After winning a National Book Award for her novel Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward has written a memoir that's framed by the deaths of five young men in her life. The cause of each death was different, but she sees them all as connected to being poor and black in the rural South:
Her younger brother, Joshua, was 19 when he was killed by a drunken driver who smashed into his car. That was in 2000. Over the next four years, her friend Demond was murdered after agreeing to testify against the alleged shooter in a drug-related case; another friend committed suicide; a third died of a heart attack at 23, probably brought on by cocaine and other drugs; and her cousin was killed when his car collided with a train on the tracks.
Ward's new book, Men We Reaped, also tells her story of growing up in DeLisle, Miss., where she escaped death at least a couple times herself — first when she was born prematurely with serious health problems, and then when she was mauled by a pit bull her father had purchased to use in dog fights. The book also explains how Ward managed to get a good education: At her mother's urging and thanks to a generous scholarship, she attended private elementary and high schools, and eventually received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Michigan.
Ward is now an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. She tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how her loved ones' deaths inspired her to write.
On her friend Demond dying in a violent drug-related shooting
I was shocked. I think we were all shocked. I don't think that it's something that anyone expected to happen because that kind of drug-related violence, I don't feel like we see that often where I'm from. It just doesn't happen and so when it actually happened it was a huge surprise.
Because everyone grows up together in my small hometown, everyone knows everyone else. And there are such large extended families that a lot of people are related to each other. And this is in the rural South, so, there's a familiarity there and a real sense of community, I think that's another reason why his death was so shocking, because it feels like that sense of community prevents that kind of violence from happening, but in this case it didn't.
On how the deaths affected her
I know that I've already forgotten things about us growing up, and [my brother's] not there to remind me or to verify things or to help me get things correct. It's difficult, but it's part of the reason why I wanted to write the book, too.
... I know it sounds trite when I say it, but [the deaths] made me realize that I don't have a lot of time and that I'm not promised tomorrow. I hear that all the time at home, I guess because everyone in my community has lost a young person that they love, you know? So everyone always says that all the time: You're not promised tomorrow; you don't have tomorrow. So it does, it sounds trite, but it's true. It made me feel that I wasn't promised some long life where I would die when I was 60 or 70 or 80 or 90. That's not a given for me, and so it actually brought me to writing.
... When I write about what was happening at the time, in the book, I can certainly see how I was suffering from that mindset too, especially during those years. I was reckless and I did a lot of drugs and I drank a lot and I did stupid things because a part of me despaired at that idea and did think, "What's the point?"
On how she ended up attending private school
My mother worked for a white family that lived in one of the mansions on the beach. The husband in the family was a lawyer; he worked for a firm in New Orleans. So when the lawyer was home my mother would have conversations with him about her kids, of course. And so at the time, in fifth grade, I was dealing with a lot of bullying in the public schools I went to — I went to two public schools that year and I was being bullied. My mother told her employer this and then he asked if she would be interested in sending me to the school that his children went to, which was a private Episcopalian school. She said yes and then he offered to pay for it, to fund it basically, as a scholarship. ... So from sixth grade on I was a student at that private Episcopalian school.
... My mom is the kind of mom — when ... we would go to a friend of the family's house and they would offer us something to drink or offer us something to eat, my mother would always say, "Tell them no." You could be starving, you could be dehydrated, but as kids we were supposed to tell the host, "No." And I think part of that was motivated by the fact that she's so proud and didn't want to be seen as needing anything. So I know it must've been problematic for her to accept something like [my scholarship] because tuition was fairly expensive.