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A Conversation with Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Other Wes MooreAfter an amazing run in hardcover, Wes Moore’s memoir The Other Wes Moore is now out in paperback.

Two kids named Wes Moore were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? Wes Moore, the author of this fascinating book, sets out to answer this profound question. 

New York- based journalist, author, and novelist Farai Chideya spoke by telephone with Wes Moore about his story, the other Wes Moore’s story, and what we can all do to help bridge the opportunity gap that plagues our society. Their conversation was originally published in SMITH Magazine on June 22, 2010.

Farai Chideya: You talk about the South Bronx so beautifully in your book and how it has changed between the time your grandparents bought a house there in the fifties and when you moved there in the eighties. How did you first come to understand place?

Wes Moore: I think the first time I really understood place was actually when I first started to understand my need to be a part of one, and I felt myself having difficulty finding that. As I was in the Bronx and started getting older and going through that burgeoning process of manhood, and tried to get that understanding of what that felt like and what that was—and my mother was working multiple jobs to send me to the school across town—I increasingly found myself “too rich” for the kids in my neighborhood. I was one of the only kids in my class that didn’t go to school in the area. But as I went across town for this other school, I found myself being “too poor” for the kids in my school because they didn’t understand anything about my background or why I was one of the only kids in the school who had to travel an hour- plus to get to school. That’s the first time I started to understand place and my role and my footing because I found myself searching for it—I found myself searching for that comfort, that support, that acceptance that seemed so elusive at every turn. I just found myself increasingly more uncomfortable everywhere I went.

FC: One of the moments in your book that had me cracking up was that, because your family was financially strapped, you actually sometimes wore your older sister’s pants to school. You say that you thought you could pull it off, but in retrospect people were probably rolling their eyes. You have a lot of moments like that in your book, lightness and humor in a book that has a lot of tough moments, starting with the death of your father prematurely on.

WM: That definitely came through in the first draft. One thing I realized throughout this process very early was that if I was going to do any justice to this process, I needed to be transparent, I needed to be honest about it. As I was going on thinking about my life there were a lot of lighthearted, humorous moments and I wanted to make sure that my story highlighted that—and Wes’s story also. This wasn’t just some purely macabre story about how bad things are, but about reality and about the reality of all of our lives. And the fact is there were, even in the midst of chaos, a lot of lighthearted moments that not only are important to remember, but also helped you kinda get by, particularly as you think back in retrospect and you can look at them from a different place. There were things that really came out in the first draft and ended up making it to the final cut.

FC: Let’s talk about the other Wes Moore. You have spent hundreds of hours with him at this point, but you didn’t grow up with him. You write about his interior narrative very convincingly. Did you ever think you crossed the line and took too many liberties with how you constructed his life on paper? How did you hit the right tone?

WM: My talks with the other Wes Moore were free- ranging conversations where you’d be asking one question and the next thing you know it’s an hour later and you’ve got all these amazing anecdotes, and these amazing facts, and these amazing stories that you’re going to have to go back and make sense of and let them process once you’ve done your transcription. It wasn’t about me coming up with a framework and having him fill in the colors in between the lines. It was more taking what he was giving me and then processing it, and I think a lot of that came from Wes. The format of the book wasn’t something I came into the process with. It wasn’t like I came in and said, “Okay, we’re going to go over these couple of years: tell me about 1982, tell me about 1984.” It really was about hearing these different stories, and that was when I started noticing a pattern and noticing a trend. Some of the years where Wes had some of the most influential and important factors in his life ironically took place in my life [as well]. It was really taking what he gave me and being able to process it from there.

FC: Do you think you ever overstepped the line in turning his life into prose?

WM: No, not at all. It’s interesting because Wes was one of the people who really pushed me to write this book when I was first approached by author and publicist Terrie Williams. She knew that I had reached out to Wes and I had gotten to know him. She said, “I think this is something bigger, I think this could be a book.” I was at first very reluctant, and told her, “I don’t know, Terrie.” There were two things that pushed me over. One was that I thought about the tragic death of the police officer, and I thought if I could do something that would help keep these tragedies from happening again, I think it’s necessary and could be useful. And then I thought about something that Wes told me. He told me, “I’ve wasted every opportunity in my life and I’m going to die in here, and if you can do something that can help people better understand the ramifications of their decisions and also understand the neighborhoods these decisions are being made in, then I think you should do it.”

