Unforgettable

10.31.13

Five Young Men, Lost Too Soon

In her haunting and lyrical new memoir 'Men We Reaped,' Jesmyn Ward traces the arc of five bright, brief lives—cousins, friends, her own beloved brother—all black men cut down by violence and tragedy in her Mississippi hometown. The National Book Award winner spoke with The Daily Beast about the hardest story she's ever had to tell.

Men We Reaped was extremely moving and beautifully written. You talk about how telling this story is the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Why did you decide to tell it now?

I decided to tell it now because I couldn’t run from it any more. I avoided writing this for a really long time. And finally, when I finished Salvage the Bones in 2009, I was trying to figure out what I was going to work on next. I like to work all the time, because I’m afraid that if I don’t exercise it, then I’m going to lose it. And I knew that I had to tell that story, because what I had been through—what I had lived through— had been so traumatic. But all the years from 2005 to 2010, I couldn’t do it. I was too close to it. And I don’t think I was convinced yet that it was a story worth telling. I wasn’t ready to take the risk of making my family members angry, or people in the community angry. It wasn’t until I had conversations with different writers at Stanford and then also spoke with my sisters, and they all told me that is was a story worth telling. Those conversations helped me believe that the story was one that was worth telling, and that the story was so important, it was worth that risk of disapproval.

 

Why did you decide to tell the story in the way you did, interweaving your own personal history with the stories of these five deceased young men and the story of your town?

The book is modeled after an essay that I wrote about my brother and my friends and my life growing up. It’s an essay that I wrote while I was getting my MFA at Michigan—it was my final project for the semester in the Creative Nonfiction class I took. I put off writing it basically the entire semester. It wasn’t until the night before it was due that I sat down—I began writing it at around nine o’clock and I finished that essay at five o’clock in the morning. And I tell that story because I want to communicate the sense of urgency and pressure that I felt when I wrote it. When the essay came out, it was just one long draft—that was the way that it came out. I began with Rog and worked my way backwards in time. There were things from my childhood and my adolescence that were sandwiched in between the sections about my brother and my friends. That’s just intuitively how the story came to me. And when I sat down to write the memoir, I tried to figure out another way to tell it—I thought, ‘What if I tell it chronologically instead of using this weird structure?’ But I couldn’t do it. It felt physically wrong to me to tell the story in any other kind of way.

 

The towns of DeLisle and Pass Christian are characters in their own right in the story. Talk to me about the place that is your home.

I’ve been writing about DeLisle for a long time, in each of my novels. Even though the name of the town in my novels is Bois Sauvage, I knew when I began working on my first novel that it Bois Sauvage was an imaginary version of DeLisle. Originally, DeLisle was called Wolf Town—so I wanted to reference wolves in the fictional town I was writing about, which is why I used the French word sauvage. I’d been writing about DeLisle in different ways, or towards DeLisle, for a long time. So it wasn’t that difficult to write about it when I was working on the memoir, because that wolf-like quality was always foremost in my brain. But I also tried to be clear about the ways that this place where I’m from frustrates me, that it makes me angry, and the ways that it weighs on me. And I tried to be clear about that. I think in the way that I was determined to make my characters complicated, perhaps I’m trying to do that with DeLisle, with Pass Christian—to make my portrayal of those places complicated.

 

These five men—Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald and Josh—you make them so alive in your book. When you were reconstructing their stories, what was a quality that each of them had that really stands out in your mind?

With Rog, I really wanted to communicate how funny he was, and how much he loved life—even though something about life made him despair and he was self-medicating. And also that surprising capacity that he had for tenderness and kindness.

With C.J., he had this really fatalistic attitude about life that I wasn’t aware of until I began writing the book. So I wanted to communicate how dynamic he was—how he seemed so alive and such a force—but then how what I saw on the surface could conceal these depths and a sense of despair, and this conviction he had that he wouldn’t live long.

With Demond, what most struck me about him is that he was really hard-working, very dedicated to his family and to the concept of the right thing and the greater good. And how, in the end, even thought he did everything right, he couldn’t escape this place. He couldn’t escape all those pressures and the ugliness of this place—that he couldn’t escape it and that it killed him.

Ronald, he was really charming, and really charismatic and attractive—and he knew it. I wanted to portray that about him but also to write about him in a way that the reader could see how—even though he had all these natural gifts—it still didn’t give him a real sense of possibility or promise or hope. Because he was just dogged by despair and depression and that conviction that everything would be better if he wasn’t here.

