Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing
, is a taut triumph, rich with the poetry and political nuance for which her award-winning fiction is known. Set in the rural woods of Bois Sauvage, a bayou town in the Mississippi Gulf, the novel follows 13-year-old Jojo and his family as they deal with a maelstrom of terminal illness, poverty, drug addiction, child abuse, incarceration, and racism. The characters’ struggles are by turns eased and complicated by the ghosts who haunt the forests and fields of Mississippi, and by their connections to the flora and fauna of the Gulf. Inspired by both the present-day realities of African American life in the rural South and the spiritual and folk traditions of Voodoo and Hoodoo, Sing, Unburied, Sing
tells a story that is both specific and universal, about how the lives we lead are influenced by the natural world and the open wounds of our shared, often brutal, national history. Vivid, sharp, and instantly engaging, Sing, Unburied, Sing
is a powerful work by one of America’s foremost novelists. We're excited to present it as Volume 69 of Indiespensable
The promotional copy for Sing, Unburied, Sing
markets it as “the archetypal road novel,” but that label feels inaccurate to me. While the family’s trip to Parchman takes up a significant portion of the novel, the main object of a typical journey — to get from Point A to Point B, and back again — relies on linear notions of space and time that are inconsistent with your novel’s focus on the simultaneity of the past, present and future. Additionally, in a standard road novel, the protagonists encounter characters and situations that change them, so that the people they were when the journey began are not the same people who return home. But in Sing, Unburied, Sing
, it seems like it’s their experiences at home that alter the characters. What’s your take on reading Sing, Unburied, Sing
as a road novel?
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That's an interesting question, because when I began writing the rough draft of the novel, I thought it would be a novel about a journey, or a road trip novel. Then I realized I had to do research for the novel, because I knew nothing about Parchman prison. Once I began reading about the history of Parchman Farm in Mississippi, and discovered that there actually were 12- and 13-year-old black boys sent to Parchman in the late '30s through '50s, that fact was so horrible and striking to me that I realized that one of those kids had to be a character in my book. That character had to exist in the present and not just in memory, because I really wanted to give him the opportunity to live in the present and to speak.
Once I discovered that, early on in the first draft, I realized that there would be ghosts in my novel. I didn't really know what [Richie] wanted when I introduced him. As I wrote more and got deeper into the manuscript, and the story took on a life of its own, I began to figure out what he wanted.
My understanding of what the novel was about changed as I wrote it. I would agree with you that it's not just a story about a journey, that it has become something more. Much of what is important to the characters happens at home once they've returned.
Regarding the importance of home, I kept thinking about the notion of “terroir” while I was reading Sing, Unburied, Sing
. The ways in which Jojo and his family are tied to the land and water of the Gulf — and then the way the land and water are peopled by the ghosts of history — made it feel as though the characters and certain events in the novel could only occur in Bois Sauvage; that there is a very specific quality to the soil, air, and sea there, born of both natural and historical conditions. Could you speak to the importance of place in Sing, Unburied, Sing
When I first began writing the book, I didn't really realize that one of the things that most of the characters are searching for is home. They all have different understandings of what home is, and of what it can be and what it means, but in some way that's what they're all searching for.
It's true that those definitions of home are very particular to this place and to the Gulf Coast — not only to the Gulf Coast, but also to the history of Mississippi. I do think that this is a story that could only happen here.
I hope, though, that although readers see that this is a story that can only happen here, they can also identify with the search for home, as well — that they understand that it's universal. It's funny, because like I said, I didn't understand that that's what Richie was searching for from the very beginning. Even though he said, "I'm going home," when I first introduced his character, I didn't understand what home was for him.
I'm not sure he totally understands that. As the reader, I thought, he's confused
. His idea of home changes.
I actually had to do a couple of revisions of the book before I began to tease out what home meant for the other characters, as well. It was pretty clear for me from the beginning what home meant for Leonie, but my understanding of what home meant for Jojo changed throughout the book. As my understanding of what home meant for them changed, I think that they grew as characters. They took on new life. They became more complicated. Their inner lives were richer because they were more complicated.
One of the things I really appreciate about your writing is that every character is complex.
