First of all, I will have difficulty in this review expressing how good this book is. It is a memoir about the deaths of several young black men that grew up in a lower socioeconomic class. It shows the difficulties of navigating in a world which most of the readers are unfamiliar with. In Men We Reaped, Ward elicits grief and frustration in the readers which makes it a very difficult book to read. I teared up a few times. Definitely a must read for anyone interested in social issues or emotional memoirs.
This is a final discussion post for the Social Justice Bookclub hosted by Kerry at Entomology of a Bookworm.
1) Men We Reaped is described as a memoir. While it draws on Ward's personal experiences, it also explores themes much larger than one woman's life. Do you agree with this genre classification?
I would call this book part memoir part social awareness genre. In fact, I think taking away the title of "memoir" would subtract from the power of the book. The genre "memoir" suggests that a book is very personal. And describing these deaths was very, very personal to Jesmyn Ward. That much was clear from the narrative.
2) In what ways do you think Ward's personal approach to this subject makes Men We Reaped stand out from other books that address similar issues? Did this make the book appeal to you more or less, or were you indifferent?
I admit that I don't read a lot of memoirs. I'm not sure why except that I like that style that many people reject: the "sounds-like-a-textbook" one. The reason for that is because I prefer the information to be well-researched and accurate. Most books I read on similar issues, therefore, do not have this personal feeling to them. They sometimes try to add to the personality by including stories about people they've interviewed, but this is not the same thing as listening to a first-hand account. On the other hand, it was the personal aspect of this book which made it so powerful. Therefore I'd say I'm ambivalent to the memoir format.
3) In more than one instance throughout the text, Ward writes about feeling silenced and voiceless in the face of overwhelming systems of inequality. Do you think Men We Reaped changes that position by giving her a voice?
It does and it doesn't. Ward is given a voice because she "rose above" her background into a situation in which she could have a voice. She was talented, intelligent, and lucky. There are so many people out there without these gifts and although they are not able to express themselves as clearly and fully as Ward, they still deserve to be heard.
4) Though Men We Reaped is about the loss of young black male life, it is also, in many ways, about the black women left to stand witness to the lives and deaths of those in their community. How does this gendered perspective change the story of the high mortality rate among young men of color?
I think most books on this subject tend to focus on the black males because they are the ones that are dying and imprisoned in droves. This book is special because it allows you to what's going on in the mind of one female survivor of these tragedies. It gives one voice to the thousands of women out there who are surviving this messy system.
5) If you could ask Jesmyn Ward any one question about this book and/or the experiences she recounts within it, what would it be?
I already gave a partial answer to this question based on my own thoughts on this subject. But I would ask "How much of your success is due to luck? And how many intelligent, talented women and men do you think are out there who could have been as successful, but didn't find the connections or resources to "rise above?"