The last thing Jesmyn Ward wanted to do was write a memoir. When her agent, Jennifer Lyons, first suggested the idea eight years ago, Ward entertained the notion, but only technically. The book proposal she wrote, reluctantly, was a masterpiece of self-sabotage that produced the desired result: rejection.
Her skittishness had several strata. On the surface, Ward, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, wanted to establish herself first as a fiction writer—which she would accomplish with two novels, Where the Line Bleeds (Bolden Books, 2008) and the National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones (Bloomsbury, 2011)—before tackling creative nonfiction. On another level, though, the prospect of writing a memoir was deeply unsettling. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing what to write, or even how to write it, but of where the writing would take her: back to her youth amid the poverty and racism of the rural Deep South, back to the Gulf Coast, back to DeLisle, Mississippi, where several young African American men she knew—including her beloved brother, Joshua—had died in recent years, all violently, in a culture that devalued their lives. She’d written an essay, “To the Heart Unhurt,” about those young men, and showed it to Lyons, who immediately saw it as the seed of a full-length memoir. Ward did too, and instinctively buried it.
“It was too soon,” she recalls one sweltering afternoon in DeLisle, where she now lives in a neat brick house not far from the Chaneaux, the poor black neighborhood where she grew up. “I wasn’t ready at the time, because I was too close to what had happened. I needed distance from all of that, but I was too busy struggling with my grief. Just trying to make it, you know, make it through the days.”
But the seed of the memoir, buried in the back of her mind, had germinated there, increasingly threatening to flower. After completing Salvage the Bones, Ward finally felt that enough time had passed to allow her the necessary perspective on the sad, sometimes tragic events she would have to recount in the memoir. But still she hesitated. She would tell the stories of the dead, of course, but also of the living—her hardworking mother and faithless father, and her sisters, Nerissa and Charine, all of whose personal details, including their failures and foibles, would be exposed. There were matters of privacy to be considered and balanced against the imperative to deal honestly, even bluntly, with the plain, often ugly facts of life and death in DeLisle, a place where racism, poverty, and economic inequality often left young African Americans turning to the solace of recreational drug use, which sometimes led to addiction, drug dealing, and their attendant risks.
“I think she was hugely worried about writing nonfiction about people in her community and family,” says Sarah Frisch, a friend of Ward’s from their time together as Stegner fellows at Stanford University. “The question was how she could get through a first draft while protecting people who needed to be protected. That was a big hurdle for her to get over.”
But Ward knew from the experience of writing her novels that she must lean toward candor; Where the Line Bleeds, set in a thinly disguised version of DeLisle and featuring twin brothers, one of whose names is Joshua, had suffered from its author’s unwillingness to delve deeply enough into the harshest aspects of her setting. “I associated the twins with my brother, I realized later, and I didn’t want anything bad to happen to them,” Ward says over a lunch of oysters two ways—grilled on the half shell, fried on a salad—at a local restaurant within sight of the Gulf. “I was protecting them, but I was also strangling the narrative, and the story couldn’t live. And so in Salvage the Bones, I realized I had to be honest. If I’m going to write the truth about this place, I’m going to have to be honest about the realities of it. I can’t act like some benevolent god when, you know, no one is spared.”
Least of all herself. Men We Reaped, published this month by Bloomsbury, was a source of nearly constant pain for Ward, who wept at the keyboard almost every day of the writing. (The title is drawn from a quote by Harriet Tubman: “We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.”) In the memoir, Ward tells her own story of poverty and oppression—including self-hatred, bullying, and racial taunting at various schools, including the private, mostly white, Episcopal high school she was able to attend with the help of her mother’s employer—interspersed with even grimmer chapters focusing on the lives (and deaths, between 2000 and 2004) of five young men she had grown up with. They included Roger (Rog) Eric Daniels III, a former boyfriend of Nerissa’s who died of a heart attack after an evening of snorting cocaine; Demond Dedeaux, who was found shot to death in his yard in a possibly drug-related incident; Charles Joseph (C. J.) Martin, a cousin who was a passenger in a car that collided one night with a train and burst into flames at a railroad crossing whose warning lights were not working; and Ronald Wayne Lizana, a cocaine addict who committed suicide. Most painful of all is the story of her nineteen-year-old brother, Josh, who had once sold crack but had secured steady employment as a valet at a Gulf Coast casino, during which time he was hit from behind at eighty miles per hour by a drunk driver, pushing him off the highway and into the fire hydrant “which came up through the floor, peeled back the metal like the lid of a sardine tin, and smashed into his chest.” The driver, a white man in his forties with a history of driving drunk, who had staggered home after crashing into Josh, was not charged with vehicular manslaughter but merely with leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to five years in prison, serving only two years before being released. He was also ordered to pay Ward’s mother restitution of just over fourteen thousand dollars; he never paid her anything.
