An Interview With Jesmyn Ward -The Toast

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Men We Reaped, by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, is a book about how place and home can shape lives indelibly. This memoir is a story of a grief so profound because those being grieved were cherished so keenly. It is a remembrance of five black men who died too young, and a chronicle of how a family grew together and fell away from one another but never came truly apart. Men We Reaped is a breathtaking book, one where both sorrow and song are palpable. The writing is as elegant as it is raw—a fierce declaration that Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana, and Joshua Adam Dedaux will not be forgotten. 

Though she is busy on book tour, I had the chance to speak with Jesmyn Ward via e-mail about the expectations she faced after winning the National Book Award, the boundaries of writing truth, the savagery she and her family claim and much more. 

Did you feel a burden of expectations after winning the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones?

I didn’t feel a burden of expectations immediately after because I had a first draft of Men We Reaped already completed. Writing memoir requires such a different set of muscles, both emotional and craft, and this is another reason that I didn’t feel that burden. However, now that I’m returning to the novel, I’m definitely feeling the pressure of expectation. Nikki Finney told me to forget all of that, and to remember why I came to writing initially, so I’m trying to follow her advice.

Home and family are such abiding themes in your work. How do you define home and family as a woman, as a writer?

Family is a mutable thing. Home is as well. Our nuclear families fracture and break, so we remake them throughout our lives. As I learned from Hurricane Katrina, homes can fracture and break as well, and these too, will be remade. The home I grew up in will never exist again, and this is why I write so much about home, perhaps. Because I lost mine.

You write, “Most of the people here are kin. It is something that the “Black” people will talk about among themselves, the way our families intertwine and feed one another, and it is something that “White people” will speak about among themselves, but it is something that we rarely speak to each other about, even when those on both sides of the color divide share the same last name.” Do you believe that these conversations will or should be had?

I don’t know if these conversations will be had right now. I’m fairly pessimistic about the possibility of people in the current South having complicated conversations about race because we’re so conditioned to respond quickly and emotionally, with all the vitriol that’s been bred into us, when race arises. I don’t think this is a conversation that we can avoid for long, however, because our past is our present and our future, in some respects. Love is ignoring color lines and prejudice even more frequently now, and the children of such unions and the culture of our time make avoiding that conversation moot.

As I read Men We Reaped, I enjoyed the sound of the sentences, which carried such musicality. Do you think about sound and sentence when you write?

I’m really conscious of sound and sentence when I write. I often read passages and sentences aloud in an effort to make them sound right. There has to be a rhythm to the language. I know when something is off because it sounds wrong, and then I’ll read aloud and revise and read aloud again until, for some strange reason, it carries the rhythm it should. This is the reason I can’t write to music.

What kind of boundaries do you create for yourself when writing memoir and truth?

Every page is a negotiation. Every page is a struggle. I know I must tell the truth, but I have to constantly wrestle with the material to figure out how much of the truth I’m willing to tell. So my boundaries are mutable. I know that some people in my family and community find some of the secrets I share about my life and my brother’s and my friends’ lives problematic: I decided that I wouldn’t share anything that did not contribute to the greater conversation. In the end, I had to believe that the truth I told would make readers pay attention, would make them start asking questions and having conversations about why Black young people in the South self-medicate with drugs, why they suffer from mental illness in silence, why they believe they will die young, why they believe that selling crack at 14 years of age is a viable choice.

The grief was palpable throughout Men We Reaped. Can you carry this grief for these men who have been lost without it breaking you?

I have to. If I don’t carry this, then who will tell the story? Who will remember? I bear it because I must.

This memoir has a really elegant structure that reflected how, like family, the past and present are so intertwined in this story. You write about your family in one thread and remember the men you and your loved ones lost in the other. How did you come to this structure as the best way of telling all these stories?

It was an intuitive choice. I wrote an essay in 2005, which was the seed of Men We Reaped. The structure of that essay reflects the structure of the book. Regardless of form, I could only conceive of telling this story in one way. Before I began writing Men We Reaped, I tried to change the structure, to work against the structure I’d used in the essay, and I couldn’t do it. It felt physically wrong to do so.

So much of this book focuses on young black men, while the lives of young black women in the South are just as fraught. Did you feel like, or I suppose do you worry that women were being absented from this narrative as you wrote it?

No, I wasn’t worried that women were absented from the narrative. I saw the chapters about my life and my mother’s and sisters’ lives as addressing and telling the story of women in the South, fraught as our lives have been with teenage pregnancy and depression and racism and addiction and grief. And in the last chapter, I do try to point out that young Black women are dying in our community too, from accidents and domestic violence and poor health care. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel comfortable including the young women I mention in the narrative in their own chapters because I wasn’t as close to them as I was to the young men, and also because their deaths occurred between 2008 and 2011. I could only write the story that I’d actually lived: all of the young people who’d died during 2000-2004, the time when my grief was so raw and toxic, were men. In the end, I couldn’t make the stories of the young women who died fit into the narrative organically as individual chapters.

Toward the end you say that “We survive; we are savages,” and this line has stayed with me. Does survival beget savagery?

I think it does, but I feel that I’ve been remiss in explaining what I mean when I use the word “savage.” At home, there’s honor in proclaiming yourself a savage. Among the young, it means you’re resourceful, smart, strong. That come hell or high water, hurricane or oil spill or racism or loss, that you will stand. That you will find a way to survive. This is the kind of savagery we claim.

I was giving a reading recently and a young woman asked me how I feel about the label, “black woman writer.” I told her, well that’s what I am, but I knew she was asking about the responsibility and potential limitations that come with being identified as such. How do you feel about being labeled as a “black woman writer”? Do you ever worry that your writing will be pigeonholed as such?

I worried that my writing would be pigeonholed when I began writing in my twenties. After years of writing and seeing my work either ignored or pigeonholed, I realized constant worry about how I was perceived would drive me crazy. I realized that I could only be who I am: Black and a woman and a writer, and that I could only do one thing: strive to write the best damn story I can. The rest is out of my control.

What do you like most about your writing?

One thing I’ve found about my writing is that it’s always changing. It’s always developing. My understanding of story, of how to write a good story, of how language can work, changes every time I write. It’s a good thing to know that this part of me is always growing and maturing.

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