Sing, Unburied, Singby Jesmyn Ward. Released September 21, 2017.
Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel is often described as haunting or ghostly. It is—the novel is littered with the remains of lives violently lost. But Ward’s beauty as a writer and, I believe, her purpose, is not to transfer these hauntings or mythologies onto her reader. Magical realism comes alive in a way that feels as ordinary and real—no matter how poetically wrought—as a character going to church. Because these characters do believe in ghosts, hauntings touch each of their lives as spirituality runs through their communal makeup. Tapping into the long history of Gulf South spirituality, Ward’s novel isn’t a novel of Voudun, but every page is immersed in the mystical possibilities of a person raised in the heartbeat of folklore and authentic hauntings.
Leonie, an African-American mother struggling to raise her two children, gets news that her boyfriend Michael has been released from prison. Leonie’s children are mixed race, and Michael and Leonie’s interracial relationship manifests in several tense moments. A police officer pulls over the couple, raising their mostly absent racial awareness. Michael’s parents view her as unfit and, at moments, a monstrous scar on their son’s lineage. While Leonie and Michael’s relationship mostly avoids racial conflict when they’re alone, Ward painfully depicts how an interracial Mississippi couple balances their public and private lives.
The opening pages of the novel are strikingly violent. Jojo watches his grandfather, Pap, skin a goat to clean for meat. As someone immune to violence, these pages were beautifully written and hard—difficult, in a sense, to show the violence of surviving in a subsistence economy. Leonie, her parents, Pap and Mam, and Leonie’s children, Jojo and Kayla, live on a small farm in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi near the coast. In the early chapters of the novel, Leonie, her children, and Leonie’s friend Misty travel north to visit Parchman, a farm-style prison where Michael is serving time for drug charges. The prison is central to the story; both Pap and Michael serve time in the plantation-style prison, where Michael’s experience is mostly absent but Pap’s memories paint the system as permanently—unabashedly—slave labor.
Jojo narrates a large portion of the novel. He’s thirteen, and unquestionably angry at his absent mother while he adores his maternal grandparents and cares for his little sister as her only parent. Jojo is sensitive and timid, yet his ferociously protective nature comes out when he makes decisions concerning Kayla’s well-being. In one moment, Leonie, using the Voudun tricks her mother taught her with herbs and roots, tries to heal Kayla’s upset stomach on their car ride to Parchman. She gathers herbs from the small forest or ditch outside of the gas station where they stop and brews her daughter a tea. Jojo remembers when his mother killed a cat by making an herbal tea, and after Leonie gives the tea to Kayla, Jojo makes his little sister throw up in a painful and deeply emotional scene. He chooses to hurt his sister out of protection. He must be the protective adult she needs.
Depictions of Black and white poverty also figure centrally in the novel. Misty, Michael, and one lawyer are three of the white characters in the novel, and Ward does show how poverty damages Misty and Michael, but never goes so far as to conflate the Black experience of poverty with theirs. Jojo and Kayla spend most of the novel sick or hungry. Jojo won’t ask for food and sometimes steals food so that his mother won’t see—such as the crackers he takes from the white woman that gives Leonie meth. Alternately, Misty, a poor white woman that works with Leonie and gets high with her, is constantly demanding. She complains about the smell of Kayla’s vomit in the car, and never fails to voice when she wants something. These moments are crucial understanding Ward’s construction of poverty in the Gulf South. Her poor Black characters don’t demand—they find resources and make it work. Her poor white characters complain, feel like failures, and sometimes allow their failures to turn into entitlement. I think it’s a fair observation to make, and a conversation we can’t ignore in Poverty Studies. When Misty convinces Leonie to sell drugs to pay for their trip north to Parchman, Leonie thinks, “how easy had it been for her, her whole life, to make the world a friend to her?”
The major tension in the novel is Jojo’s relationship with his mother. Leonie struggles to be a mother—her own mother, Mam, claims she’s known for a long time that Leonie “ain’t got the mothering instinct” (233). Leonie is a passionate person. She’s fiercely in love with Michael, and she tends to escape from her demons through various drugs. Still, from the chapters written from her perspective, it’s clear that she does love her children. She feels like a failure and, overwhelmed with her inadequacy, often gives up. Jojo thinks his mother hates him, and clings to Pap and Kayla when Leonie isn’t around. All the while, Mam is suffering from cancer. Bedridden, the reader feels Mam’s absence from the earliest pages of the novel. The climax comes at the end, the inevitably, what you know is to come but doesn’t hurt less for knowing. Leonie, Jojo, Pap, and Kayla wrestle with their ghosts through the last pages. Richie, a boy killed at Parchman while Pap was there, is never set free, though Leonie’s brother Given is. The tree is full of spirits, but perhaps eloquently figured against the modern world, the tree isn’t full of bottles to contain those spirits. They wait, suffering—their deaths only made valuable by the ones who can see them; Mam, Jojo, Leonie, and Kayla.
The danger in the novel isn’t the supernatural. Jojo’s bitterness toward the mother he can’t connect with rattles each page louder than the chains of a ghost. The police officer pulling a gun on thirteen-year-old Jojo for reaching in his pocket; the moment Leonie swallows a bag of meth to keep her family safe from the invasive cop; the night Kayla gets terrifyingly ill with no medicine in sight—each of these moments endanger characters, showing what it is to be poor, Black, in Mississippi under a subsistence economy and the New South racial dynamic. Their experiences are more haunting than their ghosts.
Ward’s novel won the National Book Award, earned a spot on both the Time Magazine list of Best Novels of the Year and The New York Times Top 10 of 2017. Purchase the novel online here from Parnassus Books, an independent bookshop here in Nashville.