TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. 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 each death as connected to being poor and African-American in the rural South.
Her younger brother, Joshua, was 19 when he was killed by a drunk driver who smashed into his car. That was in the year 2000 and in 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 a suicide; a third, at the age of 23, died of a heart attack 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. She grew up in the town of DeLisle, Miss. She escaped death at least a couple of times herself - the first when she was born prematurely with serious health problems, the second when she was mauled by a pit bull her father had recently purchased with the intention of using him in dog fights.
The book also explains how Ward managed to get a good education. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She's now an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama.
Jesmyn Ward, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with a brief reading from your memoir. Would you introduce it for us?
JESMYN WARD: Sure. This is actually the beginning of the chapter that chronicles the end of my brother's life, and his death.
(Reading) This is where the past and the future meet. This is after the pit bull attack, after my father left, and after my mother's heart broke. This is after the bullies in the hallway, after the nigger jokes, after my brother told me what he'd done as we stood out on the street.
(Reading) This is after my father had six more children with four different women, which meant he had 10 children total. This is after my mother stopped working for one white family who lived in a mansion on the beach, and began working for another white family who lived in a large house on the bayou. This is after I'd earned two degrees, a crippling case of homesickness, and a lukewarm boyfriend at Stanford.
(Reading) This is before Ronald, before C.J. This is before Demond, before Rog. This is where my two stories come together. This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer that I will spend with my brother. This is the heart. This is, every day, this is.
GROSS: That's Jesmyn Ward, reading from her new memoir, "Men We Reaped." Let's talk a little bit about one of the men you write about, Demond. You say most of the young men you knew dealt drugs, at some point, to make ends meet; and Demond is an example. He'd been the witness to the aftermath of a drug-related killing and had agreed to testify against the shooter, and then he was found shot to death. What was your reaction when you heard that?
WARD: You know, I was shocked. I think we were all shocked. We didn't - you know, 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 that 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, like in my, you know, in my small hometown; and everyone knows everyone else. And there's such large, extended families that a lot of people are related to each other.
You know, and this is in the rural South. So, you know, there's a familiarity there, I guess, and a real sense of community. And so I think that that's another reason that 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.
GROSS: Let's talk about your brother. Your brother Joshua died just before his 20th birthday. You'd just graduated college. He was your younger brother. Would you describe what happened?
WARD: He was working at a casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and he was working in valet. He'd just gotten the job. He'd had it for a few months. He really liked it. And he was on his way home from work, and he was taking Highway 90, which is the highway that runs along the actual beach of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
And just as he turned off on this, you know, really slow, residential drive called Scenic Drive - where I think the speed limit is like, 20 - he was actually hit from behind by a drunk driver. The drunk driver was an older, white man. He was going over 80 miles per hour. You know, Josh, he pressed on the brakes, but of course he couldn't do anything, you know, because he'd been hit so hard.
And then my brother's car hit a tree and a fire hydrant, and it also flipped. And he died. And the man who hit him - his car, once he hit my brother, his car shot sort of off of Scenic Drive, across Highway 90 and then onto the beach. And then he got out of his car, and he walked home.
And so in the end, he - the man that hit my brother wasn't actually charged with manslaughter or with - or in my brother's death at all. He was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, and he was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay around $14,000 in restitution to my mom. And then he did three years and two months, and then he was let out. And he never paid any restitution to my mom, and that's it.
GROSS: Isn't there a legal way of making sure that he paid?
WARD: I'm assuming. I mean, it's something, you know, that my mom feels really strongly about and that she, you know, would like to do. But I don't know how it's going to happen because, you know, she'd have to go back to a lawyer. She'd have to have money to pay that lawyer and as of yet, she hasn't been able to do it.
GROSS: You know, one of the things you say about your brother's death is that he basically took part of the past with him, too, because he had the stories. I mean, he has part of your memory.
WARD: He does. And I - it's something that scares me as I get older because I know that I've already forgotten things about us growing up, and he's not there to remind me or to verify things or to help me get things correct. So it's difficult. I mean, but it's part of the reason why I wanted to write the book, too.
GROSS: What are funerals like in your community for young men? You write a little bit about your brother's funeral.
WARD: They're always very large, of course, because everyone in the community, young and old, comes out to them. The young, we make memorial T-shirts. These are T-shirts that usually have the faces, or either one picture or multiple pictures of the young men that died. During those years, 2000-2004, there were so many young men that died that I know on Rog's memorial T-shirt - he's the last young man that died - on his T-shirt they actually featured pictures of all the other young men that died.
