Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where she won five Hopwood awards for essays, drama, and fiction. She won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction with her second novel Salvage the Bones.
In the book, your own story is interwoven with the stories of the five men who lost their lives. Could you tell us a bit more about this structure?
Honestly, that structure just came to me. I knew that I couldn’t fictionalize that story. I couldn’t make it into a novel, I had to tell it using the memoir form. It had to be creative non-fiction. Because I knew that, I began to try to figure out how it would be set up, and then the structure just hit me. So I wrote the book, ping-ponging back and forth through time, working my way forward from the past, but then also working my way backwards from the present, and then I meet in the middle at the end, with my brother’s death. I wrote the first draft, and I did some revisions, but I didn’t change the structure. When I was working on the revisions, I sent it to my editor, I told her that I didn’t know if this was working. I told her I knew it was probably very confusing for the reader, because I am going back and forth in time, and I knew it would be disorienting for them. I asked her to help me make this work, because I couldn’t conceive telling the story any other way. When I sent the email, I thought that maybe I should tell it forward, kind of logically, from when I was a child and when my parents met. But it felt wrong to tell it like that.
When one of my friends said that the structure made sense to her, she said that I had ended at the heart of things, which makes sense since it’s my brother’s death. It’s the one that affected me the most and carries the most meaning in my life. It took someone else, an outside reader, to look at it and help me figure out why I felt that compulsion to tell the story that way.
What triggered the writing of this book?
I think I knew, when it was happening, that I’d have to write about it one day, but I didn’t want to write about it. Around 2004, I wrote an essay about my friends and my brother, about their death. It was the first time that I wrote about it, but I think I was too close to my brother’s death and my friends’ deaths to make any sense of it. After I wrote that essay, which I wrote for a creative non-fiction class, I avoided it. I didn’t write anything else about it for years, until I wrote the proposal for the memoir, which I wrote around 2011.
I avoided it for a long time, I didn’t want to write about it. I knew it would be really hard, and very painful, and I didn’t want to do it. I kept putting it off. When I was working on Salvage the Bones, I had another idea. I kept writing the first chapter over and over and I couldn’t get into it, for some reason it just wasn’t working. I thought that maybe I shouldn’t write this novel, maybe I shouldn’t explore this idea right now, maybe I should work on something else. I thought that maybe it was time for me to write this memoir. Maybe enough time had passed to write about it and to do it justice.
Do you think there’s a spirit to all the places you’ve lived in with your family—DeLisle especially?
I think so. It’s difficult to write about it, because I live in DeLisle now. There are many reasons why I returned home, but it was mainly a choice for me. There are plenty of other places I could have moved to, but I returned home because there are so many things that I love about home. At the same time, it was important for me to recognize that there are things that I hate about home and where I come from. Writing a book allowed me to reckon with those things.
In Men We Reaped, you insist on the fact that the women were the cement of the family. Is the story as much about women as it is about men?
I think so. Some people who have read the book don’t see it, so I find myself having to defend that reading of it, my reading. I feel like the chapters about young men are about them, but the chapters in between are about me, my sisters and my mother. They are also about my brother, but I do feel that the women in my family figure prominently in those chapters. What I’m writing about is an epidemic of young black men dying. On the surface, that’s what it is, it’s an account, and a look at their lives. But I think that if you dig deeper, hopefully one of the things that I’ve argued in the book and proven in the book is that this loss, and this grief, and this life, it doesn’t only affect young black men. It also affects black women, black people, in America, regardless of where they live. It affects poor people too. I think it’s apparent for some readers. Others don’t think it is, but I think that it’s there.
The repercussions are felt by everyone, man or woman.
Yes. For me, what underlies everything is this idea, in the U.S., that black people are worthless. For me, that underpins everything, it informs everything. Because history has told us that. Because the society we’re living in is constantly telling us that, in different ways. So we internalize that, we treat each other the same way that the world is treating us, and you’re getting that message regardless of whether you’re male or female. It doesn’t depend on gender.
At some point in the book, your friend Demond asks you about what you write, and you reply that you don’t write about “real life stuff”. Have you come to terms with that?
Yes. It was funny, when I was writing that, when I was remembering that conversation, I said to myself “here I am, writing something about his life”, and that’s exactly what we were having this conversation about. I feel like the story that I told was a story that I needed to tell. But I don’t wanna write another memoir ever again. I think that’s it. The process was entirely too painful. For me, there were moments where, every day when I was working on this book, I would cry. A memoir demands that you look honestly at your life and the lives of others, and then you make discoveries about your life and the lives of others. Many of the discoveries that I made trying to understand why I reacted in some ways in the past, or why my father acted or reacted the ways he did, or why my mother acted or reacted the ways she did, a lot of those discoveries were very painful. It was a very difficult process, so I don’t want to do that again. I want to write more novels.
Do you feel that the voice in your memoir was the same as the voice in your fiction?
I think that the voice I used in the memoir has some similarities to the voices that I use in my fiction. Maybe in the way that I use language, my love of metaphor and simile. All of those things are evident in my fiction and in the memoir. But it was different, and I realized while writing the memoir that this was me and my voice, something quintessential about me and the way that I choose to express myself in the memoir. Whereas, in the novels, or at least in Salvage the Bones, I really inhabited the voice of the character. It’s my voice because I’m writing it, but it’s her voice. When I was writing Salvage the Bones, I heard her saying these things, the rhythm of her speech and the sort of language that she would use, these were all specific to Esch. I think the books share similarities as far as my style goes, but there’s something about writing a memoir that makes you own your voice.
In Men We Reaped, you insist a lot on the necessity of language, the fact that you love words and you know how to use them. What kind of power do you draw from language?
I think that speaking for ourselves and asserting our worth is one of the most important things that we can do. I grew up in the American South, and I feel like a lot of what was so difficult about growing up as a young poor black girl in the American South was that part of that culture demanded that I was silent, that I endure all these things. I never said anything about it, because it’s just the way that things are, and I could never change anything, that was the understanding. But as I grew older, as I worked very hard to become a writer, I discovered that that way of thinking was wrong. I discovered that it was most important that I open my mouth and that I speak up about the injustices that I saw, the inequality that I saw, the way people were dehumanized. If I look at the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., it’s because people would open their mouth, protest, raise their voices that things hopefully can begin to change. That’s the first step: you have to talk about it. You have to say that there’s a problem, you have to assert that there’s a problem.
Did your family read the book?
My family read it, my extended family read it, and they were all fine with it. My dad was okay with it too. He’s told me several times that he’s proud of me for telling my story, and that means a lot of me, because one of the things that I was struggling when I wrote Men We Reaped is that I didn’t want him to be a villain. I wanted him to be complicated, and I wanted the reader to see that he was a human being. I wanted the reader to understand and to see that, yes, he made bad decisions, but I wanted him to understand why he made them, to sympathize with him. I was very happy, in that respect, that my dad saw that. My sisters both read the book. One of my sisters said “I read it, and I loved it, but I’ll never read it again”, because just as it was very painful for me to write, it was very painful for my sister to read and relive all that.
My mother was not pleased. We had a long discussion about it. I don’t know if it comes across in the book, but she’s sort of reserved and shy, so I think that it’s very hard for her to embrace the fact that there’s this book out in the world.
When I think about the book and about my mom, I think it is a love letter to my mother and my family. But I think she feels violated because she’s been written about, so she can’t see that. It just feels like an invasion of her privacy. She told me “please, don’t write anything else about me until I’m dead”. That’s how hard it was for her to be written about.