Jesmyn Ward has lost five male friends and relatives in as many years—all of them under 30. Ward grew up in the working-class town of DeLisle, Mississippi but escaped the conditions of her youth—the “wolf” plaguing the area’s poor, black residents, as she thought of it—by heading to the University of Michigan for college, and then to New York for the publishing world. In her absence, her 19-year-old brother Josh was hit by a drunk driver, her cousin C.J. was killed in a horrific train accident, and three other men died through drug addiction, murder, and suicide. Then came Hurricane Katrina.
After winning the 2011 National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones, Ward decided to write about her life in Mississippi and pay tribute to the men who died. The result, Men We Reaped, is out this week in American bookstores. Ward sees all five tragedies as being connected, products of the poverty and racism that marked her community. I called Ward to discuss her experiences and goals in writing the memoir.
What made you switch to nonfiction?
I was aware that I had this book in me, that something momentous and awful and complicated had happened to me, but I wouldn't commit to writing it. Writing creative nonfiction versus fiction is complicated. You have to deal with real life and some people don’t want to be written about. It wasn't until I actually had conversations with both of my sisters that I decided to at least try. They thought it was a story people needed to read, and to hear—and I needed to hear that to believe in power of the narrative, and believe it was worth all of the pain and possible ramifications.
Did you feel pressure to portray your hometown in a certain way?
My issues were more closely tied to family and how I portrayed them. If the narrative could stand without certain facts, I didn't include them—but I knew I had to tell the truth. For example, I knew it would be problematic to reveal that my brother sold crack on and off. I struggled with that. I knew that my mom would hate it, and she did. But I felt like if I was honest about the fact that he sold crack and how he sold it, I would hopefully reveal something about young black men from poor communities who feel like this is their most attractive choice. I want that revelation to raise questions: Why would he feel like this was his best option? Why was it even possible for him to think that this was viable? When people hear about a black kid selling crack, the conversation immediately demonizes him. I reveal what my brother did at the end of the book—after you've seen him on the day he’s born, up through when he’s 19 years old—and he’s a person for you. I hope the reader’s response is complicated in that moment. That it’s harder to call him a thug, or say he’s scum, or whatever way we throw people away in conversation.
Five young men that you knew well—all black—died in a four-year period. You argue that this wasn't coincidental. What does that mean?
That I don’t think what happened to them is unrelated. I think there’s a reason that five young, black men, from poor and working-class communities in the South died so close together, versus this happening in a well-to-do, white, suburban neighborhood in the North. That was the conclusion I came to at the end of the book: That larger things make it possible for an epidemic like this to happen, even though their deaths were very different. For my cousin C.J., what made it possible for there to be no railroad crossing, for the signals to malfunction, and for there not to be a barrier before the tracks, or enough reflective tape to see in a fog? Who gives a damn about infrastructure and safeguards in a poor, black neighborhood? To me, these deaths are related because they don’t take place in a vacuum. They come from a culture that tells us, over and over, we are less.
In the past, in the context of Salvage the Bones, you've said that you’re interested revealing the universality of stories. But the argument you’re making in Men We Reaped is that the experience of these men is not universal—and that’s the problem. How do you negotiate between the universal and the specific?
I hope that by the end of the book, the power of my characters’ development makes them human. That’s a large part of what I was doing with Salvage the Bones and part of what I’m trying to do here—make readers that don’t share anything with the people I’m writing about see these characters as complicated and complex. Then, that will then make them change their minds about their perceptions of being black and poor in the South. I know it’s really naïve, but that is my hope.
I was pleasantly surprised with Salvage. I went to Australia and New Zealand for the novel and met a lot of people who had experienced the earthquakes in Christchurch. They responded very strongly to the book because they had been through these natural disasters and were trying to figure out how to rebuild. Like my characters, they were human beings dealing with something greater than themselves. Here were people that didn't know anything about where I’m from or what it’s like, and they still found something to respond to. I hope that that will be the case with Men. Even though some people won’t agree with the conclusions I come to at the end of the book, we all face death and coming to terms with losing the people we love. If that’s the universal truth some readers find in this narrative, that’s great. I’ll go for that.
