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Men We Reaped

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In this stirring memoir, Jesmyn Ward contends with the deaths of five young men dear to her, and the still great risk of being a black man in the rural South.

In five years, Jesmyn lost five young men in her life—to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses made Jesmyn ask the question: Why? The answer nagged at her until she knew she had to write about her community, to write their stories and her own.

Jesmyn, who grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi, bravely tells her story, revisiting the agonizing losses of her only brother and her friends. She writes about this parallel American universe with the intimacy of utter familiarity. .

  • SKU: 000000000001383898
  • Author: Jesmyn Ward
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc
  • Release date: Sep 17, 2013
  • ISBN: 9781608195213
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Commitment Credit: 1
  • Book Search Plus: No
  • Warnings: No
  • Height: 0.680
  • Length: 8.250
  • Width: 5.500
Read InterviewRead an author interview

Meet Jesmyn Ward

Men We Reaped is a memoir that intertwines stories of your life with those of young men who were important to you. Can you tell our members a bit about you and why you decided to write this story at this time?

Men We Reaped is a departure for me. I've written two novels, Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones. Both are set in a fictional version of my home town, DeLisle, Mississippi, on the Gulf Coast. In my fiction, I write about what I know: the rural South, a small town, a largely Black community—the joys and the struggles, many of which are endemic to communities like this. I seek to tell a truth in my fiction, but fiction is a work of imagination. The memoir tells the truth, from my perspective about my family, my extended community, and some of the losses we've experienced. My feelings about writing the book are somewhat complicated. It was hard to write, and I didn't want to do it. But I also saw how my story spoke to larger issues in American society, and I hoped it might have value for others.

Did bringing to light the stories in Men We Reaped give you any comfort from the pain of these losses? Or any answers or resolution?

Sadly, nothing stops the grief. But I realized in both my fiction and this memoir, I am writing my way toward my brother. And while the sadness from his loss hasn't dissipated, writing about his death and my friends' deaths helped me process the events in a healthy way. Like many people, early on I tried to mask the pain. Confronting it on the page, trying to look at it from some small distance, helped me see the larger picture—which is tragic in other ways.

For me, Men We Reaped complicates many popularly accepted explanations of why black men in America are disproportionately in prison, die younger or fall victim to violence with more frequency than others. And that is what I love about it—you color the lives of the men you write about with beauty and nuance. What else do you want readers to know and understand about what it means to be black and male in America

I'm certainly no authority on the topic of being male. I'm writing from the position of those left behind. In my experience, that meant being left behind when my father left and my brother and friends died. Women in my community have suffered similar fates; I know the problems I describe in the book are not the exclusive terrain of men. But those closest to me happen to have been men. And there's this larger societal issue with Black men that's part of the current national dialog...a dialog I hope will lead to some change. Maybe my book could be a small piece of that. Ultimately, I want to convey what it feels like to live with a disease in your community—an epidemic really, and I would hope my readers could get some sense what it's like to look at the young people around you, family members, friends, and wonder...will they survive this? Will they make it to old age, even 30!

Our members are mostly African American women. Many are single, and a fair number are parents. What can women do to be supportive of the men in their lives? What should we all be urging our schools and other institutions to do to address their needs?

I'm not sure I'm equipped to give anyone else advice on a personal level, other than, perhaps, to say, seek help if you need it. This thing is bigger than we are as individuals. As for our schools and institutions, well, the racism that exists in our society exists in these institutions, too. Many of the issues I've had to deal with involve both race and class. We all know the way our schools are funded is at the root of the education problem. In most states, the wealth of the community determines the quality of the education you receive. Should children be punished by the fact of where they live? It begins there and it extends to healthcare—and more importantly, health! -- and employment opportunities beyond that. The problems here run so deep.

Our members are mostly African American women. Many are single, and a fair number are parents. What can women do to be supportive of the men in their lives? What should we all be urging our schools and other institutions to do to address their needs?

I would tell them to encourage the men in their lives to read. It's through reading that many of us come to language. And one thing we (the we being black men) need is the language to express our experience. I often rant against the term "youknowwhati'msaying" that's ubiquitous in hip hop. To me that term is a tiny celebration of being inarticulate. But for us to be able to address our issues—ain't no secret we got plenty issues—we must be able to communicate, we need the diction. To say that language is power is trite for sure, but it is also truth. Name a great leader, name an impactful phenomenon that didn't gain power from language, from rhetoric.

What are you writing and reading right now?

I'm at work on my next novel...early days. But it will be set in Bois Savage, as have been my first two novels. I don't have time to read novels or nonfiction now (I have a one-year-old, a new book, and a full-time teaching job), so I've only been reading poetry anthologies. I love poetry. I love Nikki Finney and Natasha Trethewey and Michael McGriff, among others.


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