So, you know, it just depends on whoever designs the T-shirt. And, you know, the young people tend to wear those T-shirts to the funeral and then after the funeral.
GROSS: You write about five young men who died - friends, a cousin, your brother. What did it do to your sense of how long life is, how much time you might have, how much time your other friends might have and what you wanted to do with your life?
WARD: It - you know, I know it sounds trite when I say it, but it 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...
WARD: You know, everyone in my community, I mean everyone has lost a young person that they love, you know. So everyone always says that all the time, oh, you're not promised tomorrow, you don't have tomorrow. It sounds trite, but it's true. Like it made me feel that, you know, that I wasn't promised some long life where I would die when I was 60 or 70 or 80 or 90, or - that's not a given for me. And so it actually brought me to writing.
GROSS: Have you seen it have the opposite effect, like the possible brevity of life have the opposite effect on people, making them think, well, tomorrow isn't promised, so who cares? I might as well just have fun today and not worry about the future.
WARD: I think that both of those happened at the same time for me. Like, on one hand I can say, OK, my brother's death, in realizing that life is short, made me want to be a writer. But then at the same time, like when I write about what was happening at that time in the book, I can certainly see how I was suffering from that mindset, too, especially during those years, you know, where I was reckless, and I did a lot of drugs, and I drank a lot and did stupid things because a part of me, you know, despaired at that idea and did sort of think, you know, what's the point?
GROSS: You write that when you were growing up you had Cinderella wallpaper, your father, you know, treated you nicely, whereas he whipped your brother. Do you think you were raised differently by your father because of your gender?
WARD: Yes, I think that he had ideas about - very definite ideas about what it meant to be a black man in the South. And I think because he had those ideas about, you know, the kind of I guess strength it would take to be a black man in the South and the kind of pressure or the kind of pressures that black men have to operate under in the South, for those reasons I think he was harder on my brother.
But in the same way, I think that my mom was harder on me and my sisters. She knew of the pressures that black women in the South had to deal with. So I think that they're - the way that they brought us up, that that was colored by their understandings of gender.
GROSS: You compare how your brother was raised to - how your father raised pit bulls for fighting. And you say your father loved his dog and coddled him but showed the dog little mercy in his quest to make the dog a better fighter. And, you know, I actually found all of the stuff about your father's pit bulls, like, so interesting, in part because I've met a lot of pit bulls who've been rescued after they've been abused by people who raised them for fighting.
And to see it from your point of view, as someone whose father is taking her to see his pit bull fight, I just thought it was such an interesting perspective. And I'd like you to describe what it was like for you to be in the park under the highway where your father and the people, the men he knew fought their pit bulls while you watched.
WARD: It was - I was really young. Both me and my brother, we were really young when our father used to take - you know, took us underneath the bridge in New Orleans to watch his dog fight. And we loved the dog, you know, Homeboy, just as much as - like he did. And so I think that, you know, and this is a very naive sort of childish thing to think at the time, but I think in some way we were rooting for his dog.
You know, we were rooting for Homeboy because we wanted him to win, because we didn't want...
GROSS: You wanted him to live, probably, right?
WARD: Yes, we wanted him to live, right. We didn't want him to be hurt. But I remember also being very frightened because the matches were really violent. I mean, these were dogs ripping each other apart, and it was very visceral. So I do remember being very afraid at the same time, right? So even as I was emotionally invested in the outcome, I was still frightened. You know, still I felt like on the verge of running at any moment just because it was so violent and because I think that there was that fear that something could go wrong, you know, and as these dogs are biting each other that they could, you know, make a mistake.
GROSS: You were afraid when you were watching the dogs fight under the highway, like what if one of the dogs got away.
WARD: Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: And you ended up being attacked by one of your father's dogs, this was a dog that your father adopted after the dog was already an adult, so your father hadn't trained him from scratch. But I'd like you to describe what happened.
WARD: So he adopted this dog. The dog's name was Chief. And I don't know who owned the dog before my father, but, you know, my father I'm assuming bought him because, you know, he thought that he, you know, he was strong, he was big. My father probably thought he would be a good fighter.
And so one day I was playing with my cousins out in the - our sort of shared yard, our long driveway, and there was a female dog, you know, that was near us while we were playing. And then Chief came near us. And so the speculation at the time was that the female dog must have been in heat so that it made him testy and possessive and more sort of - I guess more apt to be violent.
And so, you know, he was there, the female dog was there, and then I remember he was near me. And I think maybe he was sniffing her, and that's why he wouldn't move, but I wanted him to move. Like I wanted him to get away from us. And so I kept yelling at him, you know, move, move. I think I was six years old. And he wouldn't, right, because he was so transfixed, I guess by the female dog.
