The readalong for Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is hosted by Entomology of a Bookworm, who provided these discussion questions.
1) Men We Reaped is described as a memoir. While it draws on Ward’s personal experiences, it also explores themes much larger than one woman’s life. Do you agree with this genre classification?
Absolutely, I feel like memoir is a fairly flexible category. (In contrast, I would say that the word autobiography brings more narrow expectations.) Half of the book is about Ward’s life and her family. The stories about the five men profiled in Men We Reaped are still framed around Ward’s personal interactions with them.
2) In what ways do you think Ward’s personal approach to this subject makes Men We Reaped stand out from other books that address similar issues? Did this make the book appeal to you more or less, or were you indifferent?
Ward’s book does well in evoking the struggle and depression that hounds communities that are poor and Black. Her personal stories illustrate ideas such as double-consciousness (Ward’s childhood memory of talking academics with her mother’s employer while her mother cleans the house).
Ward made the narrative choice to connect the twists and turns of each man’s life and death to the larger forces of systemic racism and injustice. I felt this narrative choice worked best in Demond Cook’s story (the man who was murdered outside his house, possibly for his agreement to testify in court). At other points, however, it felt strained and perhaps too speculative and abstract.
I was having a hard time figuring out why I was slightly disappointed in Ward’s book. Then I read author Roxane Gay’s Goodreads review of Men We Reaped which explained it well and which I’ll quote in part below:
The prose is bursting with pain and beauty and truth. This is a book everyone should read. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t do enough to rise above the grief. Ward only briefly addresses the issues of race and poverty and how they indelibly shape too many lives, particularly in the rural South. Instead, that the culprits of these men’s demise is inextricably bound to race is treated as assumption when it needs to be far more fully realized and plainly articulated.
3) In more than one instance throughout the text, Ward writes about feeling silenced and voiceless in the face of overwhelming systems of inequality. Do you think Men We Reaped changes that position by giving her a voice?
I hope she feels that way, but her book also points out that this feeling of voicelessness is endemic in her community. I hope that her book empowers the voices of others in her hometown, especially since it’s from one of their own.
4) Though Men We Reaped is about the loss of young black male life, it is also, in many ways, about the black women left to stand witness to the lives and deaths of those in their community. How does this gendered perspective change the story of the high mortality rate among young men of color?
Ward’s book certainly details the obstacles in her own life and that of her mother’s and sisters’ lives. Their roads are not easy. But the women in Ward’s life soldier on despite their wounds. It is the men who seem more fragile and endangered.
[Edited to add: I don’t have a good answer for this question.]
5) If you could ask Jesmyn Ward any one question about this book and/or the experiences she recounts within it, what would it be?
I’m curious about the reactions to her book from people in her region of Mississippi, so I would ask about that.
In my answer to the second question, I admitted that I had been a little disappointed in the book, as I would have liked to see the ideas more fully fleshed out. I still really liked reading it though. As a memoir, evoking a family, a community, a place, it is definitely worthwhile. Mississippi is the poorest state in the country. I live in the third-richest county in the country, and while poverty and racism definitely still have a presence, it is still a place of greater opportunity. So reading Men We Reaped helps inform my perspective, keeps it from being too cloistered.