Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award Winning Author, recently released her much anticipated third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing and we were fortunate to attend her first appearance in New York since the release. The event took place at the Schomburg Center and when Jesmyn Ward walked onto the stage, the joy and appreciation in the Langston Hughes auditorium was palpable.
Standing confidently at the microphone, in a gentle voice, she began to read two passages, beginning with the description of a birthday party for JoJo, aged thirteen years old: “Usually, the singing is my favorite part of my birthday, because the candles make everything look gold, and they shine in Mam’s and Pop’s faces and make them look young as Leonie and Michael” and then she read something about Leonie, his drug addicted, single mother.
Written in first person narrative with local dialect, Ms. Ward paints a vivid and colorful landscape and then takes us by the hand and pulls us along with her so we too can feel the pain, the sadness and the pure love as the story unfolds. “If the world were a right place, a place for living, a place for men like Michael didn’t end up in jail.” … “But the world isn’t that place.”
At the end of the reading she engaged in a conversation with Lisa Lucas, the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. Where does her voice come from? “Reading as much as possible. When I’m writing, the character is next to me telling me the story.”
With writing as intense and passionate as Ms. Ward’s isn’t it difficult for the author? She talked about wanting to “save her characters” from suffering, to “take care of them” and yet at the same time, understanding that she is hoping the reader will be affected by the story. What is it like for a young boy to have a father in prison? Will this encourage the reader to think about incarceration in the United States? And about poverty, what it means to be African-African, justice and injustice?
What is clear through the conversation is Ms. Ward’s sense of place. She loves being “a Black woman writer from the South. I am influenced by family, community, landscape. It is the beauty of where I live that speaks to me,” she says.
Sing, Unburied, Sing, is an exquisite, haunting novel. A book you read, come to the last paragraph, put down, and then pick back up again for a second reading, certain you will occasionally pull it down off the shelf to re-read again and again. “Some days later, I understood what he was trying to say, that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up.” Jesmyn Ward “sweeps us up” in Sing, Unburied, Sing.