Despite her impressive résumé, I had not heard of Jesmyn Ward before her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, was recommended to me by two local booksellers in the beginning of December. But I am thrilled that I finally came across her work. Ward is an American novelist and the first woman to win the prestigious National Book Award twice. This is no small feat, as she has only turned forty and Sing, Unburied, Sing is only her third novel. She received the National Book Award for it and its predecessor, Salvage the Bones (2011), but already her debut, Where the Lines Bleed (2008), was highly acclaimed. Ward is also the author of a memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), and the editor of an essay and poetry collection, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016). Her potential has been recognised with the famous MacArthur Fellowship, better known as the “Genius Grant” ($625,000 – allow a moment for this number to sink in) given to individuals residing in the United States who exemplify “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction”. I look forward to exploring more of her work, past and future.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is the story of a mother and a son and the people who shaped them. Leonie is thirty; she gave birth to Jojo when she was only seventeen. The two of them are the main narrators of the story. The third, Richie, is a ghost whose violent death is a mystery which has to be resolved for those who are still alive to find peace. Jojo first encounters him in Pop’s (his grandfather, Leonie’s dad) recollections of Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary, where now Jojo’s own father, Michael, is also serving a sentence. Leonie is black, Michael white. This is present-day Mississippi where these facts define everything about their lives. Leonie remembers when they met and Michael “saw” her: “saw past skin the colour of unmilked coffee, eyes black, lips the colour of plums, and saw me. Saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm.”
But Michael’s parents refuse to have anything to do with Leonie, her family, and their own flesh and blood, Jojo and his baby sister Kayla. Leonie thinks of her home as her “death-crowded household”. Mam, her mother and only grandmother her children have ever known, is dying of cancer. Her knowledge of plants and healing cannot save her life, but she has her spirituality to guide her through the darkest hour.
Given, Leonie’s only brother, was killed in what was officially described as a hunting accident, but was clearly murder. What makes the coming to terms with his death even more complicated is the fact that it was Michael’s cousin who pulled the trigger of the shotgun that killed him. Given’s ghost cannot rest and appears to his sister whenever she gets high. Drugs offer her escape from her obligations as a mother to her two children who share a bond of trust and care she can’t help being envious of. It is Jojo, not Leonie, Kayla turns to for comfort every time the little girl is distressed. Perhaps more than his mother, Jojo, although only on the cusp of adolescence, understands about the necessity to face the ruthless realities of life and its harsh responsibilities.
The novel opens early in the year with Jojo helping Pop slaughter one of the animals on their farm: “This spring is stubborn; most days, it won’t make way for warmth. The chill stays like water in a bad-draining tub.” The brutality and tenderness of the scene is overwhelming and sets the tone for the entire story. Ward’s stunning prose draws you in, makes you look, feel, as Jojo narrates his own emotions: “I don’t want him to read my slowness as fear, as weakness, as me not being old enough to look at death like a man should”. It is the day of Jojo’s thirteenth birthday and Leonie’s failure to celebrate the occasion as it should be makes her son remember how he stopped hearing the word “Mama” in his head in reference to her a long time ago. He calls Leonie by her name. In her insecurities, regrets and her ever-present anger, she does not know how to reclaim her true status in her children’s life.
Michael is about to be released from prison and Leonie decides to take Jojo, the baby and her friend Misty on a road trip to pick him up. Jojo is reluctant to go, but he has to take care of Kayla. As their car moves away from home, he takes heart from Pop “with his straight shoulders and his tall back, his pleading eyes the only thing that spoke to me in that moment and told me what he said without words: I love you, boy. I love you.” For most of the road trip, the narrative lacks the emotional intensity of the beginning and ending of the book, but my persistence to the revelations and beauty of the final pages was richly rewarded.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is set in the twenty-first century, but everything that happens to these characters is the result of hatreds and injustices going back to the horrors of the first ships crossing the waters of the Atlantic from Africa to the Americas with their human cargo on board. The layers of racism and violence resulting from these events of the distant past are congealed under the everyday of the present and constantly erupt to the surface, wanting to be acknowledged.
Pop tries to explain to Jojo how that passage, its waters, still move inside people, and eventually the young man understands “that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.” It is the sea and the suffering of its ghosts that flow through the hauntings of Sing, Unburied, Sing. What happened to Richie at Parchman lies at the core of all stories and reveals how the most terrifying aspect of violence is that sometimes it manifests as kindness. The elements of magic realism in Sing, Unburied, Sing echo one of greatest novels of all times, Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved, and the songs of Ward’s title resonate with the literary giant’s own. Jesmyn Ward is well poised to follow in her footsteps.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward
An edited version of this review first appeared in the Cape Times on 26 January 2018.