Writer Cited: Jesmyn Ward

[This is part of a regular series on this blog, praising current writers whose work I'm using in my classes.]

There are writers who can create universes and immerse you in unreal, fantastic scenarios.

And there are writers who can re-create the world you always thought you knew--reshaping core ideas, bringing characters out of the shadows and into the light, expanding your worldview.

Such a writer is Jesmyn Ward, daughter of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and currently an associate writing professor at Tulane University in New Orleans.

What I Knew

I thought I knew the Mississippi Gulf Coast before I became a Ward reader. Just before I was born, my grandparents retired from jobs in the shipping industry in New Orleans to a small, green house in Waveland, Mississippi, just four blocks or so from a thin, white-sand beach. Many of the piers in that area were heavily damaged in those years (the mid- to late-1970s), crippled since Hurricane Camille (1969).

My grandpa died in 1981, and we buried him next to my grandma at a cemetery in Bay St. Louis. I didn't return to the Gulf Coast until I was a high school senior, eight years later. By that time, the coast was booming: the piers were back, condos had popped up along the shore--even casinos--but it retained that out-of-the-way, small-town feel that I remembered from my childhood.

In 1994 I honeymooned with my new bride at a condo on the coolest spot along the coast: Pass Christian, right across the bay from Bay St. Louis, beautiful beach, and it featured a brand new pier with a gazebo on the end. The Village at Henderson Point. After an adventure out west, Jenny and I returned to Pass Christian for week-long stays with our young family every summer from 2001-05.

What I Learned from Jesmyn Ward

I first learned of Ward from reviews of her award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones about a devastated community in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I didn't read it. I hadn't been back to the Gulf since the hurricane. The news had appalled me. I wanted to hide.

But I couldn't ignore her next book, Men We Reaped. I found it at my local library, and I just had to read it.

Boy, did I.

It turns out Ward had spent her life in DeLisle, Mississippi, just a few miles inland from Pass Christian, my honeymoon/vacation paradise. She had written Men to celebrate five lives of young men who themselves were essential parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I had never heard of DeLisle before. I'm not sure I had ever been more than a few blocks north of U.S. 90. I needed to read Ward's work. I needed to burst the bubble of race and relaxation that was my primary image of Mississippi. Men We Reaped helped me to do this.

Each one of the dead men she profiles in the book is resurrected by her words. We see the humor they contribute; we feel the hope that they had for themselves and their loved ones. The reader's own life becomes emptier as they pass--even as his own world has been made fuller by Ward's celebration of these five, unique lives.

"Ward accomplishes something that every writer seeks but almost everyone fails to do," I wrote in my five-star review on Goodreads, "[she provides] a relevant social commentary that doesn't just explain a community, she immerses the reader in it, thereby changing readers' perspectives.  There isn't a long list of Americans who have pulled this off. She's in Steinbeck, Sinclair, Wright territory with this tome."

I don't throw around author's like John Steinbeck and Richard Wright heedlessly. Those writers are heroes of mine. So, today, is Jesmyn Ward.

It was now time to share Ward with students in my classroom.

Men We Reaped in the Creative Writing Class

Creative writing is a pretty writing-intensive class, but I usually reserve Mondays to examine exemplars and conduct whole-class discussions. I wanted to use Ward to demonstrate some nonfiction techniques to the class, so I chose an excerpt from the book that deals with her brother, Joshua.

When I teach an excerpt, I usually use a tool called "scaffolding," to increase students' quality of interaction with the text. Usually I'll ask them to read the text several times in response to new questions.

Step 1: How Did She Do It?  I began by telling students how much the book had meant to me, then I focused in on the excerpt about Joshua. "After I read this, I felt like I could see Joshua--like I knew him," I told the class. "But I can't figure out how Ward pulled this off. Can you read this and identify any specific words or images that she used to make him real?"

Once students had read this, I had them go over these answers in pairs or threes. Then we collected four or five significant parts of the story--students mentioned Ward's use of smell imagery, others notice her use of dialogue--"This reminds me of us." Eventually we get to the sights, sounds and smells of the drive itself and talk about how these bring Joshua to life.

Step 2: Follow the Music. My students love to write to music (we do this every Thursday in class without fail). A student will bring in a song to play, and everyone spends 15 minutes writing. I had more full stories & poems written from this activity last year than any other type of writing prompt. Students believe that "All I Got is You" characterizes Joshua.

