Jesmyn Ward is a new darling of the book publishing world, but she isn't like the rest. The fellowships she has won – named for Wallace Stegner and John Grisham – might give the idea that she is stuck in an ivory tower with a fact-track to best-sellerdom.
Rather, Ward has written her way up from the devastated mud bays of the Mississippi Gulf Coast to make her mark on New York City's pampered literary elite by telling the stories of real people, really impacted by the crash of nature, race and class.
Ward appears at Town Hall Seattle on Wednesday, Oct. 9, at 7:30 p.m., and in Portland on Friday, Oct. 11, at Powell's Books on Burnside at 7:30 p.m.
Her first novel, "Where the Line Bleeds," which traces the paths of twin brothers from a rural Southern town, found a publisher just as the writer was preparing to give up the craft and attend nursing school.
Ward's second novel, National Book Award-winner "Salvage the Bones," recounts the story of a Gulf Coast family's struggle to survive Hurricane Katrina – as Ward and her family themselves did (it is reminiscent of the classic, "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston).
But Ward's new memoir, "Men We Reaped," plants a flag on just how different are the lives of African Americans in this country from the white elite, by chronicling the deaths of five young male relatives who all died within a few years of each other, including and especially her brother Joshua.
The title is from a quote by Harriet Tubman, which is followed on an opening page by lyrics from Tupac Shakur's "Words 2 My Firstborn," as if to draw a direct line from the 19th century to the present day where so little has changed.
The book itself is divided into chapters for each of the young men who died – Roger Eric Daniels III, Demond Cook, Charles Joseph Martin, Ronald Wayne Lizana, and Joshua Adam Dedeaux – joined together with chapters about Ward's own family life in which her sisters, brother, mother and father jump from the page with laughter, heartbreak and eventually, acceptance.
Born and raised in rural DeLisle, Miss., Ward at an early age found ways to move between the worlds of the privileged and the oppressed. She draws on the language of both to sketch out her deep love of Mississippi and the smoldering hate she feels for the land that has always killed the people she loves – unnaturally, down through the generations.
Her story unfolds in a narrative that slowly circles, then in the end plunges to the heart of her life's realization: Her loved ones died before their time simply because of who they were – Black men, and where they lived – the South.
And as bleak as that sounds – Ward's prose almost throbs with a painful longing for her brother, for fairness or just a lucky break once in awhile – the love she holds for her tight-knit-but-imperfect family draws Ward back to her Mississippi home in spite of opportunity elsewhere, in spite of the destructive force of her home state, in spite of all.
"But this grief, for all its awful weight, insists that he matters. What we carry of Roger and Demond and C.J. and Ronald says that they matter. I have written only the nuggets of my friends' lives. This story is only a hint of what my brother's life was worth, more than the nineteen years he lived, more than the thirteen years he's been dead. It is worth more than I can say. And there's my dilemma, because all I can do in the end is say."
More info about the author at her website, www.jesmimi.blogspot.com.