In a publicity photo, Jesmyn Ward bares her shoulder and stares above and to the right of the camera lens, her eyes trained on a bit of sky no one else sees.
In her third book, Men We Reaped, Ward gazes back at the lives of five men who died where they were born, in her own birthplace, DeLisle, Mississippi. She deals honestly with memories of these beautiful men, loved at birth and ensnared by circumstance in death.
Ward doesn’t seek to cast blame or pick up a political cause. Rather, she pierces the surface of each man’s story the way a bird breaks the surface of tidewaters. Her straightforward, unadorned writing reveals the raw facts:
In the sixties, men and women began to divorce, and women who’d grown up with the expectation that they’d have partners to help them raise their children found themselves with none. They worked like men then, and raised their children the best they could, while their former husbands had relationships with other women and married them and then left them also, perhaps searching for a sense of freedom or a sense of power that being a Black man in the South denied them…. The result of this, of course, was that the women who were so devalued had to be inhumanly strong and foster a sense of family alone. This is what my grandmother did.
Ward positions family and friends as archetypal symbols in a universal story—the human story of life and death and the struggle for survival.
Ward’s grandmother worked in a factory. Her mother worked first as a maid in hotels, then in the homes of the wealthy whites around DeLisle. Her father worked and philandered, raised fighting dogs and bought a motorcycle with family savings. The motorcycle did not seat Ward’s four siblings and her mother. In all, 13 family members filled her grandmother’s house.
Ward plays with time throughout her stories of childhood. Realizations that come with maturity rest naturally in the same paragraph with actual memories from her early life. She borrows a story of her own preemie birth by describing a photo of her father holding her entire body “cupped in his hand.” By age five, Ward develops enough muscle and survival instinct to fight off a pit bull trained to go for the throat. She plays, meets friends for life and gradually grows up in a small community, one where people live interconnected lives of shared genealogy and pathology, like heirloom vines in a forgotten garden.
In the span of four years, Ward experiences the grief and profound despair of losing five young men close to her. One is her only brother, lost in an accident. Others succumb to suicide and drugs, final expressions of depression.
Ward’s education takes her far away for many years. She earns an MFA, begins teaching creative writing at the University of South Alabama. Her second book, Salvage the Bones, wins the 2011 National Book Award. Still—always—the strength of family and friends pulls her back to DeLisle, a place she references by an historical name and turns into a predatory metaphor—Wolf Creek.
Despite DeLisle’s poverty, Ward writes about the natural beauty she loves there and the power of the place to draw her home from citadels of education. With the stories of death lie stories of joy and survival. Ward dances until dawn at the local club, Illusion, which she and her friends nicknamed “Delusion,” a smashed-up pun that pokes fun at the futility of local life as well as the name, DeLisle.
Here, she releases us to re-experience our own youthful forays:
Upstairs in Illusion, Rob gave us his shining grin, gold in his dark face, and bought Nerissa, Tasha, and me drinks. They were walk-me-downs, fluorescent blue and sweet, made of nearly every liquor behind the bar…. the women gliding like sleek ducks through the crowd, dressed in gold and pastel denim, hairstyles molded stiff, and the men separated by hood, drinks in hand, stopping girls with a pinched waist, a grasped wrist, a smile, hey.
She squarely faces her own use of alcohol to numb, and she addresses the drug use she witnesses:
I knew that I lived in a place where hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog, but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use.
It’s easy to imagine the intense desire to forget, especially when Ward writes of funeral T-shirts. At funerals for her friends, shirts covered in photos of the dead sold for $20, the cost of making them.
My brother looks like a young thug in his picture, like he could run with the best of the phantom menace in New Orleans. He holds my father’s SK gun and postures for the camera, a bandana over the bottom half of his face, his hair cut close to his head. … I had never seen this picture of Joshua before, and seeing him there with all the other dead young men made me cry while I ate. I chewed my funeral food on a hot Mississippi summer day and looked at my brother’s eyes, large and brown and wide, in a picture that revealed nothing of what he was, and represented everything that he wasn’t.
Ward masters many of the finer points of memoir, the descriptive detail and dialogue. However, writing about the lives of five loosely connected men without relying on chronological order for structure presents an enormous challenge. She selects no obvious chronological choice, which would be the young men’s birthdates or dates of death. Instead, she creates a time spiral, descending into the past in haphazard circles. While the path may seem clear for Ward, at times readers may feel like they’ve been drinking walk-me-downs and trying to walk down the steps, a little tipsy in terms of how late it is and what year it could be.
It’s impossible, though, not to forgive her the choice as she describes the night her brother died. Joshua died before the others, but her choice of structure gives Ward room to develop the ending into a crescendo of pathos and emotion.
That the moon was full out over the Gulf, that it shone cool and silver in the clear sky, that the water glittered with its reflection. That the barrier islands were thin eyebrows on the dark horizon. That the air swooped down from the north and was unseasonably cool for October, so when Josh walked out of work and started his car, he rubbed his arms and said, I love this shit, loved the chill air on the down that wouldn’t turn to beard on his cheeks, loved that he could look out of his window and see an open horizon over the water, where the waves from the Gulf quietly lapped the shore, where the oak trees in the median stood witness over centuries to wars, to men enslaving one another, to hurricanes, to Joshua riding along the Coast, blasting some rap, heavy bass, ignorant beats, lyrical poetry to the sky, to the antebellum mansions our mother cleaned and whose beauty we admired and hated.
In the eyes of Jesmyn Ward, pallbearers must accept the responsibility of telling stories the dead cannot. Circling around the facts of their lives, a seabird in search of stories, Ward dives in and out of her childhood, snatching memories and laying them bare on the page.
Sybil McLain-Topel will complete her MFA in Writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her essay Lavender No. 19 earned finalist status in this year’s Agnes Scott College Writers Festival Contest.