Sunday, October 01, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing is a painful but rewarding novel about a young boy, Jojo, and his family in Mississippi.  Jojo and his baby sister are being raised by his grandparents because his mother is a meth addict and his father is in jail for cooking meth.  His grandparents are loving, gentle people, but his grandmother is dying of cancer and things are falling apart.  Jojo's mother, Leonie, comes in and out of their lives - when she needs something. Her children are, at best, inconsequential to her, and at worst, active sources of resentment.

Leonie's parents practice what I believe is Santaria - her mother is very knowledgeable about herbs and was a midwife and both she and her husband make "gris-gris" bags - small pouches to protect against evil spirits.  The grandmother hears spirits and prays to some kind of sacred feminine.  Ward's goal is not to educate the reader on this religion - it's just part of the rich history of this couple, which makes it all the more agonizing that they have this gifted daughter who turns out to be a terrible mother and makes horrible choices.

Leonie drags her children a long journey to  retrieve her boyfriend from Parchman Prison - a place where her father and uncle also were incarcerated in the early 20th century.  I was horrified to find out this is a real place and is in fact, still an operating prison.  In case you're not aware of this place, for many years it operated as an extension of slavery well after slavery was outlawed in the United States, and black men and women were arrested for minor crimes and then forced to work long days under inhuman conditions.  Anyway, all kinds of crazy shit goes down during this trip, with Leonie desperately trying to use her kids as props in what she imagines will be the joyous reuniting with her boyfriend while entirely ignoring their physical and emotional needs.

What I haven't mentioned is that Leonie and her son also have the gift of sight - what we are to understand from the Grandmother as the ne plus ultra gift, the one that she herself does not have.  Leonie sees her brother, Given, who was killed by white men in his community, and Jojo sees his uncle Richie, who died in unknown circumstances in Parchman.  Both are overwhelmed by these visions and unsure how to deal with them, and neither mention these occurrences to anyone.  What these spirits, or unburied souls, come to exemplify is the literal embodiment of the destroyed black body in our terrible shared history.  Unable to escape this history, which for Leonie and Jojo lurks and the peripheral of their nearly every moment, they remain plagued by the history of violence and heartbreak that wracked their community.

Sing, Unburied, Sing (that title!) has rightly been nominated for the National Book Award and I think will continue to do very well. Ward's lyricism and tight control of these many and various complex themes is so impressive.  I hope you'll give this powerful book your attention.

1 comment:

KHM said...

Ok, I haven’t read your blog in a while ��. Mostly from guilt: I don’t read as many books as I’d l8ke to. This one is on my “read-as-soon-as-possible list. I have a keen interest in the history of Parchman Farm and i’m knee deep in a non fiction accounting (which is singularly disappointing). But if I can keep my hands off Turtles All the Way Down, this one is next. Thanks for writing about it!