Jesmyn Ward has two master’s degrees and two novels, including the 2011 National Book Award winner “Salvage the Bones,” under her belt. But she describes her new memoir, “Men We Reaped,” as the most difficult thing she’s ever done. The book tells the stories of five black men from in and around her hometown of DeLisle, Miss.—Roger, Demond, cousin CJ, Ronald and her younger brother Josh—who all met unexpected, violent deaths between 2000 and 2004. “Men We Reaped” explores how these young men lived and died, and the community left to mourn them.
It’s a mourning felt intuitively across the country. This has been a year in which the tragic ends of young black men—Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin—have garnered national attention. A year when we look at the remnants of their last days, the Skittles they never got to eat, the new year they never got to see, and wonder, collectively, What if? “Men We Reaped” is both a searing indictment of the disposable quality of black life and a love letter to all of those left with the task of living it. It’s also an honest and intimate look at the often unspoken struggles waged by men suffering from depression that drives them to use drugs and alcohol to cope, to forget. Ward spoke with Colorlines.com about what it took for her to write the book, and what she hopes audiences will gain from reading it.
You’ve said that telling this story is the hardest thing you’ve ever done. There’s a line where you say, “My ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that.” When did you realize that this was an important story to tell?
I didn’t realize that it was an important story to tell until 2005. The first incarnation of this story was as an essay that I wrote for a creative non-fiction class. It was around 20 pages and it was never published. I thought that was the end of it, but when my agent read it, she asked me if I thought about writing a memoir in general. I told her no. [Laughs].
But then I tried to write a book proposal for a memoir and it was really bad; I think I sabotaged myself. I knew if I ever wrote one, it would be “Men We Reaped.” But I was too close to it at the time; it had only been like five years since my brother had died and a year since the last young man had died.
How did you finally commit to writing it?
It wasn’t until 2010 that I [really] started tinkering with the idea. I knew that the process of writing would hurt and I had concerns about how people in the community and people in my family would react to me writing creative nonfiction. I had a conversation with my sisters where I went to them — because we’re really close and I knew that they would figure prominently in the book — and I asked both of them, “What do you think about this idea?” And I told them it would be about Josh and our friends dying. They were both very supportive and enthusiastic about it from the begining. My sister Nerissa said, “This is a story that people need to know. They need to read this. They need to hear this.”
You’re a novelist, so was there any hesistation about writing in a different genre?
Yes. I’ve written maybe two longer creative non-fiction essays, and by longer I mean 20 pages. I was very nervous about it. I was reading different craft guides specifically on writing creative non-fiction and writing a memoir, but I didn’t have any real background in it.
I feel like that’s part of my personality. When I wrote my first novel, I wrote it to see if I could do it. [I was thinking], ‘If I fail and it’s a bad novel, then that’s fine. But at least I will have showed myself that I can write a novel. I’m just gonna try.’ I think that having that reckless attitude helped me with this.
I feel like there’s this tendency, especially in death, to try to sanitize the life stories of people who we’ve lost. Throughout telling the stories of these young men, it seems like you’re resisting that. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
It was a conscious effort. I felt like in taking on this project I was committed to telling the truth because that’s what the form demands. But I had to figure out how much of the truth and I going to tell.
Developing their characters scared me because the thing that I most feared was that they would become stereotypes or that someone who wasn’t sympathetic to poor black people in the South would read this book and look at their lives and deaths and say, “They deserved this” or “They chose this.”
But at the same time, I didn’t want to sanitize them. I wanted them to be as human as they could. In all of my work, it’s important that my characters exhibit the whole range of human emotion. They’re doing good and bad at the same time, like human beings are. That was a constant struggle for me throughout the book, to try to make them balanced.
You’re coming off of a National Book Award for “Salvage the Bones.” Did you feel any pressure when writing this book?
I had a rough first draft [of “Men We Reaped”] written when I won the National Book Award. I knew the work that I would have to go in and do would be more revision. I didn’t necessarily feel [award-related] pressure with “Men We Reaped” because it was my first foray into creative non-fiction. That was challenging by itself, even without me considering the fact that I’d won this award and people would be looking at my work through a different lens. I’m definitely feeling that pressure now as I’m working on another novel.
You mentioned your sisters giving you permission to write the book. Have they and other people in your community read it?
My sisters have read it. Some other people in my community have read it—my friends, and a few of my cousins. Their response has been very positive. It’s hard for them to read it, especially my sisters, because, you know, they were living it. My younger sister told me, “It’s a great book, and I saw that while I was reading it, but I’ll never be able to read it again.” I totally understand why.