And so that's when I - you know, I hit him. I lifted my fist up, and I punched him on his back. I hit him, right? And then he jumped on top of me, and he began mauling me, basically. Of course I just screamed, right, and I fought him, sort of instinctively fought him. I remember kicking. And I don't think I was hitting much when I was kicking, but at least when I was punching, I remember punching, you know, sort of at his torso.
And, you know, and I was on my back on the ground, and I just remember his torso wiggling like a snake, you know, from side to side on top of me. And so, you know, when pit bulls are trained to fight, they're trained to go for the neck. Well, at least the ones that I knew, they were trained to go for the neck, right?
And so evidently, that's what he was attempting to do, right. He was attempting to grab my neck, but because I was fighting, and I guess I was sort of curled up at the same time while I was fighting, he wasn't able to get to my neck. So he ripped part of my ear. You know, there's several like bite marks in my head, in my actual, you know, head, under my hair, and on my back.
And so my dad's aunt looked out of - her house was also in that sort of field. I guess she heard me screaming and him probably growling, and my cousins were probably screaming, I have no idea. And so she heard that, and she looked out her window, and she saw that he was attacking me.
And so she ran out with a broom, actually, and she started hollering and beating at him with the broom, and after I guess she did it enough, that ran him off. And then she walked me back to my house, and, you know, of course I was full of blood and screaming the entire time.
GROSS: And taken to the hospital.
GROSS: How are you around dogs now? Are you afraid of dogs?
WARD: I am afraid of dogs, actually. It's funny because dogs tend to like me, but I am afraid of them. But here's the thing. It's interesting because I'm not as afraid of pit bulls as I probably should be. I am more afraid of dogs that bark at me and that I think are acting sort of aggressively towards me.
GROSS: Well, you loved a pit bull.
GROSS: I mean, your father's dog, Homeboy, yeah, you were...
WARD: Yeah, I did. I tend to be more afraid of like smaller dogs now. But, yes, I'm still, I'm nervous around dogs, and I try not to be, but I can't help it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesmyn Ward, and her new memoir is called "Men We Reaped." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jesmyn Ward. She won a National Book Award for her novel "Salvage The Bones," which was set just before and during Hurricane Katrina. Her new memoir, "Men We Reaped," is about five young men, including her cousin and her brother, who died between 2000 and 2004. But the memoir is also about her own life.
One of the formative experiences in your life is that was from fifth grade through high school you went to a private Episcopalian school, where most years you were the only African-American girl. And you grew up in a small, rural town in Mississippi that I assume was predominately or completely African-American. Tell the story of how you got to go to this private school.
WARD: So 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. And so when the lawyer was home, my mother would have conversations with him, right, about her kids, of course.
At that time, in fifth grade, I was dealing with a lot of bullying in the public schools that I went to. I went to two different public schools that year, and I was being bullied. And so 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, right, which was an Episcopalian, a private Episcopalian school.
And she said, yes, and then he offered to pay for it, to fund it, basically, you know, as a scholarship. And that's what happened. So from actually sixth grade on, I was a student at that private Episcopalian school.
GROSS: Was it hard for your mother to say yes? Because on the one hand I bet it made her really uncomfortable to accept that amount of money from him. But at the same time I'm sure she really wanted the best possible school for you.
WARD: Yeah, I think that's true. I mean, my mom is the kind of mom, when she would bring us out in public when we were younger 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, I guess. So, yes, so I know it must have been problematic for her to accept something like that, I mean, because tuition was fairly expensive.
GROSS: You know, we always talk as a society about the importance of education in young people's lives and so on. So you got, you know, a pretty good education at this private school. Your friends from your town and your siblings didn't get that opportunity. They went to local schools, public schools. Can you see the difference in how access to education affected the course of your life?
WARD: Definitely. I mean, I think even if it's something as small as the college application process, like what that was like for me was totally different from my siblings' experience of it while they were going to public school, partly because the school that I went to, I mean, it was so accustomed to sending all of its graduates to college that there wasn't even the question of how many of their graduating students would go to college. It was just a given that all of them would go to college, right?
And so there was a counselor there at the school who worked with students on their college applications, who made certain that, you know, that we were taking all the requisite standardized tests from like ninth grade on. And, you know, and they really prepared us for it and walked us through that process, every single bit of it, whereas, you know, with my siblings, in the public school at the time, that wasn't the case.