FC: My mother was a Baltimore City school teacher; the other Wes Moore is from Baltimore and you really paint a picture of his struggles as a smart kid in tough schools. When I read your book I thought of my mother. Some of the kids she taught sixth grade science to went on to get MDs and PhDs. Others were in the drug game and shot dead on the street. Their potential was wasted.

WM: Wasted is really the best word to use. One of the things I want to show is: this is not a dumb guy. This book is not a celebration of the exception, this is a book that questions why we even have exceptions in our society in the first place. There’s very little [that] separates us and someone else altogether. That’s one of the things I wanted to show with Wes—had that intervention been there, had those supports been there, had there been a certain level of attention instead of a certain level of apathy about his final destiny, I can’t help but think that things would be different.

FC: You mentioned your book was originally supposed to be more prescriptive. What do you hope this book can do for readers, for kids, for society?

WM: I wanted people to understand their potency and I wanted people to actually do something about it. In addition to the call to action, I wanted to add all of these organizations where people could get involved, and all of them are vetted organizations that would love to hear from you, either if you’re looking for help or you’re looking to help. That was genuinely important to me, because one thing the book helps to show is that if we’re willing to get engaged, if we’re willing to get involved, then we can really make a substantial and permanent impact, not just in the life of someone else, but in the life of our entire society.

FC: How does being an author and the process of writing compare to being a paratrooper or a Rhodes Scholar or a White House Fellow—some of the other roles you’ve played?

WM: I think some of the things I had done before really prepared me to be a writer in some ways. First of all, writing takes a real level of discipline. For example, with my schedule I would wake up at 5:15 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before getting ready to go to work, and then go work my day job for the rest of the day. There were some mornings I would literally sit in front of the computer for an hour with nothing to say, but I forced myself to go through this process because I knew that was the only time I could really efficiently get it out. When you wake up reading articles about a father of five, a police officer that went to work one day and will never come home, and then you read letters from someone who will spend the rest of their life in prison, it adds a certain level of humility to your day and a certain level of clarity in a certain context. Everything I did before helped me respect the discipline of writing.

FC: Your life has intersected in different ways with different types of African diasporic histories. Your family has roots in Jamaica and Cuba as well as the U.S. I’m wondering how you think of blackness in the twenty-first century, since we are so much more diverse in terms of immigrant groups influencing American blackness and we’re also at a critical point in history.

WM: One thing that I have always been taught and believed in is understanding our past and our history and our roots. Not just for where you’re going—understand where you come from. There’s a certain pride in that. When you think about not just my family but the larger diasporic movements, and the evolutions and the successes and the victories that have taken place, it has really been pretty extraordinary. It’s something that gives me a great sense of pride, it’s something that gives me a really strong foundation in terms of where we can go, because I really do appreciate where we’ve come from.

FC: One of the pivotal moments in your book is when your family sends you to military school in order to get you off the streets of the South Bronx. You went on to train as a paratrooper and serve in Afghanistan. How can veterans get what they need from our nation?

WM: One of the partner nonprofits we have throughout the book tour is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the first and largest organization that supports younger veterans, particularly from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We’ll spend so much time giving soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines support when they are overseas, and then when they come home it stops. Something that was really important to me—this is personal—I saw the challenges that so many families, including my own, had to deal with having someone deployed and not knowing who is coming home to you. If we are going to send people overseas to fight, then we need to support them [when they come home] as much as we did overseas.

FC: It seems like today, versus when I was growing up, there is more of a disconnect between the role[s] of servicemen and women and other citizens. Right now, maybe people are fatigued from the war, but it doesn’t seem as if we are having a dialogue.

WM: We’ve been in Afghanistan for close to a decade, and you think about the amount of casualties we’ve had in Afghanistan and the casualties we’ve had in Iraq. But if you ask people what the biggest issue in the country is, I don’t know where the fact that we have more than a hundred thousand troops serving fits in their consciousness. Less than 1 percent of the population has served. Less than 1 percent really knows from a firsthand experience what it’s really like over there. In terms of what can be done, a lot of it will be up to not only the citizenry and population, but also up to the policy makers to make sure that this is a group on Americans’ minds.

FC: And finally, Wes Moore, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?

WM: Grandma said have faith not fear.

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