In Ward’s thinking, all five deaths were at least indirectly the result of a society that regards African Americans, in particular young African American men, as disposable—a condition that leads to neglect that manifests itself in various ways (such as the failure to maintain railroad-crossing lights in poor black neighborhoods), which the young men then internalize, leading to listlessness, lack of ambition, despair, and self-destructive behavior. In that sense, Men We Reaped is more of an indictment than a memoir, a bill of charges against a system that claimed a generation before its author’s eyes. “These weren’t just random deaths,” Ward says quietly, more in sadness than in anger. “They happened in my community, as opposed to a community that’s white and wealthy and has access to the kind of resources that we don’t have access to, and that hasn’t been historically oppressed in the way we have been oppressed. It seems to me that each of these men lived a life that was circumscribed in very real ways. Poverty, racism, inequality—all of those things bore down on them, and their life choices narrowed to a pretty limited set, where the best scenario was getting a minimum-wage job. In all kinds of ways, the society is telling us that we’re worth less—that we’re worth nothing, in fact—and that informs our choices. So yes, I have a responsibility to tell this story. And yes, I can’t apologize for indicting this system. Because if I don’t do it, who will?”
She sighs, frowns, nibbles at an oyster. “People ask, ‘Was it therapeutic, writing the memoir?’ It was, in a way, because it makes you work through these things, connect the dots and come to these very painful realizations. But it doesn’t change the fact that they happened. So when people ask that question, they want to think that it heals in some way, that it makes everything better. But it doesn’t. It was worthwhile for me to write this book, but it doesn’t heal anything.”
The responsibility that Ward feels toward her community in DeLisle has found expression in various ways—in the memoir, of course, but also in the fact that she continues to live there, with her longtime boyfriend and their one-year-old daughter, despite the fact that she now teaches creative writing at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, about a two-hour drive each way. (She has also taught at the University of New Orleans and at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.) She remains extremely close to her mother and sisters, who still live in the area, and deeply attached to the place, despite—or perhaps because of—the limitations and flaws she lists so thoroughly in Men We Reaped. (She’s less close, but still in touch, with her father, who left the family after a series of infidelities when she was young and now lives in nearby Gulfport.) Part of the reason for her connection to DeLisle—whose second syllable rhymes with ill—is that it seems that every time she leaves it, to go to Michigan or Stanford (where she was an undergraduate and later a Stegner fellow), bad things happen. People die.
“Even before I had a kid, it was important for me to live close to my family,” she says. “For me, losing my brother made me very aware of the fact that when I was in California or Michigan or New York City, or wherever I was outside of here, I felt very alone, very lonely. I realized that there’s a certain value to being close to family and living in a place where you have a support network of family members. That’s sort of out of fashion, I know, and people don’t advocate for that much anymore, but I need that support system in my everyday life, not just on holidays.”
At the same time, Ward is aware of being out of step with the tradition of many Southern writers, from Truman Capote and William Styron to Willie Morris and Alice Walker, who grew up in the South but left it, rarely to return except in memory and, of course, on the page. “This is the place I write about, so far and for the foreseeable future, and it feeds me to be here,” she says. “I don’t have to be—I’ve worked on all of the books in other places—but being in this place helps me to write about it in an authentic way. It keeps me hungry.” Hungry for what? “Hungry for the truth,” she says. “I’m still in contact with people who are still struggling, still dealing with all of the things I write about in my books, and I don’t want to forget that these are the same things that motivated me to write in the first place. If I lose that motivation, if I’m not conscious of what pushed me to get here, to this point, I feel like my work would suffer.”
Kathy Belden, her editor at Bloomsbury, agrees. “She talks about how it’s the place that always pushes her away and pulls her back,” Belden says. “Maybe because of all the losses she’s suffered there, maybe she doesn’t feel like she can risk being away from her family—an emotional risk, because those tight relationships are so very important to her.”
Of course, Ward is no longer the poor black girl who once lived crammed into her grandmother’s house in the Chaneaux along with twelve other members of her extended family, who drank beer and got high, passing blunts “like napkins” with her friends in a derelict county park on Saturday nights, who was a charity case at wealthy Episcopal schools where she was taunted by white classmates such as the girl who asked her, facetiously, to put “nigger braids” in her hair. Nowadays, Ward is self-possessed and solidly middle-class, a prizewinning author routinely interviewed by national magazines and television networks. But every day, she still sees people from her youth who continue to struggle with unpaid bills, chronic unemployment, depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse, the latter made worse by the advent of crystal meth, which has largely supplanted crack cocaine as the drug of choice in much of rural America, including DeLisle.
“I have a certain amount of survivor’s guilt,” Ward says carefully. “But that also gives me even more of a sense of responsibility to one day get in a position where I can help in some way. I’d like to be able to do it in concrete ways, although I can’t articulate what those more concrete ways would be, but in the meantime, I think I’m doing that with what I write. There’s power in telling a story. I love this place. I also hate this place; there’s plenty to hate here. But I hope that the work that I’m doing in my books is trying to make a place like this better in some way, trying to change perception of people here, and making people here more aware of the choices they make, the way they live their lives. By living here, in a way, I’m showing there’s another possibility, that being ‘successful’ doesn’t necessarily mean that you flee from places like this. And when you can, you try to make it into the kind of place that you don’t flee from when you have some success.”