1) In the very first pages of her book, Ward calls this her “rotten fucking story.” Did this change how you approached the chapters to come in any way?
That phrase is from the last sentence in the prologue: “Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten fucking story.” To me, this characterization made sure readers knew she was not offering any hopeful narrative arc. I finished Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken the other day and it is full of the high human cost of war and the horrors that people inflict on each other, but the narrative arc is about the resilience and spirit of Louis Zamperini and others. I haven’t finished Ward’s book yet, but I do not expect her focus to be on the resilience of the dead young men’s surviving family and friends, though that may be true of them. Instead, her focus is on the immense loss that each of these young men represents.
2) When she lists the names and dates of the black men in her life who died in the four years between 2000 and 2004, Ward writes, “That’s a brutal list, in its immediacy and its relentlessness, and it’s a list that silences people. It silenced me for a long time.” She then goes on to 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.” I’ve read a lot about voice and the importance of voice lately, so I’m curious what others think of the importance of voicing the horrors of this story, these losses.
Jesmyn Ward is not just voicing the stories of these five men, I feel like she is voicing a story about Delisle and Pass Christian, Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina, people remarked on how the news coverage gave scant attention to the Gulf Coast communities of Mississippi and Alabama. The events of Men We Reaped predate Katrina and show how neglected these communities were before then, in other ways. Empathy is often encouraged by hearing stories. Dismissiveness is often the result of ignoring stories.
3) What do you make of the two timelines in Men We Reaped? To what effect do you anticipate–or perhaps hope?–Ward will use these inverse chronologies?
The death of Ward’s brother is clearly the biggest wound and where both timelines are headed in the end. The story moving forward is basically a memoir of Ward’s own life, and as she and her siblings grow older in that narrative, we will find out more and more what her brother meant to her. In the story moving backward in time, we start out with a community already beaten down by these successive deaths, and are peeling back each layer of grief until we get to the one closest to Ward’s heart.
4) The idea of gender is woven throughout Ward’s memoir, but particularly in reflecting the unique freedoms–and risk of lack of freedoms–of the black men in her life (as compared to the black women in her life, herself included). How do the men and women in Ward’s stories subscribe to (or not) these gender expectations, and how do you think that influences their experiences?
There are many voices out there rightfully challenging the mythos of the “strong Black woman” and the harm that this stereotype can cause to Black women. In Ward’s stories, the reality remains that the women are almost always the ones left alone to raise and support the children. I appreciate that Ward doesn’t demonize the men who left, and points out some of external factors that contribute to this dynamic. At the same time, she doesn’t gloss over the way the women have been holding the families together.
A really great thing that Ward is doing is showing how caring these young Black men were to their family and friends. There are so many negative stereotypes associated with young Black masculinity that I don’t know where to start. But Ward addresses this explicitly and implicitly in Men We Reaped by talking about how these men did late-night runs to the store for diapers, nursed a female friend who was passed out drunk, among other details about their friendliness, welcome and kindnesses.
5) Ward frames her story with a hope: “I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here.” Based on the first several chapters, do you think her exploration of these deaths will get her where she hopes to go? Or are these kinds of events impossible to ever truly understand?
I think she will get there. She’s been establishing some building blocks along the way, and it often comes back to the scarcity of opportunity in her community. She points out the outsized punishments for childhood infractions of Black boys, the failure of public education, the dangers of testifying in court, and other things that narrowed the life choices of these men. Their lives are exposed to risk just by living where they live, while being Black.
So let’s chat: What are ya’ll thinking of this book so far? What do you make of Ward’s style and approach to her topic? What are you anticipating in the second half of the book?
I am really liking the book, for all that it is sad and almost made me cry while I was in the Midas’ waiting room. Ward is good at incorporating the kinds of details that bring her family, friends and community to life for the reader. I am curious about how she felt when she decided to leave her community to go to college. You can tell the distance is hard on her as she describes her visits home.