You mentioned — and you’ve said this in prior interviews, too — that you hope your stories are read as universal. I think Sing, Unburied, Sing
does that, because although the novel felt very place-specific to me, it also deals with issues that are endemic to rural areas across the country, like poverty, child abuse, addiction, racism, violence, and incarceration.
I was wondering how incorporating the prosaic and spiritual elements of black life on the Gulf Coast helps you process and explore black life in America more generally, or if that's something you're even trying to do.
It's interesting, because I think that part of the reason that I wanted to incorporate spirituality into the book — so, Voodoo and Hoodoo — and that I wanted the characters to be able to access the supernatural world, is because this is part of my characters’ legacy. At the same time that they've inherited the simple facts that they live in poverty, that they are struggling against entrenched, systemic racism, they also have a different legacy. This spiritual legacy allows them, not to transcend their reality, but to access a different understanding of their reality.
In some ways, it makes their reality richer because they're able to connect with those who have gone before. You know what I'm saying? I think that that allows them some joy, and some love and connection. I think that's important to their survival.
I think that because, at times, the story is very dark and the characters are living through some pretty difficult things, having that spiritual element allows them some light. I think that's important, especially if you are trying to figure out how people survive. They need some light, and that was my way of giving the characters that.
I don't think that the way that my characters see and experience the world should be limited by their circumstances. Faulkner taught me that.
The poetic nature of your prose is something that gets brought up in a lot of reviews of your work, and a criticism that I’ve seen repeated is that the poetry can weigh down the narrative. I disagree! [Laughter
] Not just because I enjoy your writing, but because the critique suggests that figurative language is somehow too decorous or fantastical for the rural characters and settings you choose for your novels. One of the things I think your lyricism does is it reminds the reader of the uniqueness and complexity of individual experience.
I was wondering if you would talk to that a little bit — if lyricism is just a part of how you write, or if you cultivate a poetic style to give your characters greater dimensionality.
I think it's a combination of the two, because I've been in lots of writing workshops and I've done a lot of reading of contemporary literature, and I know from both that the way that I write is not in vogue. People don't read me and say, "Oh, it's so clean and elegant." [Laughter
] I understand that. I could stifle my voice, or strip it. I know that I could, because we can do anything we put our minds to.
I know that I could, but it feels very unnatural for me to strip my prose like that, in part because place is so important to me. I feel like in the reading I did when I was growing up, and also in the way that people talk and tell stories here in the South, they use a lot of figurative language. The stories that I heard when I was growing up, and the stories that I read, taught me to use the kind of language that I do. It's hard for me to work against that when I am writing.
I agree with you. I think that part of the pushback that I get is from people who see the kind of characters that I write about, who are mostly uneducated, poor, working class, black. They're not voracious readers, most of the time, and because I write from a first-person point of view, people feel that the way the characters use language is too poetic.
I always think about Faulkner
, and I would argue that there can be a difference between the way that characters express themselves internally and externally. I think that their interior life can be very rich and poetic, have such texture, and that their vision can be very complicated, while the way that they express themselves in their speech can be very different. You know what I'm saying? Their verbal speech can reflect more of their circumstances, but people are complicated. I don't think that the way that my characters see and experience the world should be limited by their circumstances. Faulkner taught me that.
Also, I was just thinking today about Carson McCullers
. Especially with her writing, there's such a big difference between the way that characters experience the world and the richness of their interior lives, and the ways that they speak to others.
Maybe this is an argument that Southern writers have had to make in their fiction for decades. I'm just one in a line of writers who are doing the same thing.
The other thing I was thinking about is that in Sing, Unburied, Sing
, figurative language allows you to tell a very complex story, in which everyday aspects of life in the rural south — poverty, addiction, etc. — are both connected to and subjected to a larger order made up of history, nature, and the supernatural. I don't know if you could do that without poetry.
Yeah, I think so. Like you're saying, the characters that I'm writing about are living through very difficult situations. They have to process them. They have to attempt to understand them. I feel like the language communicates how complicated that process is for them, how layered; they're wrestling with multiple legacies at the same time as they're attempting to understand and deal with what they're living through.
