"...the only sound I hear is the tortured parrot that one of my cousins owns, a parrot that screams so loudly it sounds through the neighborhood, a scream like a wounded child, from a cage so small the parrot’s crest barely clears the top of the cage while its tail brushes the bottom. Sometimes when that parrot screams, sounding its rage and grief, I wonder at my neighborhood’s silence. I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story."
Alluding to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Jesmyn Ward begins her memoir, Men We Reaped, by revealing why she chose to write about the five-year period in which she lost her brother, cousin, and three friends. Ward transforms the parrot’s scream into a lyrical howl for a forgotten people in a forsaken state.
Ward's mother was a housekeeper for wealthy families on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; her father a dreamer and philanderer. After learning of Ward’s intelligence, an employer of her mother’s paid the tuition for her to attend a private, Episcopalian school. Her siblings were not given the same chance.
Ward graduated from Stanford and after a brief stay in DeLisle, her hometown, moved to New York City and then to the University of Michigan for her MFA. After finishing her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, she dedicated herself to a “narrative ruthlessness,” to avoid shielding her characters from the brute pitilessness of a place like DeLisle. Her second novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011.
The ruthlessness has returned in Men We Reaped, and the Prospect sat down to ask her about, among other things, how the current political crisis fuels her work.
Your memoir recounts the deaths of five young black men, all family and friends, within a five-year period. You’ve said elsewhere that writing these stories was the hardest thing you’ve ever done. What made you write the book?
I did it because I believe that the story needed to be told and I believed in what the story could do. From 2000 to 2004, when I lost my cousin and brother and my friends, that was such a difficult time for me. But as more time elapsed, I thought more about what had happened. The fact that I lost all those young men and so many other young black men seemed to be dying. That needed to be addressed and it was important for me to write about my experience and share my experience in the hope that doing so would mean that maybe that trend would change sometime in the future.
Before you wrote Salvage the Bones in 2011, you were unknown. Now you’re drawing comparisons to William Faulkner and Maya Angelou. How do you handle such effusive praise?
I try to ignore it (laughs). How could I think about ever comparing myself to Faulkner or to Maya Angelou? Those are really great writers. I just try to write the best story that I can. If other people think that about my work, that’s wonderful, but I can’t think that about my work.
How did you balance the personal failings of your characters with the political and social forces beyond their control, especially when writing about family and friends?
Writing my first novel made me realize that I was holding back and I wasn’t being as honest as I could when I was writing about the world that these characters were in. Part of the reason that I wasn’t being honest was because I loved my characters too much, because they reminded me of my brother and my friends that I lost. So, in Salvage the Bones, I was very aware that I had to change that. I couldn’t love these characters so much that I spared them. What I saw in the world around me was that the world wasn’t sparing us, anyway. I needed time and space in order to be able to be more frank about the larger pressures and the systems that bear down on communities like mine.
With Men We Reaped, I was still just as committed to telling the truth. Because it was about my family and friends, the danger was there, because I love all those people. Because I had done it before, I knew it was possible for me to not gloss over things, to not be as frank as I could, to not tell the truth. Because I was aware of it, I made a concerted effort not to avoid the things that needed to be written.
What’s been the reaction from DeLisle, your hometown?
Overall, it’s been positive, but there have been some people in my family and in the community who disagree with what I’ve chosen to write and dispute my reading of events. When I run into that kind of feedback, I have to remember why I chose to write the book in the first place. I wrote the book because I want there to be some sort of change. I don’t want this to be a common narrative. I don’t want this to be as common as it is now. I don’t want that to be the case in the future. We have to begin talking about these things or this will be the case in the future. I think talking about it is the first step.
How do you make sense of a political environment that is so far removed from the suffering of the people and places you write about?
It makes me angry. I feel like the people that are advocating for the shutdown … are not aware of the real life effects of their actions. I’ve been looking at the different programs that are affected by the shutdown and I don’t understand how someone cannot be aware of the way that their actions affect regular people—people that really need help. Women, infants, and children aren’t getting their WIC [Women, Infants, and Children—a food and nutritional program for families] anymore? Then there’s funding for Head Start. We got WIC when I was younger. I attended Head Start when I was a kid. It’s really frustrating to me that there are so many real-world repercussions that come from the choices that they’re making and they’re so removed from the fallout. It means nothing to them. The people that I write about—my family, the people I grew up with—this is very real for them. There’s nothing ideological about this, at all.
What did the Great Recession do to DeLisle? I’ve heard some Mississippians say they were experiencing a recession long before 2008?
Sometimes I’m inclined to think that there’s some truth in that. We already rank dead last in everything in Mississippi. There has never been real investment in infrastructure. Where I’m from on the coast now largely depends on casinos or service work for people in casinos. Besides that, there’s not a lot there. We live in a recession in Mississippi. But maybe in some respects it did make it even harder for people to find service jobs, because the entire economy was suffering. I also think that the oil spill is something people tend to forget about that had real economic effects on the coast.
Any ideas on what's next? Sounds like you could write another memoir on Katrina.
I could, but I sure don’t want to (laughs). I want to go back to novel writing. I began one over the summer and then, I stopped. I will write another novel, but it’s almost impossible to do the kind of writing that you need to do when you’re on tour, so I haven’t been able to work on it. I’ll return to it in the spring when I’m not on tour and don’t have to do publicity for Men We Reaped. Then I’ll have enough free headspace that I can return to the novel and really write something that works. That’s what I’m looking forward to in the spring.
Which writers have influenced you that readers might not expect?
Faulkner, definitely. He’s a master. I don’t think people expect him because he’s not a black woman (laughs). They expect Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and I can name all those people and say they’ve definitely influenced me. There’s a writer from the Harlem Renaissance, his name is Jean Toomer. He wrote a novella called, Cane. I love it! I encountered it for the first time when I was in undergrad. I still read it over and over again. People paid attention to it then and it’s in most African-American anthologies, but I don’t know if you could find it outside of the anthologies. I don’t think he was from the South, but he wrote it about the South. He said what he was attempting to do was to try to capture the South that was changing and becoming something else. He was trying to capture the South that was dying, in a way.