Jesmyn Ward

Two-time National Book Award winner
Headshot of a woman.
Photo by Tony Cook

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

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Jesmyn Ward: It's from a quote by Harriett Tubman. So she says, "We saw the lightning and that was the guns, and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns. And then we heard the rain falling, and that was the blood falling. And when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reap." So that's where I got the title from-- Men We Reaped.

Jo Reed: That is Jesmyn Ward talking about the title of her 2013 memoir Men We Reaped and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Today, given anguish so many are feeling over the seemingly endless deaths of young black men—it looked like a good moment to revisit my interview with two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward in a discussion about her memoir Men We Reaped. Jesmyn’s memoir is her attempt to understand the deaths between 2000 and 2004 of five young men all from her small town of De Lisle, all close to her-- --especially her beloved younger brother Joshua. Interwoven with chapters about each young man is Jesmyn's own story--her growing up and coming of age as her parents' marriage collapsed and the family fell into poverty. But the love the family has for one another is as fierce as its losses, and while the land yields little money it is verdant, lush, and smells of home.

Jesmyn Ward has made the Mississippi Gulf Coast and its bayous and rural communities her literary terrain. giving texture and voice to poor rural black Mississippians struggling against the brutality of racism and poverty.

In Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward uses her formidable literary skill again and forces us to confront the deep complexity of people who, trapped by circumstances and at times by their own bad choices, find little forgiveness in the wider world.

Here’s Jesmyn Ward talking about her decision to write her memoir Men We Reaped.

Jesmyn Ward: I think that I knew from the time that the events happened-- so from 2000 to 2004, when I was living through it, I knew that it was something that I'd have to write about one day. I just didn't want to. So I kept putting it off and putting if off. 10 years passed-- 10, 12 years passed-- and then it felt like the right time to write it. Part of the reason that I wanted to write the book-- one of the many reasons that I wanted to write the book-- is because I felt like the story that I was invested in telling-- so the story of the loss of my brother, and the loss of the other young men, and the questions that I was asking about maybe why that would happen-- I felt like that that story and those questions maybe weren't being asked, and the old stories really hadn't been told. So I really felt a great responsibility to be the one to tell those stories and bring them to a wider audience, in the hope that they could begin to contribute to a discussion around these issues, and maybe lead to some sort of change.

Jo Reed: Now, on the face of it, the deaths of these five young men really didn't follow the same pattern, but you write them as being absolutely linked together, by basically coming from the rural South and being shaped by race and being shaped by poverty.

Jesmyn Ward: Mm-hmm. Yes. When I began working on the book, I mean, I had a general outline. I think that when I first began writing the memoir too, I didn't realize that part of what a writer has to do when they write a memoir, that that writer has to look at the past and look at whatever they're writing about, and make judgments about it, and assess it, and provide some sort of context, and make connections. And I didn't realize that. And I don't think that I realized that until maybe the fifth or sixth draft of the book. That I had to identify that thread that tied each of those young men together-- right?-- that tied their deaths together, and that also tied us to them. And then once I realized that I had to do that and I began working through the book again-- which that was-- of course that was the hardest revision because it required so much hard emotional work, but at the same time I had to be sharp intellectually, I had to be very clear I had to look at the past and the present, and come to some understanding about how the history of poverty and racism and classism and the regional history of the South, like how all those things really influenced and led to these young men that I knew and love dying. It was difficult, but I think after revision, after revision, after revision, after revision-- I mean, I might have done at least 12 revisions of this book. By that 12th revision, I finally understood what I was saying. And it was a relief, because I think understanding that I saw a pattern, and that I saw that poor black people that live in these rural places-- and then I think black people in America, period-- constantly are exposed to this message that they're worth less-- right? That their lives are worth less. And so I think that by the end of the book, I saw that, and I understood that that was the case. And then I saw the way that the constant bombardment of that message affected black people, and specifically the young black people that I knew, and myself, while I was living through that time. And I internalized that message, and then I acted out in ways that confirmed that message. But it took a lot of work for me to get to that point where I sort of discovered my version of the truth, like my truth, that was based on my memory and my recollections of what happened, and my-- I guess my childhood and my adolescence in the American South.

Jo Reed: Well, let's talk about the structure of the book, because I think that structure might have enabled you to be clear-eyed about where you wanted to go. You have two timelines, your own story going chronologically from past to present, while every other chapter is a story about one of those young men. But those chapters move from the recent past to the more distant past. Why structure the book this way?

