Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award winner, returned this fall with her third book, a memoir titled Men We Reaped. It is the story of five young men in Jesmyn’s life—her only brother, friends, a cousin—who all die violently, in the span of five years, in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. The short lives of these young men are entombed between chapters of Jesmyn’s childhood and adolescence, and in these chapters, she revisits the strained relationship of her parents and how their early choices, pronounced by poverty, shaped the people she and her siblings would become.
DeLisle, first named Wolf Town, a Gulf Coast community that survived both Hurricane Camille and Hurricane Katrina, is the specter of the memoir—the ravenous ghoul who eats its own children before maturation. Jesmyn articulates a violence specific to DeLisle and communities like it: a senseless, spastic, American violence, whose wounds never heal properly for being gnashed open repeatedly before mending. Jesmyn turns an eye to the conditions, the laws and frameworks that could allow for such miscarriages of justice again and again, through the lens of the young men she knew and loved. Each chapter is a grave marker; the reader knows there is no possible happy ending in sight.
Jesmyn and I talked over the phone, and her daughter’s cries peppered our conversation as I asked each question and waited for her soft-spoken answers delivered through an undeniable drawl. I found myself hesitant to say the names of her deceased loved ones. Instead of saying “Josh,” I said “your brother.” Rather than say “Demond,” I would only say “your friend.” Each time I spoke the name of one of her dead loved ones, I felt myself trespassing on territory not my own, in a space not privileged to me.
The fluidity with which my tongue said their names shocked me. I spoke of them as if I had always known them, as if I had laughed with them or drank with them or ridden through the streets of DeLisle with them, windows down, music blaring. In those moments, I wondered how strange it would be for me to hear the name of my brother coming from Jesmyn’s mouth. How I would jump a little, startled. How I would probably tilt my head some, furrow my brow, squint in her direction intensely before asking my question. I would be respectful but assertive. I would read her body language and look her squarely in the eyes. I’m sorry, Jesmyn, but my brother has never mentioned you before. What is your acquaintance? How do you know him? And depending on her answer, I would harden or soften my gaze. Depending on her answer, I would decide whether or not to pounce.
The Rumpus: Were you ever a poet?
Jesmyn Ward: I was. I wrote poetry in middle school and high school and even through college. It was bad. I just don’t think I’m very good at writing poetry. I mean, the distillation, I think, is hard for me, but I love poetry.
Rumpus: Your prose is so poetic, and I’m sure you hear that a lot.
Ward: I have and that makes me feel a little bit better.
Rumpus: The first line of Toni Morrison’s Beloved is “124 was spiteful.” In your opening chapter, your brother, Joshua, insists that your childhood home is haunted and that haunting extends to the town of DeLisle. As your memoir unfolds we understand the real-life haunting is racism and poverty. Can you talk more about that?
Ward: I wanted that to come out, especially by the end of the book. When I decided to write about my brother and friends, I was attempting to answer the question why. Why did they all die like that? Why so many of them? Why so close together? Why were they all so young? Why, especially, in the kinds of places where we are from? Why would they all die back to back to back to back? I feel like I was writing my way towards an answer in the memoir. By the end of the book, I realized that it is the history of racism, the history of poverty, the history of economic inequality that bears really heavily on the present and lives in the present. By the end of the book, I wanted the reader to understand that.
Rumpus: I want to stay here a moment because when we visit Demond’s home, you wonder if his dead grandparents haunt it. When you move to Gulfport, the memory of DeLisle haunts you and your siblings. In describing the trailer your mother bought, the way it sits on the ground on one side but supported by cement bricks on the other, I felt a fear for you and your family. As I read I kept saying, “Oh god, please don’t let one of the children get caught in that space. Please don’t trap them in the house!”
Ward: You know, no one has pointed that out to me before. I’ve also never written about home in this way before. I guess a lot of it is subconscious and I am intuitively making these decisions when I’m writing. I wanted to communicate in the book that on one hand, being at home—both in our homes and in DeLisle—gives us a sense of belonging and family and safety, but at the same time, being in those places makes us less safe.
Rumpus: There are several lines in the memoir that break me. One of which, on page fifty-eight, is: “They never touched each other in anger, but the small things in that house suffered.” My mind keeps mapping the home you built for us in the narrative, and I am looking at the little things falling apart, the neglected and tired things. Can you talk about your choice to use the word things instead of people.
