Last week, in my course this semester on rural America in contemporary literature, we started reading Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped. We’d read a novel and a book of short fiction previously, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, respectively, and I have to admit I was anxious about the move to nonfiction, fearing my students might not fully appreciate the difference, might not understand Ward is telling a given story, rather than creating a story. I was worried the class might leap to judgement before trying out understanding, might be confused by and even afraid of a culture most of them do not share.
I was straight wrong. My students handled the transition with wisdom and care. They articulated to each other the fundamental differences between the project of a memoir and the project of a novel or collection of short fiction; they talked and wondered and built metaphors of understanding. It was the kind of thoughtful, probing, compassionate discussion that almost makes you want to weep for how brilliant your students are, and how special a place the college classroom really is.
But I have to thank Jesmyn Ward, too. She’s written the finest investigation of race, violence, masculinity, and rural poverty I’ve ever read. The achronological, back-and-forth structure; the sharp, angry voice; the clarity of observation and investigation–this is simply a necessary American memoir. Steel yourself for a heart-rending, hard-hitting story, and go read it now.