For her third book, Jesmyn Ward, 36, probably could have written about anything she wanted. With two novels under her belt, including the 2011 National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones, it is safe to say that Ward is one of the brightest stars in the literary world, a black woman from the South with a voice that echoes the canon of great Southern writers.
But the DeLisle, Miss., native chose what was to her the most difficult path possible, a memoir entitled Men We Reaped. Ward tells the New York Times that the book is not just about her but also about the lives of several black men with whom she was close, as the title implies, and finding the connective tissue in their untimely deaths.
"Men We Reaped," to be published on Tuesday by Bloomsbury, is as much an existential detective story as it is a personal history, as Ms. Ward searches for a unifying reason that her brother, Joshua, her cousin C. J. and friends Roger, Demond and Ronald — all young black men — died within a four-year period.
She writes first about Roger Eric Daniels III, who died of a heart attack at 23 while using cocaine.
"They picking us off, one by one," a friend tells Ms. Ward in the book, as they watch the hearse leave Mr. Daniels's home.
Who, she wonders, are "they"?
"Was there a larger story that I was missing as all these deaths accumulated, as those I loved died?"
"Men We Reaped" is that larger story. With a novelist's skill, Ms. Ward mines her memories of the men, like the girlhood crush she had on Ronald, or the night she enlisted a friend to wake her sister, who was dating C. J., to break the news of his death. What she finds are threads of the past that linger in the collective present, specifically the role that the South's legacy of racism has played in how these young men lived and died.
Read more at the New York Times.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.