I mean, there wasn't this understanding that everyone in the class would go to college and that therefore they needed to be prepared. So I think, you know, something as simple as that that I can look back on and realize that going to the school that I went to, that it really - that I wouldn't be where I am now, I don't think, if I hadn't had that opportunity and hadn't gone to that high school.
GROSS: Jesmyn Ward will be back in the second half of the show. Her new memoir is called "Men We Reaped." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jesmyn Ward. She won a National Book Award in 2011 for her novel "Salvage the Bones." Her new memoir, "Men We Reaped," is centered around five men in her life who died young - her brother, her cousin and three friends - all within a four-year period. She attributes their deaths, directly or indirectly, to being poor and African-American in the rural South. In telling their stories, she also tells the story of her family and her own life. She grew up in rural Mississippi, and now teaches creative writing at the University of South Alabama.
Earlier, we talked about how your father raised your brother not unlike the way your father raised his pit bull; that you have to be tough in the world and learn how to fight. But you say he was very nice to you, he didn't treat you that way. But your mother was tougher on you...
GROSS: ...but about different issues. And I think one of those issues was pregnancy. Do not get pregnant. Your mother was real...
GROSS: ...she had three daughters, and she didn't want them to get pregnant when they were young. I think your sister got pregnant when she was 12? Do I have that right?
WARD: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: What was the reaction in the house to that?
WARD: You know, my mom, one of the things that she always told us when we were growing up is that she wanted to make it so that we didn't have to struggle the way that she'd struggled when she was growing up. From when I was very young, I remember my mother telling me all the time, you're going to go to college, you're going to go to college, you're going to college, you're going to go to college. And I think that she was already trying to like raise the expectations for me so that I'd rise to meet them.
And so, you know, when my sister got pregnant, I think that it, you know, that was really devastating for my mom, because she had wanted all along for us to not have to say, forsake school because we had started a family too young. Or, you know, she wanted us to, you know, not have to I guess be single parents, too, right? And so, when my sister was pregnant so young, it was really, it was really difficult for my mom. Of course, it was really difficult for my sister too. But my mom is a very, you know, she made the best of it and she basically raised my nephew as her own, because my sister, she was too young to be a parent then.
GROSS: How did your sister feel about being pregnant at the age of 12?
WARD: We talk about it sometimes, and she said that partly she just didn't understand what was happening. She was so young that she didn't - of course, she didn't understand the seriousness of - and the possible consequences, right, of having sex. She tells me these funny stories about how she convinced herself that she wasn't pregnant - that she convinced yourself it was something else, like or at least she was sick, or she had a tape worm or, you know, like, everything but I'm pregnant. So I think it's jarring for her and I think confusing in a lot of ways.
GROSS: So, if you don't mind my asking this, I was wondering if abortion was ever considered.
WARD: It was considered. But I think by the time they figured out that my sister was pregnant, she was around five months along.
WARD: So at that point it wasn't considered anymore.
GROSS: Are you close to her son?
WARD: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I love him. He, you know, he, he came here under difficult circumstances, but I can't imagine life without him. And I know that my mom feels the same way because there are several times that she was sent to us that if it weren't for - if it weren't for my nephew, that after my brother died, she doesn't think that she would have been able to hold it together.
GROSS: How old was your nephew when your brother died?
WARD: He was three.
WARD: Yeah. So having him there, you know, made it possible for her to, to still see some purpose in life, I think. And it helped her to, you know, to sort of find her way through her grief.
GROSS: This is probably way too personal, but I'll ask it. So just tell me if it's too personal.
GROSS: So watching your sister and friends get pregnant as teenagers, did that make you like a staunch user of birth control?
WARD: I was definitely on birth control...
WARD: ...throughout college and for many years afterwards. Like I said, I saw it happen to my sister and then to the other girls that were my age. And then, you know, I think that my mother was very honest about how having children young affected her life. And so I think that, you know, that I was looking at my mother's example too. It was very obvious to me the ways that that, you know, of how that would limit my life and the things that I wanted to do.
GROSS: How old were you when you had your daughter?
WARD: Yuk. I was...
WARD: I was 35. Yeah, just last year.
GROSS: Oh. Just last year. Congratulations.
WARD: Thank you.
GROSS: You went to the University of Michigan. You got your masters in creative writing there. You had a fellowship at Stanford University. You're the family member who got out. But you write that you always wanted to leave, but when you did you always felt the pull to return. What is it that pulls you back, that gives you that feeling that you want to go back there?