Ward: I wanted to encompass us as kids, but also my parents in relation to each other, and the house itself, and the things that they owned. When you have a family, even though you might move a lot, you collect all of these things. It’s the detritus of your family and they become the symbols of your family life, and your unit out in the world. In that moment I wanted to allude to the fact that the way my parents’ relationship was falling apart was impacting me and my brother, my parents, but also our symbols. I was thinking back to things that marked us as a family. We used to have this huge stereo. On Christmas, we played Jackson 5 Christmas albums and Motown Christmas albums. When I was thinking back on the memory, I was thinking of those things that marked us as a family. I was thinking of those albums being broken.
Rumpus: You write about your depression as an extension of your mother’s. The ways in which she could not understand or express her sorrow foretold the ways you would come to handle grief. While you have writing, I am wondering if you have found other ways to speak.
Ward: I think so. Through the process of specifically writing this memoir, there was so much reckoning that I had to do. It was very difficult. It doesn’t erase anything that happened, but I think that it was healthy for me to do it. The teenage self-loathing that I suffered from all of a sudden found itself turned into rapids with my grief after my brother died. I turned it inwards. In the same way that my mom processes her grief and her problems. This project, as a memoir, has helped me funnel it outwards.
Rumpus: Your father is a very easy-to-love, hard-to-hate, tragic hero. Even as you enumerate the transgressions against your mother, we love him. After your brother dies and your father is seated before those televisions, we love him. We want the freedom he wants for himself. How difficult was it to write your father?
Ward: It was difficult because when I was a child—and I hope it’s reflected in the way I developed his character—I worshipped him. As I got older I realized one of the reasons it was so easy for that to happen, besides his charm, and humor and good looks, is because he did leave. He was able to swoop in and be the carefree, happy daddy. He could leave, but my mother was the responsible one who supported and provided for all of us because my dad didn’t. It was interesting writing him because now that I have a daughter, I understand how my parents differed. Writing the memoir made me more aware of him and able to understand him and the things he yearned for, because I yearn for them in my own life.
I was scared of writing my father because I didn’t want him to become a flat character, a villain. The bare facts of what he did are really ugly. It would be really easy to dislike him, so it was important to complicate him as much as I could on the page. I had to be truthful about the bad but portray the good as well.
Rumpus: One of my criticisms of the memoir would have to be the idea that the absence of the black father and black husband is crippling the black community. Can you talk a little bit about the fragile balance of writing accurately without perpetuating stereotypes and archetypes?
Ward: It worries me a lot, and it worries me in everything that I do. Speaking specifically about the memoir, I know that’s a criticism that people can have about my work. When I look at the young men’s lives, if they’re reduced to the worst thing they’ve done, then it’s easy for them to become a stereotype. I keep running into that with newspaper articles that are very short. They’ll read, “Rog, a cocaine addict…” “And so-and-so who sold crack.” It makes me angry. When I was writing the memoir, every page was a battle with myself because I knew I had to tell the truth. That’s what the memoir form demands. I also had to figure out how much of the truth do I tell, how do I make the truth as balanced as I possibly can? How do I make these people as complicated and as human and as unique and as multifaceted as I possibly can? For me, that was the way I attempted to counteract some of that criticism.
I knew it was going to come, but how do I not tell the truth about that? How do I not tell the truth about my father leaving and the ways I saw it cripple our family and affect my relationship with myself and others? The same things with my sisters and their relationships with others and men. My brother and the way he viewed masculinity, what it meant to be a man and provide. My dad’s leaving affected all of those things, and it’s not like I could leave it out. It’s a risk I had to take.
Rumpus: Junot Diaz calls you a “beast” at writing male characters, and I concur. You offer your readers beautifully complicated renderings of black men. Did writing Salvage the Bones prepare you in any way for the task of writing Men We Reaped?
Ward: I hadn’t thought about that question before, but I think that it did. Salvage is told from Esch’s point of view, and of course she is a young woman, but much of her gaze is on the young men in her life because she’s surrounded by them. I already wrote a lot about young, black men living in difficult circumstances. The circumstances in Men We Reaped are even more difficult, so it was even more challenging for me to do so. I had to write about Ronald, for example, who was self-medicating with drugs and then also struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. None of my characters and men in Salvage had to struggle with anything that dire and that difficult. The young men that I write about—my friends, my cousin, my brothers—their lives were even more difficult than the young men of Salvage.
