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Sing, Unburied, Sing

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 5:11pm

“Read Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing and you’ll feel the immense weight of history—and the immense strength it takes to persevere in the face of it. This novel is a searing, urgent read for anyone who thinks the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow have passed, and anyone who assumes the ghosts of the past are easy to placate. It’s hard to imagine a more necessary book for this political era.”
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere

Jesmyn Ward returns with her first piece of full-length fiction since her National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones (2011). Her new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, has already been placed in some high company. Ward’s fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage has been compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in As I Lay Dying, its haunting spirits likened to those in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Sing, Unburied, Sing and its characters share a multi-generational memory and an understanding the of journey and toils of those who came before. Ghosts create a connection between the living, mourning with them.

Ward’s characters belong to three generations of a Mississippi family. Jojo and his little sister, Kayla, are being mostly raised by their grandparents. Their mother, Leonie, drifts in and out of the picture in a drug-induced haze, their father, Michael, is serving time in the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a prison farm known as Parchman. When Michael is released, Leonie brings Jojo and Kayla to pick him up. Their journey is not an easy one, their bodies crammed in a dirty, hot car, always hungry and thirsty, traveling dangerous terrain. Three narrative voices relay the details of the trip to Parchman and back; Jojo, Leonie, and Richie, a young boy whom Jojo’s grandfather had served time with in Parchman. Richie died when he was 15. That his voice not only shares in the telling of this story, but speaks to Jojo directly, shows how masterfully Ward can weave magical realism into her storytelling. These supernatural elements feel at home here, in the swampy, steamy, deep south of the Mississippi Gulf. Richie is not the only spirit who appears on these pages. Leonie is often visited by her deceased brother Given. Jojo hears not only from Richie, but is highly attuned to the sounds of the natural world, truly as if the earth’s song has been unburied for him. “Home ain’t always about a place...home is about the earth. Whether the earth open up to you. Whether it pull you so close the space between you and it melt and y’all one and it beats like your heart. Same time.”

Ward’s story retells the hardships of past racism in the south and outlines the brutality of it in the present day. She illuminates this country’s struggle with race relations, police brutality, mass incarceration, by using the voices of the past and the present in conversation. Though her characters, both living and dead, speak often of cruelty and inhumanity, Ward’s matter-of-fact tone and presentation, coupled with her use of magical realism, imbues her words with an inflection that is calm and lyrical. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a moving and important work.

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