National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward’s first foray into nonfiction, Men We Reaped: A Memoir, is a powerful and painful story from an often voiceless corner of the country. Ward was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in a close-knit, semi-rural community bedeviled by racism, poverty, and injustice -- but also rich in generosity, love, and self-reliance. The book tells two entwined stories, of Ward’s own upbringing as her parents struggled and failed to hold their marriage together, and the loss after loss of five young men, by violence and accident, narrated in reverse: cousins, friends, and Ward’s only brother. The book insists on the connections between these losses and their resonance within and beyond the community, and on the importance of lives that so often go unrecorded and unrecognized.
Signature: I wanted to start by asking about your title. It comes from a Harriet Tubman quotation about the Civil War, is that right?
JESMYN WARD: Yes, she was telling a story about a battle that she’d been near, and the men she was talking about “reaping” were from a black regiment, and they suffered heavy losses in that battle. That’s the language that she used to describe going into the field after the battle and gathering the men, the fallen men.
SIG: It’s so powerful, because it connects to the idea that the young men you’re writing about are victims of a kind of invisible war that’s going on right now. Was that connection something you had in your head from the start?
JW: It was. This is the first time that I’ve figured out a title at the very beginning of writing a book, and it actually stayed the same throughout because it fit so well. I felt that Harriet Tubman was telling my story and the story I’m trying to tell about young men -- she was speaking to that back then. This is happening again, and the young men are a casualty of this larger war, this unseen war.
SIG: The statistics you include, the death rates for young people in this kind of community, are the kind that we only otherwise see in war zones. That comes to seem like an inevitable connection, but it’s a shocking one to go into the book with.
JW: Part of what I’m trying to accomplish in the book is to shock people out of their complacency; to shock them so that they’re not thinking in the same modes that they had been beforehand about what it means to be a young black person in the United States in general, or more specifically, what it means to be a poor black person in the South. So that’s what I’m hoping for -- maybe if they think about the problems differently, and they actually see it as a problem, then maybe one day this won’t be the case. Maybe we won’t lose our young people in the way that we have been.
SIG: The sense of outrage that drives the book comes from drawing these connections, and saying that these people’s lives and their losses are connected, even if we don’t see the connection as obviously as we might if we had defined it as a war.
JW: I wanted people to see that not only are they connected, but that also so much of what has happened in the past in the United States has real consequences in the present. I think that’s something that people forget about, and that when they see these statistics, when they see the news about another young black man shot, or hit by a random bullet, they don’t connect the two. I really want people to be aware that the history of racism, the history of poverty, and this larger culture that in general, unfortunately, devalues black people -- that they have real consequences in real lives, and everything that happens at the present moment is not just a result of some mythical personal choice, and the choices you make in your life have no connection to anything else. We’re all about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, et cetera -- I think that’s a harmful mythology, that the choices that we make and the things that we do in our lives are not connected to anything else. So I’d like to help to debunk that.
SIG: The structure you chose for the book, with the two timelines running backward and forward -- was that also something that you had in mind early on?
JW: Yes, I did -- I had that mapped out from the beginning. I’ve found that in fiction -- and this is just the kind of writer I am -- I can't really work from an outline. I have a vague idea of the characters at the beginning of the book, and then I have a vague idea of whatever the end of the book will be, but I can’t approach creative nonfiction like that. So from the beginning, when I thought about telling the story of losing my brother and my friends, and using my life as a context to try to help the reader understand why those losses might have happened, I couldn't conceive of telling the story any other way. I knew that the structure I’d chosen was difficult, but it felt physically wrong to be telling the story in another order. I needed to go forward through time and backward through time at the same time, and end in the middle with my brother.
SIG: It builds tension in both directions, because you know what’s coming but not quite how how things are going to play out. The structure draws attention to itself, and makes the reader think about how the story is being told.
JW: I know that it’s harder for the reader to orient herself in the narrative because it’s so odd, and the way that I give the information is not very straightforward. So I do make the reader work, but I hope that the conclusions that I come to in the end are worthwhile enough.
SIG: There’s a striking moment in the book when you’re talking about writing your first novel, and the feeling that you were being too kind to your characters, who also come from this kind of background. Can you talk about that move from fiction to memoir, or creative nonfiction -- did you feel pressure to make the story feel more positive, or to shape it differently?
JW: I did, because although it’s based in truth, these are real people, and I come from a really small, tight-knit community, so I felt a lot of pressure to sanitize what had happened, what I’d done, what others had done. But my understanding of memoir is that it’s based in fact, and my job was to tell the truth, in the hope that in telling the truth there’s some result in the end, that I’m working for something. Every page, though, was a struggle. Even though I was committed to telling the truth, it was still difficult -- I had to figure out how much of the truth do I tell, how much am I going to share, how far do I go, what do I keep?
SIG: How did you approach writing yourself in the story? In a lot of the chronologically later sections, you come through as a kind of a watcher, or a witness to events; you’re there, but you’re not always central.
JW: I think that’s definitely true of most of the young men sections. The sections about my life and my family’s life -- I had more to work with there. It’s always hard for a writer to make herself into a character; I had to figure out what my defining characteristics were, and that’s something I had to work through multiple drafts to figure out. It was a painful process, because a lot of it involved looking back at events in the past, like the section where we’re living in the subdivision and there’s that creepy cellar out back in the woods. When I began writing that chapter I didn’t realize that that cellar would figure so prominently, but it did. When I sent it off to my editor, she came to that section and asked me: What does this cellar symbolize, why do you think you’re writing about this? She made me do the things that I should have already been doing, as a novelist: She made me look at myself in the past, and offer some kind of judgment, some kind of insight into who I was, and the person I am now. It took a lot of work to go back, in moments like that, and ask what was it about myself in that moment, what was it about that cellar that so horrified me, what did it mean to me? A lot of that character development I was doing in the fifth, sixth draft of the book, because it’s really difficult to -- even yourself in the past moment -- to step outside yourself and really make yourself into a character.
SIG: What has the reaction to the book been like so far, in your community?
JW: It’s a mixed bag. The reaction from my extended family and a good number of the people in the community is that it’s a good book and it was a story worth being told. I get that from my sisters, too -- but there are some people in the community who don’t like that I told such a personal story, and that I revealed the things I did.
SIG: It seems that your role of witnessing is a role that falls to women in the community: to watch, to wait, and to grieve. Was it difficult, being a woman and writing about men’s lives in this way?
JW: It was difficult. When I was writing the book I was thinking about gender -- in the way that, say, my brother’s upbringing was different from my upbringing, and in relation to my parents, trying to figure out if their differing ideas about gender affected their relationship. But it wasn’t until I got to the end of the book that I realized that people would have this reading, that this is something that just affects young black men. When I got to that last chapter, and I mentioned the young women I knew who died since 2004 -- there were three of them -- I realized that because I only included events from 2000 to 2004, it skewed the book in that direction. I wanted to acknowledge that young black men are living and dying in this way, but I want people to recognize too that it’s not just young men. Women too -- they may not hustle in the way that some of the young men do, but they too have substance-abuse issues, or mental health issues, or are involved in unhealthy relationships. They suffer from the same pressure.
SIG: So this is not simply a story about women losing men and men being lost, but again it’s all connected. Is there more of this story to tell? Do you think you’ll continue to write memoir?
JW: I’m definitely returning to fiction for my next book. Maybe there is another book I could draw from this subject matter, but I don’t know if I’m up to writing one. It’s very hard to deal with true subject matter, especially when you’re writing about such weighty issues.