by Elizabeth Spencer
“Especially in the South, it’s very clear to me that history bears on the present and…has very real repercussions,” Jesmyn Ward says in a recent interview. The MacArthur fellow and National Book Award-winning novelist was discussing her third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is populated with both living and deceased characters. Thirteen-year-old Jojo opens the book by saying, “I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.” His first chapter (two other characters take turns at narration) proceeds with the slaughter of a goat, a task Jojo’s beloved grandfather “Pop” has asked him to help with for the first time. The reader feels Jojo’s trepidation as he and Pop select “the unlucky goat” and the boy, who can see and hear more than most people, thinks the animal “catches a whiff of what he is walking toward.” It’s an upsetting scene, but there is also mercy in the way Pop handles and kills his goat, who has lived freely up until the hour of its death and suffers little during the swift throat-slitting.
At the end of the novel, Pop reveals an event from his past that parallels this opening scene. It is just one of many ways Ward weaves past and present together, revealing connections across a family’s history as well as the inheritance of painful memories some communities must grapple with more than others. Sing, Unburied, Sing will make you uncomfortable at times, but it is the good kind of discomfort, the kind that indicates growth.
Some years ago I began a deliberate effort to read outside my own experience. At the time, I figured the best way to accomplish this was to look for books with international settings and/or authors. But while there is plenty to learn and enjoy in such novels, I’ve realized I also have plenty to learn about my own country, the majority of which I’ve never visited. Reviewing J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy for this journal planted that seed, and I followed it by reading Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild, an ethnographic study of life in Southwest Louisiana. The fictional town of Bois Sauvage in south Mississippi where Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place, felt like a logical progression in my literary travels. Ward’s unflinching yet lovingly eloquent portrayal of her characters, some of whom make many unsympathetic choices, helped me climb over “the empathy wall” (Hochschild’s term) that would normally keep me from feeling any connection to a neglectful, drug-using mother (Leonie, the novel’s second narrator), a young prison inmate (Richie, who narrates a few chapters as a ghost), or the general experiences of a rural and impoverished black community in the Deep South.
Once over that wall, I basked in Ward’s lyrical prose and the loving relationships that radiate throughout the book. Leonie may not have “the mothering instinct,” as her own mother tells Jojo toward the end of the novel, but Jojo cares for his toddler sister Kayla with the fierce and protective love of a parent, a devotion she returns. And while Jojo’s parents Leonie and Michael haven’t really been there for him, he’s been raised by Leonie’s parents, Pop and Mam, and tries to follow the example of his grandfather. What it means to be a man–a topic on Jojo’s mind at the coming-of-age stage of life he’s in–was also interesting to me as a woman who hasn’t thought a lot about it. Teenage characters, not to mention narrators, can be tricky to pull off but Ward brings Jojo to life with all of the richness and complexity of a real 13-year-old boy. We see him trying to imitate Pop’s walk, to protect his younger sister, to act like a brave man even when he feels like a scared child. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, a police officer points a gun at Jojo during a traffic stop as he reaches for a small bag–a gift from Pop– containing a feather, animal tooth, and little rock. My thoughts jumped to the real-life police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio. Ward is never didactic in her writing; the events she depicts speak for themselves.
The novel’s plot unfolds over the course of a few days, from Jojo’s 13th birthday to the road trip Leonie brings him and Kayla along for to pick up their father, Michael, from Parchman Prison, where he served time for making meth. Parchman is a real Mississippi institution where another character, Pop, served time along with his brother after a bar fight. There, he meets Richie, one of the youngest inmates, and tries to protect him. Pop’s memories of Parchman convey a prison that Ward describes in the same interview as “basically a plantation. The inmates were enslaved, they were whipped, they were made to work in the fields, they were rented out to industrial barons.” As a ghost, Richie tags along on the road trip in order to reconnect with Pop. He doesn’t remember how he died and believes he needs to hear the whole story before he can cross over to the other side. This concept of being stuck between the world of the living and the afterworld beyond it reminded me of George Saunders’ Lincoln In The Bardo. Much like Saunders’ tortured souls who can’t or don’t want to move on, we encounter a tree of ghosts at the end of Ward’s novel who are desperate to recount their horrific deaths so as not to be forgotten.
Overall, I found myself sad to leave this world and these characters when I came to the end of the novel. Yes, I’d cringed at the many depictions of bad teeth rottened by drugs, lack of brushing, or sugary foods. I’d flinched in anticipation of the harm that could come to Jojo and Kayla on their road trip with Leonie and her fellow meth-addict friend Misty. And I’d felt a deep despair reading about the lynchings and other injustices inflicted on African Americans in a culture of white supremacy. But as I mentioned earlier, all of this discomfort was the growing kind. I came away from the book eager to read more of Ward’s work and so grateful that she uses her literary talents to depict characters who are usually marginalized by mainstream society.