heartbreaking odds.”

"This harrowing, haunting story about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War is inspired in part by Dante’s Inferno and the descent into the underworld... Ward, the youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, among many other distinctions, turns her brilliant gaze to the grief and joy of the Black American experience."
W Magazine

"An articulation of grief and sadness unlike anything I’ve ever read…. While Ward never flinches from the horrors of slavery or the deep scars it has left on America’s political and social landscape, it’s Annis’s unwillingness to succumb to grief and loss that makes Let Us Descend such a powerful novel.”
—Locus Magazine

“Shatteringly beautiful . . . In yet another masterwork, pain and sweetness alike haunt Annis. But she keeps walking.”
Garden & Gun

"Two-time National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward (the first woman and the first Black American to achieve that feat) follows her fierce and tender novel Sing, Unburied, Sing with a historical narrative about survival, iron will and spiritual rebirth. Taking its title from Dante’s Inferno, the story follows Annis through the hell of enslavement and the saving grace of ancestral memories."
LA Times

“This powerful tale of an enslaved woman’s journey through the deep south draws on Dante and African spirit mythology… told in a language that, as in the past, is adept at yoking emotion to the body, and which here is harnessed to a heightened register of sometimes mesmerising incantatory power… this is Wagnerian opera, a soaring howl of pain and grief that aims to balance intimacy with mythic scale.”
—The Guardian

"Ward’s writing is like a spirit that flits and flies, landing on Annis’ painful reality while also going deep into the rich inner world that sustains her in a hellish time and place."
—Financial Times

"Now, Let Us Descend joins a list of distinguished neo-slave narratives — stories about much more than slavery that include Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Octavia Butler’s Kindred and, of course, Morrison’s Beloved."
—The Seattle Times

"Annis is strengthened by stories of her warrior ancestors as she struggles to retain her sense of self through the pain and terror of her journey."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The power and artistry of Ward's work has been celebrated with numerous major awards, and her new novel will be a magnet for readers.”
Booklist (starred review)

"[Ward] employs her prodigious skills to craft a deeply moving and empathic story... This testament to Ward’s mastery of language should leave readers scrambling for a highlighter.”
Library Journal (starred review)

“Readers won’t be able to turn away.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Saturated with terror and enchantment… What gives this volume its stature and heft among other recent novels are the power, precision, and visionary flow of Ward’s writing.”
Kirkus (starred review)

“Jesmyn is, quite simply, the best of us.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates

"In Let Us Descend, Jesmyn Ward resurrects an enslaved girl out of the lost folds of the antebellum South, twists magic through every raindrop, mushroom, and stalk of sugar cane, and drops you into the middle of her harrowing, unendurable, magnificent song. This is a gripping, mythic, bone-pulverizing descent into the grim darkness of American slavery—and yet somehow this novel simultaneously leaves you in awe of the human capacity to not only endure, but to ascend back to the light. A spectacular achievement."
—Anthony Doerr, author of Cloud Cuckoo Land and All The Light We Cannot See

“This harrowing, haunting story about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War is inspired in part by Dante’s Inferno and the descent into the underworld... Ward, the youngest winner of the Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, among many other distinctions, turns her brilliant gaze to the grief and joy of the Black American experience.”
— W Magazine, Most Anticipated of Fall

“The reason to read it is her writing. These comparisons can be glib, but I can't not think about Toni Morrison when I read her work — just the casual brilliance and lyricism of the language. That nothing ever feels forced, even if it's otherworldly and poetic. And the way she makes you feel the grain of every moment of joy and suffering.”
—KCRW (Los Angeles NPR)

“Ward’s prose shivers with the weight of heartbreak and her story shimmers with myth and memory. Another slamming, gut-punch of a novel from the two-time National Book Award winner.”
—Amazon Books (Best of the Month)

“Ward’s writing is breathtaking in its brutal honesty of life among slavers and is also lyrical in the moments of imaginative escape. The author does a splendid job of not only depicting harsh realities but also offering the possibility of a better life, illustrating how, as she so eloquently put it, “enslaved people might have retained their sense of self, their sense of hope in a time and place that attempted to negate both, day in, day out.”
—Denver Post

“A strikingly written, and confronting portrayal of slavery… This is a book suffused with grief for slavery, but never devoid of hope and love.”
—Sydney Morning Herald

“Shortly before the American Civil War, an enslaved young woman named Annis is sold South in a fit of rage by the enslaver who fathered her. Separated from her mother and lover, Annis is chained to a group of women forced to walk through swamps and unforgiving terrains from North Carolina to Louisiana. She’s joined on her journey by haunting memories, sympathetic spirits, and ancestors from the other side.”

“To read Jesmyn Ward is to be carried by her epic, transformative language to the dark heart of the American South and, once there, to be surprised by the stark beauty of the region’s people…captivating…Ward writes in the traditions of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison, but this story is unmistakably her own…[Annis’s] thoughts sing with Ward’s signature lyri­cism.”
—BookPage (starred review)

“It is as close to a new Toni Morrison novel as one could hope to get from another fantastically talented African American female writer…Let Us Descend is sure to cement Jesmyn Ward’s reputation as a writer whose books will stand the test of time.”

“A genre novel mixing historical fiction with fantasy and using both to craft a powerful narrative of enslavement and resistance… Ward delivers a moving defense of the strength and persistence of mother love.”

“From Carolina rice fields to the slave markets of New Orleans and on to a Louisiana sugar plantation, the enslaved young woman Annis endures a hellish march, surviving through memories of her warrior grandmother; her mother’s love and training; her absent love, Safi; and an anarchic group of elemental spirits. It’s no spoiler to point out that the brilliant Ward employs a Dantean structure as Annis makes her descent and, at last, her rebirth.”
Los Angeles Times (Best Books of October)

“Accomplished… Ward’s skills light up this historical, allegorical work as they have lit up her novels about her native ground on the Gulf Coast. Anyone with an imagination can be a fantasist. In Let Us Descend Ward shows once more her formidable gifts as a novelist.”

Let Us Descend is a story of hardship, mistakes, and one brutal journey after another. It is a story of loss, grief, and devastation. But above all else, it is the journey of a woman, her mother, and her grandmother, and of these characters’ legacy of courage and strength. It is a story of both origin and resilience, and of descending into the inferno and coming out the other side. Let Us Descend is a novel of lush prose, and a prolific history of sadness succeeded by hope.”
—Southern Review of Books

Praise for Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing

"Ghosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing — a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor."
—Entertainment Weekly

"However eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment."
—The New York Times

"Staggering ... A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s The Odyssey.”
—Boston Globe

"Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is longlisted for a 2017 National Book Award, establishes Ward as one of the most poetic writers in the conversation about America’s unfinished business in the black South."
—The Atlantic

"Some chapters sound like fairy tales. This, and her ease with vernacular language, puts Ward in fellowship with such forebears as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner."
—The New Yorker

"[A] tour de force ... Ward is an attentive and precise writer who dazzles with natural and supernatural observations and lyrical details ... she continues telling stories we need to hear with rare clarity and power."
—O, the Oprah Magazine

“Macabre and musical... Her lyrical language elevates desperation into poetic reverie … a gripping and melodious indictment of modern racial injustices.”
—Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"If William Faulkner mined the South for gothic, stream-of-consciousness tragedy, and Toni Morrison conjured magical realism from the corroding power of the region's race hatred, then Ward is a worthy heir to both."
—The Dallas Morning News

Awards and Honors

  • Carnegie Medal Honor Book

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