WARD: I think that question has several answers. I think that partly I go back because of my family. We lost my brother, you know, when he was 19, and so I think that part of me is really afraid that, you know, I'm going to go out into the world and live my life outside of DeLisle, and then I'm going to lose my mom or I'm going to lose one of my sisters, or I'm going to lose my nephew. And so part of the reason why I return back is, you know, is motivated by that fear. I think another reason that I go back is because, is because I have a really large extended family, you know, and I'm almost related to everyone in the community. And so there is a real sense of community there, right, and a real sense of support, and I think that there's a real sense of home there. I think that pulls me back. And then there's the natural beauty of the place of home, and that speaks to me, I guess, as a writer and as an artist.
GROSS: Do you ever feel ambivalent about your success? You know what I mean? Because it's great to be successful, but it also like separates you from your family in some way.
WARD: Yes. It's difficult to combine the two worlds, right, to find some kind of balance there - where I can embrace that feeling of belonging. And yet, I guess, do what I need to do in reference to my writing, and in reference to my art, and in going out there as, like, sort of, you know, like representative of the world that I'm from.
So sometimes I am a little ambivalent about it. But I am very appreciative of it because for years, I was writing and no one wanted to read anything that I wrote. So, you know, I understand what it's like to be in that position and I also understand very clearly how lucky I am to be where I am right now. So, yeah, so on one hand I am ambivalent about it, but on the other hand, I'm very, very grateful for it and very appreciative of it.
GROSS: Your brother died in 2000 when he was 19 and you had just graduated college. And you write that eventually you had his name tattooed on one of your wrists to prevent you from slitting your wrists. You thought you wouldn't desecrate his name like that.
GROSS: Well, how had things gotten that bad that you needed to do that?
WARD: You know, because I already dealt with some depression or lived with some depression when I was in high school, and through college. And so my brother dying, of course, made it worse. And I, I had just gotten to the point where I was really hopeless. You know, I had no hope that life would get any better - ever. And I think part of the reason that I felt that way is because I was just still reeling, you know, from his death and from the fact that he was gone. And I think reeling from the realization that life is really fragile and tenuous. But instead of making me appreciate life, it made be just despair. And I think I was cut off from my community and my friends in some ways because I wasn't there. You know, I was in New York and then I was in Michigan and I was back in California. And so I didn't have that support network at all, and it made me really hopeless and really pressed. And I thought this isn't going to get better and I'm just done, like I don't want to suffer anymore. And then I felt, you know, OK, if I felt, you know, OK, so if I do this, I'm going to do it with a razor because you always have access to razors and it's the easiest way. You know, I didn't have access to a gun, I might have access to a razor.
But I knew that after I had lived through losing my brother I knew what that felt like, you know, to be here and to lose someone that, you know, that you love. And so, I think another part of me was aware that I couldn't do that to my family, you know, that I needed to do something so I wouldn't do that to my family. That's when I got my brother's name tattooed on the inside of my left wrist. And then, you know, a few years later, I was still dealing with the depression, right, and that that sense of hopelessness and I just, you know, switched wrist, right? I thought, OK, I can't do it, you know, my left wrist so, of course, I'd, you know, try to do it with my left hand on my right wrist. And so then I thought OK, you're going to have to get another tattoo, and then...
GROSS: You actually tried?
WARD: I did not try. Although, I had several episodes where I cut myself. But I didn't actually cut my wrists.
WARD: So, I was cutting.
GROSS: So what did you do to your other wrist?
WARD: Oh, so I got, I got a tattoo from the last - well, from the only letter, really, that my brother wrote me in college. And when he signed the letter, he signed it and Love, Brother. And so I took that letter to the tattoo parlor and they made a copy of that, Love, Brother, and so I got that on my right wrist.
GROSS: Like in his handwriting.
WARD: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: So I assume you still have both of those tattoos on your wrist?
GROSS: What do you think about when you see those now? When you see them many times a day.
WARD: Yes. I think now I don't associate them so much with that darkness. I mean, I acknowledge that that's what drove me to place them here on my wrist. But now when I look at them, I'm just appreciative that they're there because I like having my brother's handwriting on me. You know, it's such a statement to me, that he lived and that he was here and that I loved him and that he loved me. And so it's comforting now to see the tattoos there. I can really sort of look at them and be able to remember my brother and I guess honor my brother with them.
GROSS: Well, Jesmyn Ward, thank you so much for talking with us.
WARD: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Jesmyn Ward's new memoir is called "Men We Reaped." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshairnpr.org.
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews a new album by singer-songwriter Lucy Schwartz, who songs you may have heard on TV shows or in the movies.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.