With my brother—it’s really hard to write about my brother. I feel, like with DeLisle, I’ve written about my brother in everything I’ve done. Maybe I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I have. Every time I write a male character, some of my brother comes through. Everything that I’ve written, I’m writing towards him. In some ways, I feel like this is my brother’s memoir at the same time that it’s my memoir. I don’t think I can answer that question when it comes to him, because he’s still a mystery to me. He became the big brother towards the end and I was his little sister. There was something very protective about him, especially with me and with my sisters. But the older I get, the more I realize that he was still a kid, and he wasn’t the man he would have had a chance to grow up to be. He was really funny and silly—I don’t even know if I communicated that in the memoir. The more that I write towards him and write about him, the clearer it is to me that he was complicated. There were so many layers to him, and even though I feel like I knew him well, there was a lot that I didn’t know about him.

 

One of the motifs in the book is not only the pain these men felt before they passed away, but they pain of the women they left behind. You write about “the burden of regret.” When you talked to these women—your sister, your brother’s ex-girlfriend—how did they react when they heard about the book and when you asked them to talk about reconstructing their loss?

It was really painful for them. My sisters, especially, really believe in this project and believed in it while I was doing it. The women I spoke with, they saw worth in the project because they trusted me to make our friends and my brother and our cousins live on the page again—and they trusted me to communicate something important about their lives and their deaths. But even though they trusted me and they were really vulnerable with me when they told me these stories, it was difficult for them to relive what they’d lived and to share these small, intimate details. Because when they do that, they’re sitting with that loss again and encountering it and facing it. And that’s hard. In this country, when we deal with grief, we often deal with it by not dealing with it. It’s something we avoid. Like self-medicating—I know I did that for years. It’s really difficult when you realize that you can’t run from it and that you have to sit with it. That’s hard to do.

 

You write that you felt like “They are picking us off, one by one.” And you mention that this is one of the great mystery of the story—what or who is ‘they’?

I think that it’s a complicated collection of things that equal the ‘they’. I think that it’s history—it’s the history of racism in this country, it’s the history of generations of families living in poverty. And then I think it’s the lapsed public responsibility that I talk about, where no one is acknowledging those histories and no one is acknowledging that they bear so heavily on the present. All of that, of course, creates this message that black people—and more specifically, young black people—hear and see and intuit all the time: where the larger world is telling them, history is telling them, that they are worth less. It makes me think about Trayvon Martin and the message that was communicated in George Zimmerman’s trial, by the fact that no one was held accountable for this child’s murder—what does this say to all the other 17-year-old Travyon Martins in the United States, and to his friends? What does it tell them about their lives? It tells them that they are worth less. And all those things combine to tell us that message every day. Then, because we hear that message from the time we are very young, throughout our childhoods, throughout our adolescence, we internalize the message. And in some ways, we believe the message. So then this is where the lapsed personal responsibility comes in. We act in destructive ways and are abusive to ourselves and abusive to each other. I guess it’s a harsh declaration that I’m making, but it’s true. We are the ‘they,’ but also, everyone is the ‘they’.

 

Another motif in the book is the way in which people are constantly trying to escape DeLisle and yet are pulled back in. California features in your own story and the stories of your parents and Rog’s story—it’s a place of opportunity, free of family, free of the South. And yet you’re pulled back in by what you describe as a “choking love.” What keeps bringing people back to DeLisle?

I think that it’s family—not just your immediate family but your extended family. My extended family is huge—there are over 200 of us, just if I count my maternal grandmother and her sisters and their kids. And all these families are related to each other—so there’s a sense in which family is community here. Or community is family There’s something very seductive about living in a place and being in a place where you know everyone, everyone knows you; you know everyone’s history, everyone knows your history. There’s a real sense of longing and a real sense of orientation. So I think that’s very seductive. Also, I think that people come back because it’s familiar—the comfort of the familiar.

Every time I write a male character, some of my brother comes through. Everything that I’ve written, I’m writing towards him.

 

In the book, being a young black man in the South and being a young black woman in the South are each difficult in their own ways. Men and women have to be strong in different ways, but they are stifled in different ways. When you look around DeLisle today, is there still that sense of frustration among young people?

I definitely think there’s still that sense of frustration. I think there are small changes—but I don’t see any large-scale change. It’s my nephew’s generation, because he’s 17 now. And when I look at my nephew’s generation, I see that a lot of his peers that are boys, they’re hustling in legal and illegal ways, just like the kids in my generation did, just like my brother did. And they’re not thinking about legitimate choices that they could make now. They see, maybe going into the military. If they’re lucky enough to be athletically gifted, maybe playing sports in a community college—not even a four-year college. Maybe being able to play afterwards at a four-year college. But then a lot of them, like I said, they’re hustling. The young women, I feel like more of them are going to community college these days—local colleges, like the University of Southern Mississippi or the University of South Alabama. Schools that are fairly close. But that’s not everybody—there are plenty of them that are getting pregnant in high school, that are having kids in high school, that are graduating and don’t see how it would be feasible for them to go to college, to go into the military as a viable option.