It certainly is a clever device, framing Ward's drive with her brother over almost an entire page. Do the quotes from the song describe Joshua? I'll ask. We sometimes look up the lyrics to find other connections not mentioned explicitly in the book excerpt. I emphasize the last line that Ward quotes, "This is for the families that went through the struggle," leads to--

Step 3: Truth with a Capital T. What is Ward's purpose in writing about her brother, here? This is usually when I ask students to read the excerpt again, looking for her main idea. Is this essay about her brother or something bigger? We respond to this with a whole-class discussion. There are many possible ideas, but I want to get around to discussing this paragraph:

I love Joshua. He was here. He lived. Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald. Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said, You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.
This is the paragraph that makes the whole text amazing to me. This isn't just a book about Joshua or Roger or Demond or C.J. or Ronald, even though they are the men who were reaped. It's a book about and for Americans of every age, shape and color

Other Ideas. This is such a rich text. I could spend three classs days looking at it--I just might some day. For example we could

  • Discuss Ward's use of symbol in the paragraph that begins, "We rode away from St. Stephen’s, away from the house, away from the cluster of houses," including her use of contrasts in the scenes she portrays 
  • Discuss Ward's metaphor, "Life is a hurricane." Kids in Tennessee don't know hurricanes in the way that Mississippi or Louisiana kids do. This may be wise to explain or develop a little more--how people prepare for hurricanes, how the eye of a hurricane is not the end but the middle of terrible disaster, etc.
Reading Leads to Writing. There are several writing assignments I make after we have discussed Men We Reaped. I change it up as the mood hits me. Here are some possible writing tasks that follow the excerpt I use from the book.
  • Select a song and interweave the music or lyrics with a significant event in your life.
  • Write about someone you have loved in your life. What details would you provide that could make them matter to readers who didn't know them?
  • Take the reader on a road trip around your community--what are sights and smells that would capture this place for your audience?

More Who Were Reaped

Two months before Men We Reaped was published in September 2013, America was astonished to learn that the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin would go unpunished. The next month, Michael Brown was shot dead by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Tragedy followed tragedy, as murder followed murder in Cleveland, Baltimore, Staten Island, Chicago and other places around the country.

This summer I got a chance to preview Ward's response to these national 'reapings' of young black men, a book of essays called The Fire This Time that she has edited for Simon and Schuster (due out August 2, 2016).

In her introduction to the new book, Jesmyn Ward recalls her anger at the news of Trayvon Martin's murder. She had turned to James Baldwin's essay, The Fire Next Time where she had read, "You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don't you ever forget it" (16).

Ward describes that quote as the genesis of The Fire This Time. "It was as if I sat on my porch steps with a wise father, a kind, present uncle, who said this to me," she writes.
"It was then that I knew I wanted to call on some of the great thinkers and extraordinary voices of my generation to help me puzzle this out. I knew that a black boy who lives in the hilly deserts of California, who likes to get high with his friends on the weekend and who freezes in a prickly sweat whenever he sees blue lights in his rearview, would need a book like this. A book that would reckon with the fire of rage and despair and fierce, protective love currently sweeping through the streets and campuses of America. A book that would gather new voices in one place, in a lasting, physical form, and provide a forum for those writers to dissent, to witness, to reckon. A book that a girl in rural Missouri could pick up at her local library and, while reading, encounter a voice that hushed her fears. In the pages she would find a wise aunt, a more present mother, who saw her terror and despair threading their fingers through her hair, and would comfort her. We want to tell her this: You matter. I love you. Please don't forget it" (16-17).

It's the theme of Men, that I find here. It's the power of Jesmyn Ward that I appreciate and that I hope to share with my student writers.


Ten days ago I visited Pass Christian. I had been working in New Orleans, and I took a day to rent a car and drive out to my grandparents' graves in Bay St. Louis. It was my first time back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Katrina.

From Bay St. Louis, I crossed the bay on the new, high-rise bridge--the old one bridge, wiped out by the hurricane, had risen in the middle to allow boats through. I stopped at Henderson Point where the pier was a ruin and the condos a mere, tragic suggestion, rusting in the sea breeze eleven years after the storm. I drove along Highway 90 all the way to Edgewater Mall in Biloxi. Then I returned to Pass Christian.

This time I saw the signs for DeLisle and followed them toward the interstate. I wanted to see for myself the world that Ward had brought to my mind. I wasn't disappointed.