Jesmyn Ward: Part of what I'm trying to do there is I'm trying to provide the reader with some sort of context, so perhaps they can understand why an epidemic of young black men dying in the rural South, would happen. So at the beginning when I was working on an outline of the book, that's the structure that came to me. I alternated chapters that moved from the past and then forward through time, like through my childhood and up through my adolescence. Those chapters that actually moved backwards in time from my last friend, Raj [ph?], who died, so that my brother's death is actually the last death that occurs in the book, even though in actual life he was the first young man that died. And I didn't understand why I'd chosen to do that, until I was sharing the outline with friends of mine who are writers, and we were discussing it, and we were talking about the structure. And then one of my friends says, "Well, it makes perfect sense to me that you would want to write the story this way, because you want to end at the heart. You're ending at the place that for you has the most emotional impact." And when she said that to me, then it made total sense. That's why I knew that it would be a hard structure to make work. And so I had doubts about it, and I thought, "Well, maybe I should just write the story chronologically," right? So just work from the past and then write forward into the future. But as I was thinking that I should do this, it felt physically wrong. I don't know how to explain it. It was like something inside of me balked at that. And then when my friend said, "Well, you want to end at the heart of things. You want to end with your brother" when she said that, that really clarified things for me and made me understand that that's why I needed to tell the story in that way.

Jo Reed: Where do you go from there? Even as a reader, where do you from there? Why a memoir? You're known as a fiction writer. Your novel, "Salvage the Bones," won the National Book Award, and it's set in that same community, looking at poor, African-Americans living on the Gulf Coast.

Jesmyn Ward: You know, when I thought about my friends and about their deaths and about my upbringing and my family,I just thought, "I can't fictionalize this, because no one will be able to suspend their disbelief." Because I kept running into that in my life. I mean, outside of workshops. I never wrote many stories in workshop-- writing workshops that I attended-- that were really very autobiographical. My fiction is informed by the place where I come from and the community that I grew up in, but there aren't many one-to-one plot correlations between my life and my experiences, and then my characters' lives and my characters' experiences. So I knew I had to tell this story, and I thought, "I could fictionalize it," but then I thought, "No one will believe it." They'll read the very beginning, or they'll get halfway through and they'll realize what's happening with all these young black men dying one after another, you know, like, "This would never happen. This doesn't make any sense." And so I knew that I couldn't tell it in a novel. I just-- I couldn't. And then too, I think a part of me wanted to honor the young men, and I think a part of me really wanted to honor my community and honor my family by writing about them, using the creative nonfiction form, and I guess telling their stories in a very truthful, straightforward manner.

Jo Reed: You made a decision in this book that you were not going to present these young men, nor yourself, as saints; that you were going to show exactly who they were. They're not saints, but they're not that throwaway headline that we read either. Talk about that decision, and then I'm really interested in the way the community and your family reacted to that.

Jesmyn Ward: Well, to answer the first part of your question, I mean, I think that in the dialog, or the conversation that happens around young black men dying young, young black men going to jail young, young black men dropping out, young black men making bad choices as far as being a part of the drug trade. In that conversation that to most people outside of the families or of the communities where these young men are, they are throwaway headlines-- right? They're stereotypes. I mean, no one-- the people in that part of the conversation, they don't see them as human beings, right?

Jo Reed: You don't go past that.

Jesmyn Ward: No, you don't. You don't see them as complicated human beings with histories and with dreams and aspirations and struggles and all of those things.

Jo Reed: And heart.

Jesmyn Ward: Yes, and heart-- exactly. But then on the other end of that spectrum-- right?-- in this conversation, then you have the members of the young men's families, right? And especially when young men die, then there's that immediate response by their family-- because it happened in my family too, and this is how I know it-- but there's an immediate response by the family to make them into saints-- right?-- to make them into saints. The lingo around this culture of death of young black people dying, immediately they're called angels. You have t-shirts. They have halos around them. The common saying is, "They're an angel and they're watching over us now." You know what I'm saying? It's very much about making them into saints, which I think dehumanizes them in another way and robs them of their complicated humanity. And so I did not want to do that. I wanted to be as honest as I could about the lives that they led and about the life that I led at the time, and I wanted us to live on the page as complicated, unique human beings, so that the readers, when they encounter these young men, when they encounter me as a young person, or my parents, or my brother, or my sisters-- that they see us as people. So we're not saints, but we're also not just deadbeat dads or welfare queens or teens who get pregnant or teens that sell drugs or-- you know what I'm saying? It was very important to me to make every one of the characters that I really write about as complicated and as unique and as real as possible. Because that's the way that you begin to change; perspective that you have to humanize your characters in your art. I mean, especially if you're a writer like me who is writing about a community, I think that has been largely absent from American letters. And so it's very important to me to humanize them as well as I can-- I mean, really make them live on the page.

