OCTOBER 4, 2017
EARLY IN THE MORNING on his 13th birthday, Jojo follows his grandfather out to the shed to watch him slaughter and skin one of the family’s goats. In this electric opening to Jesmyn Ward’s new novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward returns to the fictional town of Bois Sauvage from her previous novel along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and a land plagued by the compounding woe of an unjust society rife with addiction, destitution, virulent racism, and despair. Jojo, whose mother Leonie is black and father Michael is white, sets out on a family odyssey with his mother and toddler sister Kayla: Michael is being released from prison, and Leonie is planning on being there to meet him.
Ward has a keen sense for the overwhelming adversity facing many of the people living in the oft-forgotten stretches of Mississippi, and portrays a harrowing panorama of the rural South. Sing, Unburied, Sing is quasi-contemporary and set in the same time and space as Salvage the Bones, even including a brief cameo by former protagonists Eschelle and Skeetah. While Salvage the Bones takes place around the impending disaster of Hurricane Katrina, the looming dread hanging over Jojo, Leonie, and their family, is much more amorphous and closely held by each character. The nexus of all this terror becomes Parchman Farm, the real-life Mississippi State Penitentiary: it was where Pop, Jojo’s black grandfather, was wrongfully imprisoned as a young man — an experience that still troubles Pop at the start of the novel — and it’s where Leonie is heading with Jojo and Kayla, to retrieve the soon-to-be-released Michael. As one character notes about the power and influence of the prison, and all it stands for:
And how could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once? That the history and sentiment that carved the place out of the wilderness would show me that time is a vast ocean, and that everything is happening at once?
While some characters are literally jailed, everyone in Bois Sauvage feels “imprisoned” by something: race, class, addiction, or even the suffering of the past. These societal barriers mold and limit the lives of everyone in the novel, whether they realize it or not. Each character seeks a different reprieve from this imprisonment, like Leonie, who falls deeply into her addiction, or Pop, who hides from his lingering past at Parchman, or Jojo, who seeks to find a way through the prison of his familial history.
The persistence of memory and its shaping power on the South and its black descendants casts shadows of both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison throughout. Ward’s little cosmos of Bois Sauvage has the inklings of becoming something akin to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, his fictionalized corner of Mississippi that formed the setting for a large portion of his writing. Ward’s novel, with its rotating cast of narrators rambling through a family odyssey in Mississippi, struggling under the weight of history and their own dysfunction, draws elements from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, while Morrison’s Beloved is felt in the unshakable way the ghosts of race and trauma manifest in the lives of its characters.
One of these ghosts is Given, Leonie’s dead brother, whose silent image follows her about her day, driving her, at times, to near insanity. Given, skilled with a bow and arrow, challenged a fellow hunter — a white man — that he could kill a buck with his bow before the other could with a rifle. When Given won, the white man shot him out of rage. Given’s murder ripples throughout the novel: the death is reframed in court as a “hunting accident,” and the killer only receives a three-year sentence as part of a plea deal.
Ward writes in her memoir, Men We Reaped, of her own brother, a black man, being killed by a white drunk driver who was later given a relatively light sentence. Given’s killer’s outcome appears reminiscent of Ward’s own experience. In the novel, Given’s death is, paradoxically, also the impetus for a love affair — Michael, Jojo’s father, is cousins with Given’s killer, and begins spending time with Leonie to make amends for his family’s transgressions. Eventually, tremendous love blossoms. Still, the violence and injustice inherent against black people in Bois Sauvage, in Mississippi, and the country as a whole, is inescapable in Ward’s Gulf Coast, where even a routine-seeming traffic stop builds to the fervor of a life-or-death moment, and plagues the novel’s black characters like a sickness — perhaps explaining all the inexplicable and gratuitous vomiting that pervades the novel. Near the beginning of the road trip, Kayla becomes suddenly ill, vomiting over and over, despite Leonie’s attempts at home remedies, or, later, when Leonie quickly swallows a bag of drugs during a traffic stop, she is forced to vomit to avoid an overdose. Ward’s characters seem to constantly find themselves emptying their stomachs by the side of the road, an illness that at times feels preternatural and sinister in the way it lingers about them all.
Leonie convinces herself that her racial pain is a way to understand the cancer that sickened her mother after Given’s death: “Sometimes I wonder if the cancer was sitting there with us in that moment, too, if it was another egg, a yellow egg knit of sorrow, bearing the shape of bullet holes, wiggling in the marrow of her bones.” Leonie imagines that this wrongful, racially motivated murder of her brother lives on in her mother’s illness. For Leonie, the radiating trauma of being black in the United States is so powerful that its sweeping effects can even strike those caught up in the aftermath of the injustice.