 

You talk about the moment your mother started to realize that her own story would turn out just like her mother’s. Did you ever at some point think that your story would echo your mother’s? Or did you always feel your story would be different?

I think that’s a fear that was very close to me when I was in high school. That I thought my story would echo my mother’s. But now I think that once I got to college, at least then I knew that I was working towards a degree and that I would attain a degree, so I’d have more self-determination in regards to my financial future than my mom had. So I knew that. But I think that I still live with that fear, and probably in some unhealthy ways even now, with that fear of my story echoing my mother’s in regards to relationships. I still live with that fear. I think that my mother’s history and past, and my grandmother’s history and past—and the history and past of a lot of the women in my family—that still colors the way I interact with the people I’m in relationships with and the people I date. It maybe makes me more fearful, more hesitant to trust, I think.

 

As the losses pile up, you write about the ways people throw themselves kind of ‘carpe diem’ mentality, using drugs or alcohol to numb out. Were you afraid to talk about the drug use? Was that one of the things you thought people wouldn’t want you to write about?

Yeah. Some of the response that I’ve gotten now—not from everyone, but some people in my community and specifically in the families of the young men—found it problematic that I wrote about that. I think that they see these things are things that should be kept secret. And I felt like I had to be frank about them, because I feel like if we don’t talk about the pressure that we deal with and the ways that we cope and self-medicate in order to deal with those pressures, then nothing changes. And I can’t live with that. But I was hesitant to write about these things, because I knew that there would be some negative reaction to them. I felt like the way that I tried to counteract that response was to include myself. I’m very frank about the way that I was self-medicating, too. I wouldn’t have been honest about it at the time, but now, at the present moment, I can look back on the past and I can see that I was self-medicating. And I was drinking and getting high and popping pills, and doing all of it because it was damn near unbearable. Living through that was so hard.

Was there anything else, as you were writing, that made you worry about what people’s reactions would be?

I was also worried about writing so much about my parents’ relationship and about my mom and my dad. My mom’s a very private person, she’s very reserved, and this has been really hard for her. So I was worried about that the entire time. My dad, he’s not so conservative, he’s not so reserved. One of my friends said to me—and I think he was right—‘Your dad knows who he is.’ He very much knows who he is—in being this study in contradictions. I was less worried about his response to what I had written.

 

What was your mom’s reaction when you showed her the book? Or did you not show it to her until it was published?

I didn’t give it to her until it was published. I couldn’t do it. I was really afraid. So I gave it to her when they sent me my copies. And I came to her house and opened up the box and gave it to her. I had talked to her about it before she even saw it, several times during the actual drafting process. I told her, ‘I’m writing a memoir’; I’d ask her questions and let her know that the reason that I was asking her was for the book. So I tried to prepare her but I don’t think that it worked. [Laughs.] I think just the fact that she’s been written about, that’s hard for her.

 

There’s a lot of foreshadowing in the individual stories. I’m thinking of the train in C.J.’s story, or the motif of the heart attack in Rog’s story. When you were sifting through your memories, did you come upon these things and see them as shades of what was to come, or was it more of a literary construction?

No, because I didn’t know about Rog’s dad having a heart attack before I began working on his chapter. With C.J., I didn’t know about that story about him and the train until I began working on his chapter. And then I heard those stories from my sisters, they told me those stories. It wasn’t until I heard them and actually thought about writing these chapters that I realized that those events really did foreshadow what would happen to them later.


Your brother is really at the heart of the book, and the reader feels the immutability of his loss. What was it like, the process of piecing together his story?

It was very difficult, because during the entire book, as I’m reliving our earliest memories of childhood, I know what I’m writing towards. And his death chapter, the next to last chapter, was awful. It was awful. And that chapter—up until the last version of the manuscript before it was published—I was still revising and working on that chapter, because it was so difficult for me to write. But then at the same time—it was difficult because I knew I was writing towards his death—something about it was comforting. Something about it made me happy. I think the reason it made me feel those things is because I was living with him again. Even if it was only in my imagination, as I was trying to translate what I was seeing onto the page, it still allowed me to be with him again. At the same time it was painful, it was also comforting.