Jo Reed: I think that's exactly right. It's almost as though you can say "sells crack"-- don't have to think about it. And you can just keep on going.

Jesmyn Ward: Yeah. I mean, that's why I talk about that often-- right?-- that discussion that I had with my brother that I write about, when he's 14 and he told me that he was selling crack. Writing this book was very hard for me because on every page I was asking myself that question or I was saying, "Okay, I have to tell the truth," right? That's part of my contract with the reader-- right?-- because I'm writing a memoir. But how much of the truth am I going to tell? And so if I choose to tell this fact about this conversation that I had with my brother where he revealed to me that he was selling crack when he was 14, what does that accomplish? So every time I came to a place where I had to make a hard decision like that; where I had to write something that could potentially be damning about someone that I knew or someone that I loved--

Jo Reed: Especially your brother.

Jesmyn Ward: Yeah, especially my brother. Like I had to figure out, "Okay, there has to be some sort of purpose in this," And so when I got to that moment, I found the purpose in it, and I did it. Some of the family members of the young men, some of my family members my immediate family members-- especially my mom-- I mean, this process has been really difficult for her. It's been difficult for them, because, like I said earlier, I know that my family members, family members of these young men-- I mean, there's that trope of now they're resting in peace and they're angels, and the people that we love that are gone, they're in heaven.

Jo Reed: And don't speak ill of the dead.

Jesmyn Ward: Right, don't speak ill of the dead-- exactly. And many people do not like that I shared these secrets.

Jo Reed: The way you talk about your parents are kind of indicative of this too, because your father had a lot of charm and a lot of personality and pizzazz, but he also didn't have a great deal of responsibility. And your mother compensated by being distant, probably because she was always working. And again, that can be conveyed as the kind of stereotype, but you write them out of it.

Jesmyn Ward: I mean, I think there were things about my parents that I did not understand before I wrote this book-- the memoir form required me to assess and offer some sort of judgment and some sort of context. And so when I was writing about them, they weren’t just my parents anymore; they were young people once with dreams and ambitions and-- who made good decisions and then made bad decisions sometimes, and I had to attempt to figure out why my father decided to leave, or what was it in him that pushed him away from the family that he'd made. What was it about his existence at that time that led him to do what he did and to feel as he did? And the same thing with my mother. I think my mother-- she was always there, right? And so my mother was not only the caretaker, but she was also the disciplinarian in my family-- right? So it was even harder, I think, for me to write my mother than it was for me to write my father, because it was very hard for me to see past who she was as my mother and to look into her past and really see her as a complicated, complex human being-- see her as a young woman who, again, once had dreams and aspirations and things that she wanted to do with her life, and then to look clearly at what happened to thwart those dreams and aspirations, and then what that did to her. I mean, it was difficult for me because she's my mother, and I think in ways writing about your mother, sometimes that can be the most difficult thing that you can do.

Jo Reed: Especially for a daughter.

Jesmyn Ward: Yeah, for a daughter. But I think it was difficult for me too because I love my mother very much, so it was hard for me to think about who she was as a young woman and think about the ways that the world wore down on her and crushed her, and I-- as the writer, who is writing about my mother, but in the book my mother is a character-- I loved her. I wanted to take care of her. I wanted to make all those things that had happened to her-- change them and make everything right. But I couldn’t do that-- right? First because it's memoir-- it's not fiction-- and second of all, because part of my responsibility was to be honest and to be clear-eyed about what had happened to her.

Jo Reed: Back to the way you portrayed yourself-- this really isn't the characterization of the scholarship girl who makes good.