You also discuss distinctions not just of race but also of socioeconomic class. You introduce your mixed-race classmate who had to sneak into the country club, and your college boyfriend who came from a wealthy family. How were they different from the men you grew up with?
They had different expectations about what the world would do for them. That’s the biggest thing that I saw. My ex-boyfriend grew up with a different narrative of what was possible and how he would be treated. He wasn't oblivious at all; he was still aware of the way that being black would test him and hinder him in some ways. But just that difference in class meant that he had other expectations of the choices he could make concerning his life—even what kind of family life he could have one day. I really feel like when he looked at the world there was so much possibility in it. I don’t think men I wrote about looked at the world and saw it to be as welcoming or as bright.
When your sister told you by phone that the driver who hit your brother, Josh, had only been sentenced to 5 years in prison for leaving the scene of an accident—instead of vehicular manslaughter—your ex’s reaction is “What do you expect? It’s Mississippi.” What’s the difference between knowing what your community is like, and hearing someone else say it’s this backwards place?
His response made sense as far as being true. I lived my entire life there so it’s not like I didn't know there was injustice in Mississippi. It’s one of the reasons I fled and went away to college, and went as far away as I did. But in that moment I wanted to be comforted, and that’s the exact opposite of what he offered.
People give the South a bad rap. It’s often stereotyped as backwards and close-minded and dogmatic, and all of those things have been true. But I think that the South is changing, slowly but surely. It always makes me think of that quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I think that’s true, but maybe it’s the optimist in me talking. I don’t know.
That sense of fear is there and I talk about it with my nephew. He’s 17 and my brother died when he was 19. I worry about what the world holds for my nephew and this next generation of kids because I knew what it meant for my brother to be a young, poor, black man in the South. At the heart of it, and I know it probably doesn't make much sense, but I feel like us talking about it is something. Me writing this book? That’s something. On one hand I am very pessimistic, but on the other hand, if I didn't believe that speaking up would do something, I wouldn't have spoken.
After each man in your memoir, Men We Reaped, dies, there always seems to be a group of women left behind. Where do they fit into all of this?
I don’t know if I communicated it clearly in the book but, at least in my family, the women are the ones who hold the community together. They’re the ones that know the histories and work very hard to provide some sense of safety to the people here. Once we begin losing young men, the women are left to mourn and attempt to hold everything together, even though at that time they don’t want to have that pressure. At the end of the book I mention three women I knew who also died in different ways. One had an accident with the train; another person got pneumonia and developed a septic infection; another girl was stabbed to death by her boyfriend. So it isn't just about men. I know that it’s weighted that way, but it’s not like young black women are absent from this. They live here, too, and are just as vulnerable.
You seem ambivalent about the strength that some of the women both in your memoir and in your other writing wind up developing. Why?
In American culture at large, but especially in African American culture, it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help. And the myth of the “strong black woman” is tied to that. I've had conversations with my mom and my sisters where I've been very frank about the fact that I think we’d all benefit from therapy. We've been through a lot and it’s hard to navigate that, and to continue to be productive, and work your way toward some kind of happiness when you have to carry that weight. That would be a nice byproduct of the book—if more attention were paid to mental health in our community.
As you get closer to the end of the book, you talk more about yourself. Do you feel a sort of survivor’s guilt?
I think that I do have some sense of survivor’s guilt. And I am acutely aware of the difference in opportunities I was given and the opportunities that my brother was given. My mother did the best that she could. It just so happened that I was the first child and so her employer paid for me to go to school. They weren't going to pay for all her kids to go! Things worked out differently for my brother and for my sisters. I think about the fact that I’m alive and he and all of these other men are not, all the time. I’m able to look at where I am now, and see how I've come to this place. Partly because I worked really hard and was foolish enough to have these dreams—and then actually think they were possible—but I can also clearly see how luck played a huge role, continuously throughout my life, in getting me to the place where I am now. I just try to look at it clearly and not let it hamper me too much. I feel like what I am doing now, writing the books that I do, about what I do, is my way to atone.