I had a hard time sympathizing with Leonie. Maybe it’s because I’m a mother myself, but her selfishness and neglect of Jojo and Kayla really upset me. I wanted to feel for her, for a lot of reasons: her grief over Given’s death, her strong, tender relationships with Michael and Mam, her moments of self-knowledge — but in the end I couldn’t forgive her for being a drug addict and an abusive parent. That said there’s this beautiful moment at the end of the novel that feels redemptive to me. It’s when Kayla soothes the tree of ghosts, and mimics the way Leonie used to rub her children’s backs “when we were frightened of the world.” In the same scene, Jojo tells us that Kayla “says shhh
like she remembers the sound of the water in Leonie’s womb…and now she sings it.” It’s almost as if Leonie’s abuse is at least partly nullified by the intrinsic goodness of mothering. I know that you’re a mother, too, and I was wondering how you feel about Leonie, and why it felt important to give her character a voice.
She was a really difficult character for me to write. I think, initially, because I was very aware of the fact that she was abusive to her kids and did neglect her kids. I just couldn't understand...I just didn't like her, and I usually love most of the major characters that I write. I always feel a deep sympathy for them. It was really hard, in the beginning, for me to access that sympathy for her. When I began to figure out who she was and I wrote the first chapter for her that really stuck, then it felt like I could progress through the novel with this character.
From the beginning, she was who she was. She was an addict. She was neglectful. She was really self-centered. One of the things that I had to do in order to avoid failing her character was to figure out what drove her, what motivated her. You've already touched on some of those, but the way that I was able to do that was by figuring out where her pain comes from. There are multiple pains that she's lived with in her young life — the loss of her brother, and the fact that she feels like a disappointment to her mother and father, and to her children. Once I figured all those things out, I think it was easier for me to write her, to understand and to feel some sympathy for her. Because I realized that she was wounded in ways that had never healed, that she's carrying these wounds around with her, and that that’s what is motivating much of her behavior.
Then, of course, I began to understand, too, that she was who she was from the beginning. She’s self-centered throughout. It's really hard for her to see beyond her own pain and mess and to be a mom — to focus on her children, and meet her children, and provide for them, to care for them, and to show that she cares for them, because of who she is, because of her personality.
By the end of the novel, that earlier distaste that I had felt for her was gone. It was really important for me to have her speak and to tell nearly half of the story from her point of view. Because she's like Esch [from Salvage the Bones
] to me; if you just look at who she is on the surface, many readers would say, This person doesn't deserve any sympathy
. I mean, Esch was a 15-year-old, poor, black, pregnant teenager. Those kids never get to speak. They never get to be complicated and textured. They never get to tell their truth. I initially felt the same way about Leonie.
Here's this younger mother, who's struggling with addiction, and who, in many ways, is abusive towards her kids. This is the kind of woman we hear about on the news, or whom we read inflammatory posts about on Facebook, who neglected her kid, you know, really harmed or actually killed her kid.
Those are the people that we read about and immediately feel distaste and horror for. I wanted to break that, I think. I wanted to give this character a voice, so that she becomes as human as I can make her on the page. Maybe because the next time people encounter a woman like her, they'll think about her differently.
This spiritual legacy allows them, not to transcend their reality, but to access a different understanding of their reality.
Ritchie's another character that I spent a lot of time thinking about. You touched on him a bit earlier. He’s a lost soul, a dead boy tethered to earth by a giant hunger for love. He seems to illustrate something profound about motherhood, home, and the history of violence in the world of Sing, Unburied, Sing
, which is that the ghosts who haunt the characters and terrain of the book haven’t just died violent deaths — they also lack a mother figure to usher them “home,” in the spiritual sense.
While I was writing the book, I did think about mothers and motherhood. I feel like that's something that I write about often. I guess it's one of those ideas that I return to again and again in my work.
Richie was interesting for me, because he'd been failed in multiple ways, too, while he was alive. His mother wasn't a good mother to her children. There's that line toward the end where Pop is saying that when he went and found Richie's mom and told her what happened, she just shut the door in his face. There's no outpouring of grief — her response is, in some ways, very cold. Part of the reason why I gave him a mother like that is because I felt like he had to have a reason to still exist here on this plane, and to search.
