Sing, Unburied, Sing

Jesmyn Ward

Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of queer poetry and apparently also fiction involving ghosts as characters. Like Katalin Street, Jesmyn Ward’s third novel involves spirits of those who have passed on but haven’t entirely departed the company of the living. Here they are a little more involved in the story, as most members of the family are able to see and sometimes interact with them. Ward conjures a bit of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in terms of how traumatic pasts can refuse to be left behind, specifically trauma related to racism.

Centered around one family, the main plot of Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place over a few days, but it reaches repeatedly into the past to establish context. We first meet thirteen year-old Jojo and his grandfather, then Jojo’s mother Leonie, and later the ghost of a boy name Richie. Jojo is mature beyond his years, acting for the most part as the primary caregiver for his baby sister. He’s more attached to his grandparents than his mother, as Leonie is focused on her relationship with her kids’ father Michael, a white man whose own father refuses to recognize his son’s relationship with a black woman or their two children. As the book opens, Michael is about to be released from prison after serving time for a drug offense, and Leonie has been struggling with his absence and with how to be a mother, coping by getting high with her co-worker Misty. These are the times the spirit of her brother Given appears to her — he was shot killed by a white man in a supposed hunting “accident,” though (spoiler/warning) it sounds more like murder.

After a tense road trip to pick up Michael, they return home with ghostly Richie folded up in the backseat, but like his mother’s visits from her brother, only Jojo can see him. Richie was in the same prison with River, Jojo’s grandfather, once known as Parchman Farm. Parchman historically bridges the gap between plantation slavery and the contemporary prison industrial complex. Richie wants Jojo to help him find out the story of his death, building up to a finale of the grandmother’s illness and the ghostly visitors. This last section of the book gets a bit cumbersome in moments, as it’s sometimes hard to follow what is happening, but builds up to a beautiful finale.

Ward writes of difficult moments with grace and lyricism, capturing the fraught humidity of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and the tension of familial dysfunction, while maintaining a sense of empathy for her characters. It’s a grim book in many ways, chock-full of the ugliness in how people treat each other, yet it ends with a hopeful, healing resolve. It is today’s youth who have the power to connect with the anguish and grief from days gone by and release it in order to truly progress into a new era.

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