Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

I wonder now if I will ever see the title of a new book by Jesmyn Ward that does not thrill me at the same time it fills me with trepidation. Ward’s talent is such that we read what she writes even when we do not want to. Her despair and distress cuts like a blade. She wants it to hurt. So that we know. And we do, now. Has there ever been anyone who could tell this story in this way?

”I never knew Demond when he was younger. I came to know him as an adult, when he was old enough to have sharp smile lines and the thin skin at his temples was threaded through with veins. The skull beneath looked hard…'You should write about my life,' Demond said…I heard this often at home. Most of the men in my life thought their stories, whether they were drug dealers or straight-laced, were worthy of being written about…Now, as I write these stories, I see the truth in their claims...'I don’t write real-life stuff,' I said.”

That was then. Ward writes real-life stuff, in such a way that we come away changed, knowing.
”This is where the past and the future meet…This is the summer of the year 2000. This is the last summer I will spend with my brother, [Josh]. This is the heart. This is. Every day, this is.”
But even she admits it is hard to know, really know people. But she may come closer than anyone else has. Closer than anyone else has bothered to.
“I know that sense of despair. I know that when [Roland] looked down at his copper hands and in the mirror, at his dark eyes and his freckles and his even mouth, that he thought it would be better if he were dead, because then all of it, every bit of it, would stop. The endless struggle with his girlfriend, the drugs that lit his darkness, the degradations that come from a life of poverty exacerbated by maleness and Blackness and fatherlessness in the South—being stopped and searched by the police, going to a high school where no one really cared if he graduated and went to college, the dashed dreams of being a pilot or a doctor or whatever it was he wanted, realizing the promises that had been made to him at All God’s Creatures day camp were empty and he didn’t have a world and a heaven of options—all of these things would cease.”

Five deaths in five years. Young black men with a life expectancy of 23 years. Families with a shifting sense of belonging, sometimes including the community, sometimes losing members, fathers and brothers especially, to other families. The lowering heat of a muggy, buggy Mississippi night with dampness on the window crank and seats of an eighties-model gray-blue Cutlass. Drug selling as last-ditch income production. Casual racism, "I don’t believe in the mixing of the races”, thrown out with lacerating results.
“How could I know then that this would be my life: yearning to leave the South and doing so again and again, but perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me?”
Ah. So she is like us after all. Just like us. I expect she knows now that despair and loneliness knows not race nor income level. None of us is spared that at least. But the other, well...I'm glad she told us. I believe it makes a difference.

I came away with a vivid sense of the terrible burden of anger, frustration, and loneliness that Ward carried. I hope she does not carry it still, but only picks it up again now and again to try it on and to see it does not fit her anymore.

You may find that, having bared all, Ward intrigues more than ever. Here she talks about the writing of her memoir. Jesmimi is her blog which she doesn’t update very often, or perhaps only when she’s stuck.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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