It’s a big comparison, but it’s what critics are saying about Jesmyn Ward. Her third book, and first non-fiction work, “Men We Reaped: A Memoir,” is out today, and it’s getting some serious buzz. Lauded by The New York Times, NPR, and a slew of others, the book is on our must-read list for fall.
The story weaves Jesmyn’s formative years, spent in DeLisle, Mississippi, and the lives of five young men in her life — all African-American, all whose lives were cut short between 2000 and 2004, mostly by violence. (Among the men, her brother, killed at 19 by a drunk driver.) And at the heart of the story are people she loved, touched by poverty and gripped by self-destruction.
Jesmyn won the 2011 National Book Award for her novel “Salvage The Bones,” set in the 12 days and after leading up to Hurricane Katrina. She served as a Stegner Fellow at Standford University from 2008 to 2010 and a Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi from 2010-2011and has taught at the University of New Orleans.
We talked with Jesmyn, who now lives in her native DeLisle and is a professor at the University of South Alabama, as she embarked on her multi-city book tour, which begins today.
SL: Why did you decide to move back to the South and raise your family here?
JW: My entire family on both sides are from DeLisle and Pass Christian. I spent a long time away, but family kept drawing me back. I love the sense of community here, and the natural beauty of the place. I miss that when I’m away.
Being a Southerner means having a real sense of history. Other places in the country, that’s not so much the case. We constantly live with this specter of the past, and we’re always aware of the way the past expresses itself in the present. One of the biggest lessons I learned from this book is that the past bears in the present.
SL: Tell us more about that.
JW: My grandmother told stories about working in the fields all day long just to feed her family. That history of being poor is a real one, and it’s affected my family through my generation. My brother dropped out of school when he was young. At times he did things that were illegal in order to get money to support himself. On the surface, if someone hears about a young, poor black kid from a rural town who has to hustle, and then gets a legitimate job, and then loses and that on goes back to hustling, it’s easy for them to stereotype him. In the book I try to show he was more than that.
I want people to read the book and to get to know these young men as people.
SL: Critics compare you to Maya Angelou. How does that make you feel?
JW: I’ve always looked up to Maya Angelou, so that’s a really heavy compliment. I’m flattered when people think about that, but when I sit down and it’s just me and the computer, I can’t think about those things. I’m aware of what people expect, and it’s hard to live up to those expectations. So I’m flattered by the compliments but need to put them aside so I can work.
SL: Who are your other literary influences?
JW: Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin. And Jean Toomer, who wrote “Cane”
SL: Who are the most influential Southerners in your life?
JW: My family — my living family and the previous generations. And the people who fought for Civil Rights in the South — Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers. There are so many.
Read our Paper Napkin Interview with Maya Angelou here.