Gulf Coast Ghosts Haunt Jesmyn Ward’s Latest Novel

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The Mississippi Gulf Coast town where Jesmyn Ward sets her latest novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” (Scribner) may be fictional, but she know it quite well.

The book, which won the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, takes place in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, which is based on DeLisle, Mississippi, Ward’s hometown.  It was a place where poverty, drug addiction and racism made it difficult for black families to advance.

Ward tells the story of one such family in “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”  The novel centers around Jojo, a poor biracial 13-year-old boy, who lives with his black grandparents, his drug-addicted mother, Leonie, and his baby sister, Kayla. 

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” is not only haunted by the racism of the past that shapes the present, but by ghosts whose stories illuminate the results of that hatred.

Also hanging over the novel is the specter of Parchman Farm, an infamous state prison.

“Parchman Farm has this long and tortured history. I thought it would be the perfect place to set at least part of the story because it exemplifies the worst of the history of this state, especially when you consider that after it was established, the inmates, who were mostly black, were basically re-enslaved, because it was a working plantation.   I wanted to see what would happen if these characters I was interested in writing about had to confront that history,” Ward said

Several characters do confront Parchman, including Leonie. She takes a road trip to the prison with her children and friend to pick up her husband, Michael, when he is released.

Leonie, an neglectful and abusive mother, is a character that Ward admitted for whom it was hard to find sympathy, but she wanted her to have a voice.

“People are more complicated than we think they are, and I know that people like Leonie exist. I wanted to work past my own distaste for mothers like her.  I found myself judging her in the beginning. I thought: ‘There’s a reason why I’m pulled to this character and want to tell her story. There’s something there, I just have to figure out what it is.”

 

Ward said sharing the story of people whose lives have been shaped by a systematic racism that they might never escape sometimes depressed her, but she said that even in their tough lives their perseverance provided a sense of hope.

“In my work, I’m made to bear witness to very difficult trials in very depressing subject matter because I’m trying to write honestly about my characters and what their lives would be like if they were real people.  One of the ideas I keep encountering again and again is this idea of how do we survive our trauma, how do we survive intergenerational trauma and how do we become more than our trauma?  How do we live real lives in spite of our trauma? In ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing,’ because these characters have each other, because they have real relationships, they love and care for each other,  I think that is what enables them to live in spite of what they’ve experienced, “ Ward said.

 Hear Ward talk about two of the book's key characters-Jojo and Leonine

 

Listen to Hear and Now featuring the Sound of Applause on WCPN 90.3 all this week between noon and 2 p.m. to hear from all of the 2018 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners.

 

The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony takes place Thursday, September 27, at 6 p.m. in Playhouse Square’s State Theatre.  The event is sold out.  A live stream of the ceremony will be available at ideastream.org/aw.

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