If he'd had a better mother who really gave him a home, I think, and who was his home, then perhaps he would have stuck around, despite his death being so horrible, and the crimes done to him when he was sent to Parchman. Maybe he would have returned to her and that place, and found some peace. Because she isn't that type of mother, and because she doesn't provide him with that idea of home, he goes elsewhere. He can't rest. He can't return to her and to the place where he was with his siblings. For Richie, the person who came the closest to providing him with that feeling of home, of being safe, cared for, and loved, was River, and that's who he's searching for.
That's why he is drawn to Jojo. That's why he gets in the car. That's why he goes south with them. He’s still a child, even though he's existing in an afterlife, and so when he realizes that he can't interact with River, and he can't get home by interacting with River, that's when he turns his attention to Mam.
It was heartbreaking for me when I discovered that she couldn't provide that for him, either.
There’s a long, problematic history, going back to Petrarch, of literary authors conflating blackness with darkness, and Sing, Unburied, Sing
seems to be confronting and exploring this history. In the novel, as in America, blackness is one half of a terrible racial dichotomy, which leads to many of the story’s most horrifying moments, but it’s also intimately tied to the novel’s evocations of the earth, death, and the experience of want. Richie’s character in particular is subject to shifts in light and darkness, but there are many other compelling uses of the white/black trope, like the white snake that becomes a black vulture. The novel’s exploration of light and dark complicates blackness so that it becomes a concept of cosmic proportion and significance, as well as something inseparable from soil and life, rather than simply a racial or political category. There’s a lot of artistic value in this representation, but I was wondering if you intended for it to be read politically, as well?
I'd been thinking about the interplay of light and darkness while I was writing the novel. I think that it began because I was doing research about Voodoo, Hoodoo, and spirituality.
That research forced me to be aware of the way that, while darkness can be associated with death, and sorrow, and awful things, at the same time, it can also be pregnant with possibility, with life. Conversely, we're conditioned to see whiteness as light, and as pure and good. I know people have already had this conversation, but I thought it was really interesting that the symbol of the white snake is the one that's associated with the afterlife in Voodoo. From the beginning, I began to see the symbols within that spiritual tradition that are in opposition to how I'd been programmed to think about light and dark as I grew up.
I wanted to open up those ideas and play with the audience’s expectations of them, maybe jar the audience a bit, because I think, at least in this culture, that most readers associate light and dark with good and evil. I thought that I could challenge those ideas in the text, in certain ways. That’s what I was attempting to do.
There’s a devastating scene late in the novel that recalls Sethe's actions in Toni Morrison's Beloved
, and maybe also Medea
’s, although it lacks the latter’s spite. Then, a page later, the character adds, "I washed my hands every day, Jojo. That damn blood ain't never come out," which is a reference to Lady Macbeth
I know you sometimes incorporate classical texts into your fiction, and was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how and why you selected these particular texts for Sing, Unburied, Sing
When I wrote that line, I was sort of thinking about Lady Macbeth. Because I wrote so much about the Medea myth while I was writing Salvage the Bones
, I was also thinking about Greek mythology, the Medea myth in particular, and maybe even about the Bible in some ways — the idea of sacrificing human beings for whatever reason.
The reason that I like to use classical myths as models is because African American writers and African American stories are usually understood as occurring in some kind of vacuum — because of slavery.
I think about slavery and entire cultures, people from those cultures, being robbed of their cultural traditions. Yet, something that is so great about African American art is that we incorporate aspects of our lost African heritage with aspects of the various people in this country whom we've mixed with and encountered. I think that, in part, is what I am trying to argue in my work. Not overtly, but that's part of the reason I love to incorporate stories from various world cultures into my work — because that's what African American art does. It would be nice if that was more widely recognized.
Maybe part of it, too, is that by using easily recognized tropes, common stories, it will be easier for the reader to understand the characters and what they’re going through in my work. I want to jostle the reader to make them realize that these are universal human issues.
I spoke with Jesmyn Ward by phone on August 8, 2017.