About The Author
Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the author of the novels Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. She is also the editor of the anthology The Fire This Time and the author of the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters selected Ward for the Strauss Living Award, and in 2017 she was awarded a MacArthur 'Genius' Award. She lives in Mississippi with her family. @jesmimi
Her new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power - and limitations - of family bonds. Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children's father is white. When the children's father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love. This powerful novel is the winner of the National Book Award 2017, a Kirkus Prize finalist and a Carnegie Medal finalist. Exclusively for Foyles, Frances Gertler talked to Jesmyn about the ways in which aspects of Black American oppression extend into the present, the role of ghosts, Voodoo and Hoodoo in the novel and her complicated relationship to 'home'.
Questions & Answers
Your book has been likened to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Do these sorts of comparisons trouble or encourage you?
They mostly intimidate me. Toni Morrison is a hero of mine, and to have my name uttered in connection with hers seems plain crazy. But I am certainly grateful and honoured that some readers are making that connection.
Leonie is a complex and often flawed individual, not least as a mother. Is it more challenging to write such a character, with whom readers may not always sympathise, rather than, say, the less equivocal Jojo?
It is more challenging. And I recognize she’s a challenging character for readers. But my hope is that I’ve made her sympathetic enough that she’s not a two-dimensional foil, but a hurt and hurting human being who can’t quite see her way to better decisions and outcomes.
Richie, one of the novel's ghosts, wasn’t originally part of your plan for the novel. Can you explain how he came to be included?
Where I live, in rural, coastal Mississippi, I feel the past every day — slavery, Jim Crow laws — but some of the American narrative says, 'Slavery ended in 1865… Why still so many issues?' One aspect of Black American oppression may have ended with the Civil War, but others extend well into the present. I wanted to get a sense of that history across — and Richie turned out to be the vehicle. Initially he was seen strictly through the lens of Pop’s storytelling, but ultimately that didn’t seem like quite enough. So he was liberated from Pop’s narrative and brought to life.
Ghosts, voodoo and the supernatural all play a significant role in the book. Why were they important to you?
I didn’t grow up with these traditions, but in the not-so-distant past Voodoo and Hoodoo were actively practiced in this part of Mississippi and Louisiana — and likely in many other pockets across the American South. Mam in many ways is a character who bridges worlds: she bridges people and the natural world; she bridges the concrete reality of today and the supernatural; she bridges generations. I wanted her to be a bridge to those old ways of practicing healing and religion as well. She found solace and deep connection in them, where Leonie had to turn to drugs. That’s part of the heartbreak of the novel. All that has been lost, but thankfully Jojo and Kayla have inherited some of her abilities and a strength that makes one hope they will be able to handle their inheritance with the tools they’ve been given.
Similarly, can you talk about the function references to mythology and classic literature such as Shakespeare play in this book and your other fiction?
I love the heightened reality that comes with some older forms of storytelling. High drama; large truths. And I love the beauty of the language, which has a way of transcending the darkness of some of the subjects. Not only do I make references to specific stories in the narratives, but I hold them up as examples when I write.
You live in DeLisle, the model for your fictional setting of Bois Sauvage in the southern Mississippi where your book is set. How do you bear the ‘weight of history’ you have said you feel there? Does writing about it provide any relief or is something you simply feel compelled to do?
Mississippi is a place I love — for the closeness to family and the natural beauty — and it’s a place I hate, for all of its lingering problems, which have a significant impact on the outcomes of people’s lives. I see it all around me. I have to write this place, to understand it. I have to write this place, because I want people like me to see themselves in art. I have to write this place to humanize people who are often dismissed by the larger society. I need to say, we are just like you: we live, love, suffer. We are worthy of care and consideration and respect.
The notion of ‘home’ is central to your novel and means different things to each of the characters. Did your own notion of home change in the course of writing the book?
I have always had a complicated relationship to home. I tried to leave home, as a student and struggling writer chasing fellowships and jobs, but I always felt the pull of home. It looms large in my understanding of myself, because when I am at home, I feel most myself. When I’m away, I long for it. I love the idea of home on all levels, from the house where Pop and Mam live — the actual building — to the idea that all of us are homeless, and that this life is spent searching for that place where comfort and love and acceptance can be taken for granted. Also, the notion of home is complicated for African Americans who were wrenched from their homes and thought less than human for centuries. Have we ever been fully accepted here? Will we be? I don’t know…
Like Leonie, you lost a brother when he was only a teenager, though in different circumstances. The ghosts in this novel need to find peace but so do those who channel them. In what circumstances might that ever be possible?
If I look at all of my own work — three novels and a memoir — all of them are writing toward my brother. I’m very interested in teenage boys, and maybe, maybe on some level this is my effort to find some peace by giving my brother lives and experiences he never had. Or maybe I’m putting aspects of his personality in characters that will be on the page and hopefully read and in people’s minds forever. So in this way, he lives. The ghosts in the novel haven’t found peace. I’m not sure they can until a lot changes about the way Black Americans are treated. Nor have some of those who channel their dead. I suppose I don’t think there’s ever a way to run from one’s losses. I haven’t been able to outrun mine, but I would hope that there are moments of peace. And surely Pop, Jojo, and Kayla find those moments with each other.
Family ties are strong and complicated in Sing, Unburied, Sing, at times fortifying, at others stretched to their limit. How did becoming a mother affect your writing?
Writing Leonie — -a flawed, neglectful mother — was hard for me. When I started the novel, Kayla was about the same age as my daughter; I now have a one-year-old son as well. I wanted to scoop up Jojo and Kayla. I wanted to buy them cold drinks and snacks, to hug them, to let them know they were loved. Alas, I knew I couldn’t protect them. I also knew that they had Mam and Pop; they weren’t alone. I knew they had each other. Love is sustaining and powerful. But despite my desires, love can’t beat all. I wanted to show the variety of ways that pain takes shape in a body, how for some it leads to strength, others weakness. Leonie had been broken; her losses were bigger than she was. I couldn’t spare her or the kids. If I did, it would have been unfair to everyone I know and love. We haven’t been spared either.