Jesmyn Ward: Mm-mm. <laughs> I mean I was very naïve when I was younger, and I think that that's apparent in the book. I think, especially that once I lost my brother, and then I began losing my friends, it was very important to me to be honest about the way that my grief and that sense of loss the way that I coped with that, it was very unhealthy, and I had to be honest about that. Because I think that this isn't an original thought at all-- but in America, we have a complicated relationship with death and with grieving-- I think it's hard for us to talk about. And even where I'm coming from, even in this community and this culture where there are these rituals around death; memorial t-shirts and the repast, and these gatherings to memorialize the dead-- and so there's a culture. But it doesn't speak honestly about the sense of loss and that sense of grief.

Jo Reed: The other complication is the complication of place, where you describe this place, and it is lush, and you can feel the heat on your face, and the sense of community you have with your family, with your friends. And yet the poverty and the racism and the hopelessness and the sense of being beaten down-- both things being true-- and you're drawn to it, and you pull away, and you're drawn to it.

Jesmyn Ward: It's complicated. I mean, you're drawn to it and you're repulsed at the same time, right? Because I live in my hometown now. I decided to move back. And so everyone always asks me, "Why did you come back?"

Jesmyn Ward: A so when I answer them, I always say, "There's something about this place, about the beauty of this place, where I think that I feel more myself and I think more at home in that place than anywhere else that I've ever been." And I think that that's because of the landscape and maybe because there's a sense of the familiar, and it's comforting.

Jo Reed: I think this a good time to have you read about that place, De Lisle….

Jesmyn Ward: Sure, course

Jo Reed: How about the opening paragraph?

Jesmyn Ward: Perefect. "We are in Wolf Town. Distant past to 1977. In pictures, some of my ancestors on my mother's and my father's sides are so light-skinned as to look white, and some are so dark the lines of the nose, a mouth, look silver and the black and white picture. They wear long-sleeved, full white shirts tucked into dark skirts and muted cotton shirts tucked into loose pants. Inevitably, they stand outside in these pictures, but the backgrounds are so faded, one can only see trees like smoke behind them. None of them smile. My grandmother Dorothy tells me stories about them, says some of them were Haitian, that others were Choctaw, said they spoke French, that they came from New Orleans or a nebulous elsewhere, searching for land and space, and they stopped here. Before DeLisle was named DeLisle, after a French settler, the early settlers called it Wolf Town. Pine and oak and sweetgum grow in tangles from the north down to the south of the town, to the DeLisle Bayou. The Wolf River, brown and lazy, snakes its way through DeLisle, fingers the country in creeks, before emptying into the bayou. When people ask me about my hometown, I tell them it was called after a wolf before it was partially tamed and settled. I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.

Jo Reed: That is so evocative, thank you

Jesmyn Ward: But, it’s complicated. I also know that there's much-- as you were saying-- about Mississippi-- <chuckles>-- about the South in general-- that I hate. There's much about it that I find very problematic. And I'm also vocal about the fact that when I leave Mississippi or leave the South and I travel to other places, it feels like there's a palpable weight that I don't have anymore, that I can shrug off when I leave. It's hard for me to be articulate about it because it-- it's a feeling. I don't know how to communicate what it feels like, but there's definitely a change in feeling. Even though I know racism is everywhere, classism is everywhere-- I mean, there are different types of oppression that occur in the rural south, I feel them. And it's a relief when I can go to another place and I don't feel them. But for better or worse, this is my home, this is my community, these are the people and this is the place that I have chosen to dedicate a large part of my life to writing about, and to explore--

Jo Reed: Well, you're raising your daughter.

Jesmyn Ward: Yeah, and I'm raising my daughter there. So that's what it is, and that's where I am, and I hope that my choice to return to home and to live at home as an adult-- I hope that just that may change things in some way. First of all, I feel like I'm there to fight the good fight. And second of all, I think that it changes this expectation that we all have, and that I had when I graduated from high school too, that to be successful, it means you need to leave Mississippi. You need to leave the South. You need to go somewhere else. You head North, right? <laughs> And I think--

Jo Reed: Or to New Orleans.

Jesmyn Ward: Yeah, or to New Orleans. <chuckles> I mean, I think that that has-- that's been the case-- that story-- we've been telling ourselves that story for a long time. And so I want to push back a little bit against that. And maybe through my work, perhaps create a reality where that doesn't have to be the case, and where maybe I am an example of the that you don't have to trade your home and your family for some sort of elusive success that can only happen somewhere else, that you can only grasp somewhere else. I don't want that to be the case.

Jo Reed: Now, you've lived in other places.

Jesmyn Ward: Yes, I have.

