Literary Hub is pleased to reveal the cover for two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Let Us Descend, “a haunting masterpiece about an enslaved girl in the years before the Civil War,” which will be published by Scribner this October.
“In each book since my second novel, there has been a wild animal presence: a dog, a snake, and a great black vulture,” Ward told Lit Hub.
I like to think they are reflections of the natural world, but I also believe they are something more, that they are the manifestations of that which does not operate by human logic. They exist in a liminal space, fierce and free and mysterious. They are both ordinary and divine, and they bear proof that there is more to this world than we know.
There is just such a presence at the heart of Let Us Descend: bees. The narrative demanded the existence of beings who defied the logic of America in the early 1800s, which posited that one human could own another, and that this cruelty was dictated by nature and God. During my research for the novel, I discovered that in Egyptian mythology, bees are messengers to the gods. They move between this world and those beyond. In the world of my book, my main character, Annis, is an enslaved teenager who navigates the material world and the spiritual one, and bees appear to her again and again, so I was pleased to see bees incorporated into the first draft of the cover design. In my feedback to the artist, Jaya Miceli, I wondered if there should be only one bee, and inspired by a tattoo artist that I followed many years ago on social media, I thought that perhaps the bee could have an image in its body, an image of the main character’s dreams, her hopes, her prayers, born on the bee’s back up to the stars.
When Jaya sent me the final version of the cover, I loved it. I love that there is only one bee, and I adore the imagery in the bee: the swamp, the heron, and the wild tangle. This is Annis’ dream, her prayer, ascending in the golden hour.
Here’s the cover, which was designed by Jaya Miceli:
“The eloquence of Ward’s writing and the rich descriptive depth of her storytelling about a young enslaved girl’s harsh journey of survival and triumph over darkness made for an exciting, but daunting design challenge—one I felt compelled to take on,” Miceli told Lit Hub.
Bees are drawn to Annis, the young protagonist in this story, just as much as she is drawn to them, and they follow and guide her throughout.
The bee and stars on the cover were meant to be abstract and symbolic as a creature of flight and travel, which I also felt connected to the words in the title. I also integrated Ward’s insight and suggestion after she saw the first rendition of the cover, which had multiple abstracted bees, she suggested adding atmospheric swamp-like elements and other creatures within the bee, to add a more heightened layering of storytelling within the bee imagery on the cover.
Many thanks to Jesmyn’s editor, Kathy Belden, for her openness and for discussing the details of the story with me, which encouraged the creative process to flow.
Finally, here’s some more about the book from the publisher:
Let Us Descend is a reimagining of American slavery, as beautifully rendered as it is heart-wrenching. Searching, harrowing, replete with transcendent love, the novel is 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.
Annis, sold south by the white enslaver who fathered her, is the reader’s guide through this hellscape. 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 Ward leads readers through the descent, this, her fourth novel, is ultimately a story of rebirth and reclamation.
From one of the most singularly brilliant and beloved writers of her generation, this miracle of a 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, a masterwork for the ages.
Let Us Descend will be published by Scribner on October 3, 2023. You can preorder it here.