Throughout the story, Ward’s characters find themselves trying to untangle the fraught history of black lives on the American continent. The legacy of slavery and its reverberations is at once presently palpable and yet distant, both shaping every moment of the lives of Pop, Leonie, and Jojo, while also feeling amorphous and diffuse, a general, lingering dread that becomes hard to quantify: Why has their family suffered so much? What explains Leonie’s mortal fear of her white father-in-law? Her terror at being pulled over by the police? Of course, the limits of chronology and narrative make it difficult to express Jojo and Leonie’s ever-present anxiety concurrently with the awful tapestry of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching in Mississippi. Other novels have tried, through various conceits, to bridge this divide and make the repercussions of this past become simultaneously alive and deeply intertwined with the present: Alex Haley’s Roots presents a true-ish narrative history of his family and forefather, Kunta Kinte; Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred has a contemporary, black protagonist travel in time to meet and confront her slave and slave-owning ancestors in 1815; and more recently, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing tells the episodic history of two Ghanaian families through 300 years of colonialism and slavery in the United States and Ghana.
Ward’s method of drawing together the drumbeat of past and present is twofold: one is through the ghosts that haunt the novel, the other is through the mysterious “song” that JoJo hears, a supernatural ability he inherits from his mother and grandmother. As one of the ghosts notes about the song:
They are never silent. Ever present is their singing: they don’t move their mouths and yet it comes from them. Crooning in the yellow light. It comes from the black earth and the trees and the ever-lit sky. It comes from the water. It is the most beautiful song I have ever heard, but I can’t understand a word.
This song comes from a vision of an impossible and mystical city filled with “yurts and adobe dwellings and teepees and longhouses and villas,” a sort of Valhalla for all the peoples and cultures destroyed by the horrors of slavery and colonialism, the source of this ghostly song. Ultimately, the task for this song is nearly impossible: to compress hundreds of years of history neatly into a few pages, or into one arcing metaphor that ties together the entire novel. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s ghosts and their chorus of song are compelling, but at times feel overstretched, trying to bind up the host of calamitous problems facing Leonie, Jojo, and their family: drug addiction, incarceration, violence, racism, extreme poverty, and inaccessibility to opportunity.
While Ward’s handling of complex social and cultural tremors is deftly done, the narrative itself can often feel unbalanced among its shifting voices. At first, chapters alternate between Jojo and Leonie, though, midway through the novel, a third narrator — the voice of a ghost — is added. Despite being connected as mother and son, Jojo and Leonie’s relationship is mostly secondary to the story, or even to the concerns of either character; the lack of an emotional bond between them makes their alternating chapters seem almost incidental. By the start of the novel, Jojo has largely written Leonie off as anything except a mother-in-name-only, and is much more concerned with caring for his younger sister, Kayla. Their isolation from each other becomes a growing tragedy throughout the story, both of them suffering under the weight of their ghostly visions and the compounding pain of history, while the void of their relationship holds the allure that if Leonie and Jojo could only connect, then it might provide a way for them to heal. Still, Leonie, a semifunctional drug addict, is more focused on her next score, or seeing Michael, than she is focused on Jojo. Once the third voice emerges, the regular rhythm of the story becomes syncopated, choppier, and more limited. Only Jojo can see or interact with this ghost narrator that is newly awakened to the world and fittingly childlike in the way the ghost implores Jojo to find his release into a proper afterlife. The inequality among these three voices makes the story feel confused in its intention. Once the ghost narrator emerges, the novel begins to dip more heavily into the supernatural, with Jojo, and these burdensome spirits, coming to the fore. Is the novel, then, about a family odyssey or is it a ghost story about redemption? Ward seems to move back and forth between the two, but, at its most muddled, the novel bogs down into indecisiveness.
What does tie Leonie and Jojo together, even if they don’t realize it, is their supernatural ability to see these “ghosts” and to also hear their “song.” The song embodies the underlying hum of all living things in the world, but, as singers, the ghosts’ voices ring out louder than others:
The old folks always told me that when someone dies in a bad way, sometimes it’s so awful even God can’t bear to watch, and then half your spirit stays behind and wanders, wanting peace the way a thirsty man seeks water.
These wandering spirits are the unburied, the trauma-filled souls that reverberate throughout the novel: they are what drives Leonie to numb herself with drugs, and what encourages Jojo to finally bring peace and deliverance to Pop for his tortured past after Pop tells him the true hell of what happened at Parchman. Eventually, as the song grows louder, Jojo realizes that there is something awry with the branches of a tree near his home:
They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves. There are women and men and boys and girls. Some of them near to babies. They crouch, looking at me. Black and brown and the closet near baby, smoke white. None of them reveal their deaths, but I see it in their eyes, their great black eyes.
As Ward evokes the excruciating, bloody legacy of lynching — no state in the nation has lynched more people than Mississippi — Jojo sees the tree branches, full of the unburied ghosts of his peoples’ past. He glimpses their stories: the rapes, the murders, the unfathomable psychological and physical torture they experienced.
Yet, despite this burdensome legacy, recognizing and bearing this painful past is never a curse for Jojo, who, unlike his mother, embraces the reality of all these voices calling out to him. Leonie, fleeing from the truth of the past, only plunges deeper into addiction and despair. By keenly listening and understanding the message and importance of all those who went before him, who suffered and struggled so that Jojo could live, he is finally able to accomplish a remarkable and unprecedented act among everyone else in his life: healing, reconciliation, and some form of peace. For Jojo, the weight of these unburied, and their song, is not something that can ever be fixed or cleansed or made right, but they are people and stories to be remembered, the painful heart of what makes the lineage of a family and a home.