Jo Reed: Do you find that having lived in other places and then coming back gives you a different perspective?

Jesmyn Ward: It definitely does. I mean, because I think that, especially before I left, that I wasn't aware-- I was just talking about that weight of history and of oppression you live with all the time when you are a person of color in the South. And I didn't realize that until I left-- until I went to California and studied at Stanford for undergrad, and then to New York, and then to Michigan, and then back to California. And so leaving was useful because it allowed me to realize that. It allowed me to realize that that oppression existed, I think. I mean, I knew that it existed before I left, and it was part of the reason that I wanted to leave, but I didn't have a clear understanding of the way that history in the South is bearing down in the present. So I had to leave in order to understand that and see that.

Jo Reed: The title, Men We Reap-- why this title?

Jesmyn Ward: It's from a quote by Harriett Tubman, where she is talking about a Civil War battle that featured a black battalion. And so she says-- I'll read it. It's a great quote.

Jo Reed: It is a great quote.

Jesmyn Ward: So she says, "We saw the lightning and that was the guns, and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns. And then we heard the rain falling, and that was the blood falling. And when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reap." So that's where I got the title from-- Men We Reap. I read that quote and I though, first of all, the imagery in it is just so astonishing. And then second of all, I thought it tied in so much of what I thought-- what I thought the book was about. And also I thought that it nodded to history. And so I hope maybe signal to the reader that this isn't removed from our experience, this history, this legacy of slavery and of Jim Crow and of one people consistently being devalued over hundreds of years-- that lives in the present.

Jo Reed: You did very well I thought with the epigrams, because you have the Tubman, which does give this historic undercurrent, and then you have Tupac, which brings it more to the-- not quite present-- I'm dating myself-- but--

Jesmyn Ward: No, it feels present to me too. <chuckles> That's why I wanted to use it.

Jo Reed: Thank you. And then you end with "Easter Morning."

Jesmyn Ward: I always wanted to use a Tupac quote specifically in this book. I knew that that was something that I wanted to do, and especially that verse because it's a lament. I mean, Tupac is talking about his peers who are dying young, before they even have a chance to grow.

Jo Reed: You have to read it now.

Jesmyn Ward: Okay. <chuckles> "Young adolescents in our prime live a life of crime, though it ain't logical. We hobble through these trying times. Living blind, Lord help me with my troubled soul. Why all my homies had to do die before they got to grow?" And that's from "Words 2 My First Born," by Tupac Shakur. And then I-- that quote from "Easter Morning," by A.R. Ammons, I was actually looking for another quote to use at the beginning of the book, and then I came across that poem and I read-- especially that part-- and I thought, "Oh my god." This poet was expressing the truth of my experience, but yet it's their experience. But yet it speaks to me. And so I read it and I, "I have to use to it. This is so perfect." I have to read it. <chuckles>

Jo Reed: Yeah, please do. It's so beautiful.

Jesmyn Ward: "I stand on the stump of a child, whether myself or my little brother who died, and yell as far as I can. I cannot leave this place, for me it is the dearest and the worst, it is life nearest to life which is life lost: it is my place where I must stand."

Jo Reed: It's interesting, because I read the epigrams before I read the book. And then when I ended it, I went back and looked at them again. And oh my god, they were just so powerful. I mean, the way they just made it complete.

Jesmyn Ward: Definitely. Definitely.

Jo Reed: Jesmyn Ward, thank you so much for giving me your time. I really appreciate it really--

Jesmyn Ward: Thank you.

Jo Reed: It was a wonderful book, thank you.

That was Jesmyn Ward. We were revisting an interview with her in which she discussed her memoir Men We Reaped which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Jesmyn is also the author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award, and Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the 2017 National Book Award. Her 2020 commencement address Navigate Your Stars has just been published in book form. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.

And don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and leave us a rating on Apple it helps people to find us.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Stay safe. Stay Kind. And thanks for listening.

Today, we re-visit a discussion with two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward about her memoir Men We Reaped. In her memoir, Jesmyn attempts to understand the death of five young black men, including her beloved brother Joshua. But more broadly, her subject is what it means to be a black man in the south. Jesmyn uses her formidable literary skill to give voice and texture to poor, rural, black Mississippians struggling against poverty and racism in a world with no forgiveness. It’s an important and beautifully-written work with much to teach us today. And, Jesmyn Ward is as clear-eyed and thoughtful in discussion as she is in her writing.