Rumpus: You begin the title chapter of Salvage the Bones, chapter five, with the line, “Bodies tell stories.” The body of the widowed husband has become an empty glass; the family dog, China, a symbol of resistance; Big Henry, as graceful as he is large, is relief; Esch carries the child of loss, insecurity, and unrequited love. When you are shaping bodies and their histories and gestures, what do you have in mind for your characters, and how do you ask them to do things you wouldn’t do yourself?
Ward: I want each character to be as unique as possible. I want them to reflect something of who they are in the way that they move and in how their bodies work. That was foremost in my head when I was writing Salvage: I wanted every gesture, every little movement, to really carry meaning and communicate meaning to the reader. I was very conscious of that when I was writing.
When I wrote the line, “Bodies tell stories,” I was thinking of myself and my own scars that I’ve lived with since I was born. I had myself in mind but transferred those feelings to my characters and used that idea to inform their histories. For example, when Esch sees Skeetah’s scars, I was thinking of myself.
Rumpus: Salvage The Bones is a novel about the savagery and salvation that is water. Esch’s home, The Pit, is referred to as “empty as the fish tank dry of water and fish.” Can you talk about writing and rewriting the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Katrina into your work? How do you renew this place for your reader with each new book?
Ward: It’s a challenge with every book to rewrite the Gulf Coast and make it a vivid, lived-in place where the reader is fully immersed. I have to consider that it’s a place I’ve written about before, and I don’t want to repeat things. Part of what I was doing with Salvage, with Hurricane Katrina, was having the recurring imagery of water. I depended on that imagery and fleshed it out because I hadn’t done it in my first novel or ever before.
Rumpus: And your next book is set in the Gulf Coast?
Ward: My next book is set in the Gulf Coast.
Rumpus: You live in Mississippi with your daughter and family. How important is it to you that your daughter grow up there?
Ward: I’ve been all over the place—New York, Michigan, the Bay Area. There is the outside world and then home. I love the outside world and what it can offer. I love the diversity of opinion and experience and culture. I love having access to all of the things I have access to when I’m not in Mississippi, but I think I want my kid to grow up with a real sense of family and a real sense of community. This is the only place she’ll be able to find that. And I mean blood family and blood community. That’s home. That’s the Gulf Coast. There are over 200 of us, on my mother’s side, and that means that family is not just a concept that encompasses the nuclear. Family is the nuclear, the extended, and the community as a whole, the generations that have been here. I think it’s pretty special, and I want her to feel like she belongs to a place. I want her to have the experience of knowing home.
Rumpus: The funeral t-shirt, quite like the teddy bear and votive and altar candles, has become part of the assembly of the “gone too soon” memorial. You write about not wearing your funeral t-shirt for Josh until after Hurricane Katrina. Why then?
Ward: I could not wear it the day of his funeral because it was just too raw. It was just too raw, and I couldn’t do it. I didn’t even want to acknowledge that I had one. I couldn’t face it. I didn’t pull it out until after Katrina because a good enough amount of time had passed; I had about five years, at that point, to acknowledge his leaving and deal with the fact that, yes, he was gone and I had a memorial t-shirt for my brother.
The second, more matter-of-fact reason, is that during Katrina, my grandmother’s house, where we were staying, flooded. At one point we had to swim up to higher ground. I was barefoot and wearing shorts and a skimpy t-shirt that I had slept in. The storm surge came up through the bayou, and the bayou itself is just disgusting. The storm surge is pushing god knows what all the way from the Gulf, up through the bayou and into DeLisle, so we were gross. We had to hike to my mom’s house for clothes; you couldn’t get up on the roads because there were trees and power lines down. We got to my mom’s house, and the t-shirt was the first I pulled out of the drawer. I could have put it back away, but maybe I wanted to feel closer to Josh on that day. Maybe because the experience of the hurricane had been so harrowing. Maybe in that moment the t-shirt was less of a curse and more of a comfort, because it reminded me of him.
Rumpus: In the acknowledgments you thank your sister, Nerissa, for saving your laptop during Hurricane Katrina. To wit, she was saving the lives of these five young men. For this little while they are with you and your sisters again. Has this memoir brought any comfort?
Ward: It felt like an indulgence. Going back was painful, but, at the same time, it was nice to live with them again for a few pages. I got to live with my brother again for the entire book. Of course as I’m writing the book, I’m getting closer and closer to the end and I know what that means. I knew exactly where I was heading. It was really difficult, but it was nice to make them come alive for those scenes. It was good.