Like many meetings of the faithful, it began with a profession of liberation. “When I was a child, books were my escape,” Jesmyn Ward read from the lectern.
The crowded occasion was the 12th annual Boyle Lecture at Spring Hill College, and this nationally renowned author cut the rapt silence with tales of her early life. Though Ward had just jaunted down Old Shell Road from her professorial gig at the University of South Alabama, her remarks detailed a longer passage. Her road to literary stardom from impoverished rural Mississippi wasn’t one of miles, but of earnest artistry and honesty’s heartache.
“I was drawn to girl protagonists; to complex people on quests,” Ward read. “I often used books as a way to hide from the heat or from grown-ups.”
She had been one of 13 people crowded into her grandmother’s modest house. There was no central heat or air; a wood-burning stove provided meals.
Things were no better away from home. Bullied in the public schools, the largesse of her mother’s employer landed her as the only student of color in a small, private school where indignities were commonplace.
But through this gristmill, Ward emerged triumphant. She earned an MFA at the University of Michigan, then a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University. She moved on to become the Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi before returning southward to her coastal hometown.
Her mother had wanted something more practical for her daughter, perhaps a job as a nurse. In her heart, Jesmyn had little vocational choice. Writing was a compulsion.
“I wrote stories about fallen angels and child prodigies,” Ward told the assembly. “Though I felt I wasn’t good, I kept trying. What I couldn’t understand then was that art didn’t have to be about experiences alien to my own, but I didn’t believe anything about my experience was worth writing about.”
National critics disagreed. Forged from her family’s harrowing ordeal in Hurricane Katrina, Ward’s second book “Salvage the Bones” brought torrents of praise. She won the 2011 National Book Award in Fiction and an Alex Award in 2012.
She said her third work, the 2013 memoir “Men We Reaped” was the hardest thing she has written to date. Built around the deaths of four young men and her brother in DeLisle, Miss., Ward has erected more than a shrine to their short lives or untimely ends, but a peek into a way of life most Americans would rather ignore.
Initially, this latest offering seems less vivid than the cyclone-and-dog-fight-filled “Salvage the Bones.” However, “Men We Reaped” bears a more incisive use of language without forsaking what brought Ward notice. When she notes a “black night salted with stars,” or refers to a character’s string of ill-advised paramours as “all corporeal telescopes to another reality,” we still hear the Jesmyn Ward that enthralled readers across the nation.
Admittedly, some of the characters can be hard to relate to for some readers, a criticism Ward heard in the wake of her second novel. They are pockmarked with abysmal decisions, a few of the five doomed young men most of all. Some readers will be automatically repulsed by depictions of animal abuse, another pitfall for both reader and storyteller.
Ward writes of leaving the region but being pulled back by a love “so thick it choked” her. Like other Southern writers, her sense of place ribbons through “Men We Reaped” but not necessarily as adulation. Much like her mother’s character, she realizes coastal Mississippi’s dearth of opportunity, its culture of fatalism can amount to a prison sentence or worse.
This recognition evokes the question: Is a love that’s actually self-destruction truly a love at all? Like battered person syndrome, do some of us actually hope for the best or are we denying ourselves fulfillment through rationalizations which perpetuate our ills? Even Ward’s path to her dreams led her far away from DeLisle before those could be realized.
“How does one look at one’s life and confront pain?” Ward said to the crowd. “I had to confront that in ‘Men We Reaped.’”
Her initial novel avoided the brutality of reality. She built characters from her past but forced them into self-satisfactory conclusions rather than inevitable fates. The result was dishonest. The reaction scalded her.
“I had to give it human perspective,” Ward said. When it came to her next work, she stepped across that line. She claimed the Katrina scenes in “Salvage the Bones” caused her to emotionally relive the storm but she stuck with it.
“This memoir was even more painful,” Ward said. “The grief of loss was brought back and magnified.” This haunted her as she pursued the story and overarching themes through a process linking them all together.
“This is what I think is necessary to expression as an artist,” Ward said. “The story of people who have been told they were expendable and unnecessary. Every draft brought new realizations about the subjects. And to express all this is what it means to be a human being, what it means to live.”