"Through Trying Times: Stories of Loss and Redemption in the American South," featuring bestselling author Jesmyn Ward and New York Times columnist Charles Blow was part of the Los Angeles Public Library [ALOUD] program. The event was held last week and was sponsored by the Library Foundation of L.A.
The program was moderated by poet and USC Provost Fellow, Robin Coste Lewis, who began the evening by pointing out the noteworthy fact that two memoirs by African-American authors had been published within about a year of each other.
Jesmyn Ward's Experience
Jesmyn Ward is best-known as a novelist (Salvage the Bones and Where the Line Bleeds). Salvage the Bones earned many awards and was the 2011 choice for the National Book Award. Ward is now an associate professor at Tulane University, and her most recent book is a memoir, Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Men We Reaped describes Ward's life in the small town of DeLisle Mississippi during a heartbreaking time for her family. Her brother, a cousin, and two close friends all die during the space of four short years. The causes are drugs, suicide, and two were victims of accidents. Ward sensitively portrays the hopelessness for young black men in a small community, growing up without job prospects and receiving little reinforcement about the importance of education.
Charles Blow's Perspective
Op-Ed Times columnist Charles M. Blow's memoir, Fire Shut Up in my Bones, chronicles his years growing up as one of five sons in a small town in Louisiana. His parents separated in a way that was wrenching for the children. His mother, a woman of strong character and a deep belief in the importance of education, is left to raise her sons alone. While Blow honored her sense that her boys needed to read and pursue education, this did not save Blow from being a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a cousin.
As moderator, Coste united the two author experiences by pursuing questions about the process of memoir writing. Both authors found it a very painful process, leading Ward to adamantly declare that this was the one and only memoir she would ever write.
Writing Life Experiences
They both addressed the fact that writing about life experiences not only means having to re-visit the experience but also having to come to grips with exactly how it affected them personally as well as the effect it had on their family relationships. Ward described it as a long and very painful therapy session.
Ward talked about how masculinity was defined by the young men in her life, where community survival led to lives that involved drinking, drugs (using and selling) and risk-taking. The older men who might have been role models provided a single message: There is no way out. She writes of the regret that there was no infrastructure to inspire and provide positive goals for young black men.
Blow concurred that the constraints of gender were very limiting in the world he observed where the men generally had to reduce their masculinity, bowing to the opinions of others, to be valued in the white world. This often meant that when they arrived home, they felt the need to exert their masculinity. Neither behavior provided a helpful role model to young men.
He also discussed the issue of sexual abuse within families, and presented shocking statistics about the prevalence of abuse within families. The man whom a child might meet on the way home from school is a lesser threat than the older brother, the father, or the uncle who may take advantage of young family members again and again.
The Importance of Libraries
Coste brought the topic around to the authors preparation to be writers, and both addressed the absolute importance of libraries. Both came from families where there was no money for books, "Without the library, I would have been lost," said Ward, and Blow agreed.
Coste summed up the beauty and tenderness enfolded within each book, pointing out that the books had in common authors who were tenacious about survival and breaking with the small town patterns they had witnessed growing up.
During the Q and A, Blow returned to the topic of libraries and education that his mother taught him to value, and the evening closed with Blow quoting author James Baldwin:
"You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read."
What better way to end an evening at the Los Angeles Central Library?
Throughout the year, I send out profiles of little-known African-American leaders who are profiled on my website: www.americacomesalive.com. If you would like to receive the mailings, write firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Leaders" in the subject line.