“I wanted to tap into that feeling you get when you listen to a piece of music and it feels as if it moves your very soul.”
Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, her first novel since 2012’s National Book Award winner Salvage the Bones, is the story of 13-year-old Jojo, who lives with his black grandparents, his toddler sister and his drug-addicted mother in rural Mississippi, while his white father serves a prison sentence. We spoke with Ward about her lyrical and challenging novel.
Upon reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, I couldn’t help noticing parallels between this work and the books of William Faulkner. But the parallels a reader detects may differ from an author’s intentions. Which books or fellow authors, if any, were your biggest influences in writing this novel?
I was definitely thinking of Faulkner when I wrote this novel. Specifically, I had As I Lay Dying on my mind. There’s so much to admire in As I Lay Dying, but I am in awe of how Faulkner volleys back and forth between multiple first-person POVs and still tells a coherent, moving story. I thought I could try to mimic that in the structure of Sing, Unburied, Sing. I’m also impressed by the way the characters go on a journey through the Mississippi of their time, so I think I was trying to rewrite that journey in a way.
Not surprisingly, music plays a large part in this novel, not only the cadences of your prose but also the role of singing in the narrative. Jojo sings to Kayla; Stag, Pop’s older brother, “walked all over Bois Sauvage every day, singing, swinging a stick”; Jojo says that the songs were the best part of his birthdays. Did you have particular styles of music or certain songs that inspired you as you wrote this book, or that inspire you in general as an artist?
I was thinking about the blues as I wrote this, and when I wasn’t writing, I listened to some old-style blues by artists such as R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough and Jesse Robinson. I thought it only fitting since Parchman is in the Delta, the birthplace of blues. My editor also gifted me with a CD and book titled Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings: 1947-1959, so I listened to those as well. The chorus of those singing voices is transcendent; there’s something in those songs that moves me. I wanted to tap into that feeling you get when you listen to a piece of music and it feels as if it moves your very soul. That resonance we feel when we listen to music is a sign of something larger than ourselves, I think, and that's part of what I was exploring in Richie’s experience of the afterworld.
In the middle of the novel, Jojo says, “Pop always told me you can trust an animal to do exactly what it’s born to do. . . . That no matter how domesticated an animal is, Pop say, the wild nature in it will come through.” To what degree do you think Pop’s maxim explains the behavior of your characters?
The characters, Jojo and Pop and Leonie and Mam and Michael and Richie, are all struggling to live through very human quandaries, through illness and hunger and torture and grief. I think this is the parallel Jojo is understanding: that human beings react in very instinctual ways when dealing with very human ordeals.
Matters of race are very much part of the American experience. And they are very much at the center of this novel, especially in the tension between Big Joseph and Leonie and her family. Every author who writes sensitively about race has a message he or she wants to impart about the subject. What messages about the African-American experience do you hope readers, both white and people of color, will take away from this novel?
I would like readers to realize that at the heart, we are all human beings. We all love and grieve and struggle and hunger and yearn, regardless of our race. I think if we are able to recognize the humanity in each other and empathize with each other, we might be able to see past our preconceived notions about each other and realize that everyone deserves to live with dignity and be accorded kindness.
Your two most recent novels are influenced by Greek mythology. In Salvage the Bones, Esch is enamored of Greek myths, and Sing, Unburied, Sing has similarities to The Odyssey. To what extent, if at all, has Greek mythology influenced your outlook on life? Do you think it has also had an effect on your writing?
The Greeks were frank in their assessment of humanity, in their stories about their heroes and heroines: All are flawed. They were equally frank about life: It is fraught with tragedy. If Greek mythology has informed my work and my outlook on life, it has taught me that.
Was your approach to writing Sing, Unburied, Sing different from that of Salvage the Bones? If so, in what way?
It was very different because Sing, Unburied, Sing required research. I knew nothing of the history of Parchman, and I knew little of Mississippi history, which I last studied in seventh grade. So I read several books on Mississippi history and the history of Parchman Prison before I began writing the first draft of Sing, Unburied, Sing. While I wrote the first draft, I continued to research as the story demanded, because I knew little about Voodoo spirituality and herbal medicine. I then had to incorporate the research into the story so that it was organic to the characters and their world. This was a challenge.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a novel set in New Orleans during the height of the domestic slave trade (the early 1800s). I’m at the very beginning of the first draft, and I’m still researching: I’ve read several books on the history of slavery in the United States, on the slave markets in New Orleans, and now I’m reading slave narratives by women from the WPA projects. All of this is allowing me to give this world some texture and give the characters authenticity. I’ve found that it’s a hard world and experience to write about: The stress and grief of the characters’ lives feel very present and real. It’s all very heavy, but I guess readers expect that of me by now.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan