RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. It is a cliche of the writing world to write what you know, because that's meant to be truer, and also somehow easier. But there was nothing easy for Jesmyn Ward about writing her own story. The Mississippi native made a name for herself as a fiction writer, but when it came to writing her own story, well, that turned out to be unsettling, even painful. Ward's memoir is called "Men We Reaped," and in it she tries to make sense of the deaths of five young men in her life, including her younger brother. Jesmyn Ward joins me now from Delisle, Mississippi. Thanks so much for being with us.
JESMYN WARD: It's good to be here.
MARTIN: This book is, in many ways, you trying to make sense of the death of all these young people - friends and family members even. And, if you don't mind, I'll have you read a passage from your book that describes this a little bit. This is a scene - your reflections - right after your friend Demond has died. He was shot to death in front of his own house. I'll have you read that little, that passage there.
WARD: (Reading) On the day after Demond died, I sat on his concrete porch steps. When the sun set, the coven of bats that lived in Demond's roof burst from the vents and out into the night in a black, squeaking mass. Where we had parked and drank and gotten high on Demond's lawn, now there was yellow police tape draped from pine to pine circumventing the mimosa. It read: Caution. And there was a smoke, a sailing cloud into the cold air, the skin dry, the sides of her mouth. And I wondered who had come out of the dark and killed Demond. Even as I knew the figure that had waited hidden for him in the shivering pockets of the trees was human, I wanted to turn to Nurrissa and ask her what do you think it is? What?
MARTIN: Nurrissa is your younger sister. You're both trying to process what has just happened. And that question, what is in there? This is you trying to understand what's happening?
WARD: Yes. You know, I look at this epidemic and I see something greater than a collection of individual choices. I see history. I see racism. I see, you know, economic disempowerment. I see all of these things, you know, that come together, or that came together sort of in this perfect storm here in southern Mississippi, and I feel like that is what is bearing down on our lives.
MARTIN: You were given kind of exceptional opportunities. Your mom worked as a housekeeper for a wealthy white family. That family ended up helping pay for you to go to a private high school. And from there you went on to Stanford, which put you on kind of a different path than a lot of the other people that you grew up with. Was it hard walking back and forth between those two worlds?
WARD: It was harder for me to walk in the outside world than coming back here. You know, Stanford is a fantastic school but then I was very much, you know, I was really scared when I went to Stanford. And I think that the entire time that I was there, that I was struggling with this feeling that I didn't belong there, maybe because I was so rooted in who I am here. And so therefore, when I was out in that world, I thought I don't belong here, I'm not smart enough, I don't have the proper education to thrive here. And it, you know, subdued me in some ways. I wasn't able to, you know, I don't know, to really, like, grow into myself and express myself while I was there because I was so crippled by this sense of, like, self-doubt. And then, but it was also homesickness.
MARTIN: So, you would come home every chance you got, between school semesters, every kind of break. And you're back in this community. And there is a lot of drug use. You yourself talk about drinking an awful lot and that you and your friends are in a kind of cycle of self-medicating. Did you recognize it as such in the moment, that you were trying to anesthetize some kind of pain or was it just a bunch of kids, friends, just having a good time?
WARD: I didn't. I mean, I, you know, of course, every day I woke up with that feeling of dread and that just overwhelming sensation of loss, and then of course that fear, right, like who's going to die next? And we talked about it, you know, we talked about it. So, we were aware of what we were going through, and we were aware that it felt like we were under siege, and so we just weren't smart about all the drinking and all the drugs and everything that we did. And I don't think that I was clear about the fact that I was self-medicating until I really sat down and began to write this book, really. I mean, because then that meant that I had to reckon with all these things.
MARTIN: I mean, we talked in the beginning about your friend Demond. I believe he's the only friend who died in an overtly violent act. Everyone else, even though they may have been wrapped up in some complicated drug dealings or made bad choices, sometimes it didn't have anything to do with how they died.
WARD: He was. He was the only one who was shot. And his murder hasn't been solved. You know, I think that readers, when they first pick up the book and they read the jacket, or they just hear, you know, about these young black men dying in the South, will probably immediately draw conclusions about the ways that they died. And so I think that it's something of a surprise - maybe. I mean, there is a conversation in this country going on about young black men dying from gun violence, right? But I think it's tricky because even some of the young people that I mention, right, in that last chapter who died in different ways - young women, too - you know, they're dying in surprising ways.
MARTIN: Which makes it harder to draw conclusions about it, I imagine.
WARD: Yes, it does. I have a lot of great friends who are writers who, you know, read my work, early drafts of my work, and I have a great editor. And so I don't think I could have come to the conclusions that I came to without having that first group of readers to really push me towards that painful material instead of letting me hold it at arm's length, which is what I was doing, because it was just too painful. Sitting with experience and then trying to find, you know, meaning in that painful experience, it was too much.
MARTIN: What did you want to say about these young men - your brother among them - that you couldn't convey in a work of fiction?
WARD: You know, I feel like, in the two novels that I've written before this memoir, the young men reflect my brother. He's there. And so I feel like I've always been writing towards him. But when I thought about what happened to him and then also what happened to my friends, I didn't think it would be successful as fiction because I didn't even think that people would believe it because it was so awful and large and horrendous. And I felt like their stories were powerful enough that I thought that they would be better served in creative non-fiction when I could just tell the truth about them.
MARTIN: Eventually, you felt the pull and moved back home. What is it like now? Do you still feel now as an adult that kind of specter looming over young people in particular?
WARD: Yes. I mean, it's different for them. You know, my nephew, he's 17, so there are more people in his generation now, in this community, who see college and some kind of, you know, life after college. They see that that's more of a possibility for them, I feel like. But, you know, in some ways I feel like the reality that was facing us and that faces him is merciless. There are some people in the world that will look at my nephew and see him as a thug, and think that whatever harm or violence befalls him, that he will have deserved it because he courted it. Regardless of the, you know, circumstances of his life or his behavior, just because of the way that he looks, and the fact that he's a young black male, and that scares the - that really scares me. A lot.
MARTIN: Jesmyn Ward. She won the National Book Award for her novel "Salvage the Bones" in 2011. Her new memoir is called "Men We Reaped." Thanks so much for talking with us, Jesmyn.
WARD: Thank you.