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Rheta Johnson: Something pulled me back

 

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

 

PASS CHRISTIAN -- Today she looks like a beautiful Indian princess, like Walt Disney's Pocahontas, her thick black braid rapunzeling down the back of her tunic of red, the color in which her mother dressed her "Mimi." 

 

Author Jesmyn Ward's ancestry is mixed with African, French, Spanish and Native American blood, allowing a rainbow of perspective, which makes her feel "lucky," she says, as a writer. But for facile identification, "I choose to embrace African American. It's a political choice." 

 

Ward, 36, grew up in DeLisle, a shady spot in the road a few miles north of here, a place she lovingly describes in her recent memoir, "Men We Reaped." She is answering a veteran newspaper editor's questions before a friendly audience of home folk, most of them associated with Coast Episcopal School, where not so long ago she was the only black girl, her scholarship paid for by white families who employed her mother as a maid. 

 

A school librarian, she recalls, once gave her 60 books in a box, which Ward suspects the mentor paid for "out of her own pocket." 

 

But this lovely and generally generous place had its dark side, too, the genesis of her book. "Men's bodies litter my family history," she writes. In the span of four years, 2000 to 2004, five young black men she grew up with died violently in unrelated deaths. The first was her brother, Joshua. 

 

So now National Book Award winner Ward -- she won for her 2011 novel "Salvage the Bones" -- is explaining her newest book and herself to a home crowd, the toughest audience. 

 

"It's always hard to write a memoir," she says. You write about real people, people you know, and you worry about what they will think.  

 

Finally, Ward decided, she was "willing to take that risk, to make some people mad." 

 

The result was what U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey called "a haunting and essential read." And it made some mad. But it also made some think. 

 

Ward's stories are so bound up with the Gulf Coast and its unique culture that it's no surprise she came home, keeps coming home. "Something always pulled me back. There is real worth in living in a place like this. ... These are the people I'm interested in writing about." 

 

To live where you grew up is the easiest and the toughest thing a body can do. And to write about it while living there takes courage. 

 

The most appealing thing about this strong woman, who looks about 20 but has the self-composure and wisdom of a wise octogenarian, is her willingness to admit she doesn't have all the answers. After exploring the violent deaths of young black men who grew up hearing and eventually believing that "you don't mean much," Wards says she doesn't really know how to change that pattern. 

 

"I'm young, and I don't know enough." But talking about it, writing about it, is a start. 

 

In her travels far and wide, she says, outsiders mostly think ill of Mississippi. They may admire its writers, but they don't understand how a successful, accomplished woman like herself could return. 

 

And that's part of the reason she did. This place she loves has faults, same as any other, but great potential to be better. And away from it, "I was very lonely."  

 

 

 

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