The dead fuel Jesmyn Ward’s novels. She feels the weight of their stories; she shoulders them, shares them.
In Sing, Unburied, Sing, their chorus of voices – even in the epigraphs but also in the novel – reverberates between and beyond the covers.
Ward’s are heart-shattering stories. But they are not the kind which seem designed to leave you in pieces after reading. Nor are they the kind which close with a fist-bump.
The strength and resilience in these stories play out in scenes filled with injustice and pain. All of this, all at once.
And that is where the power of her storytelling lies: ordinary dying and ordinary living and vacillating between the two states.
These are the kinds of stories which teach us how we might live, how we might lose, how we might live after we have lost, how we might live knowing that we will lose.
Hers are the kinds of stories which remind us of the power of fiction, its capacity to transform truth into story.
These are big ideas, and the story begins with a small boy: Sing, Unburied, Sing begins with Jojo. (In a clip on the publisher’s page, the author explains how Jojo did come to her first, in fact. So, it reads that way for a reason.)
Jojo’s voice, at twelve years old, reminds me of Esch’s in Salvage the Bones: smart and yearning, stalwart and tender. And young. And black. And poor.
Jojo leans against the idea of being a man, observing (and envying and fearing) his mother’s father, Pop. And the idea of his Pop’s shoulders influences the shape of not only his growing body but his mind and heart, which is evident in his relationship with his three-year-old sister, Kayla.
Readers don’t hear directly from Pop, but hear his stories through Jojo. In general, stories of other black men, who have been imprisoned and disenfranchised. Specifically, of one other black back, whipped and flesh torn to shreds.
Wounds which Pop tried to help the young man keep clean. Wounds which Pop has carried with him, ever since. On those pine-tree shoulders.
Wounds which – through story and through memory and through history – Jojo carries in his own way. On his own sapling shoulders.
The second voice in the narrative is Leonie’s, Jojo and Kayla’s mother, who calls Kayla ‘Michaela’ after Michael, the children’s father. Michael is also the cousin of the white man who shot Leonie’s brother in a hunting accident.
Readers have Leonie’s remembered scene of Michael apologizing to Leonie for the death, while her grief from the loss is fresh, while she is looking for comfort. But the hate in Michael’s family has already hardened in him; it will simultaneously distance him from the children he will father – Jojo and Kayla – and poison his intimate contact with them.
The racialized divide between Michael’s family and Leonie’s family is dramatic, but the tension simmers beneath the story. It erupts in some memorable scenes which focus on law enforcement and abuses of institutionalized power, but its relentless presence in more everyday observations is just as powerful.
Small separations and quiet judgements, often between women, are telling. In many ways, the friendship between Misty and Leonie is even more revealing of systematic divisiveness. Leonie’s observations of Misty – Misty’s ease with her hair in the Mississippi humidity and Misty’s capacity to overlook a cool demeanor directed at Leonie or the two children – reveal the racial divide just as starkly.
Leonie resents the close relationship between Jojo and his younger sister Kayla. Resents the fact that everyone else calls the girl Kayla. Not MIchaela. That they will not make room for Michael, not even in this token way.
Leonie is not the sort of mother who has the power to command the naming of her own daughter. She is not present enough in her children’s lives to consistently hold their names on her tongue.
But if Leonie is not always a sympathetic character, neither is she villified.
The loss of her brother has left a hole and she relies on drugs to fill this gap; they bring her visions of her brother, alive and present.
There, while high, she is alive and thrumming in a way she cannot be in her real life, as a daughter as a mother and as a partner.
Readers inhabit both Jojo and Leonie’s experiences, their painful present-day realities. Halfway through the narrative, there is an attempt to fill the holes in their souls, by reaching backwards in time, to memories and stories of long-ago losses. General and specific.
This is not the first time Jesmyn Ward has reached back to mythology, to old stories, for their restorative and redemptive power.
Whether mystic or magical or mythic, the additional narrative thread is significant, but its success rests on readers’ connection to Jojo and Leonie (Pop and Mam and Kayla, too, and their connections to Jojo and Leonie).
Ward secures readers’ ties to these characters not only through characterization; she puts every other element of storytelling to work for these characters too, from setting to language, and this slow-build serves to reinforce the novel’s theme of connectedness, of a search for meaning and belonging.
Sensory details pull us more deeply into story. There is the smell of liver sizzling in a pan with onions and peppers and garlic and celery; the sound of intestines pulled from a body; a potato sandwich rough in Jojo’s throat. Kayla smells “like hay baked in the sun, warm milk, and baby powder” and a teacher bites her fingernails raw, uses makeup to cover bruises.
Imagery and observation underscore ferment, decay and damage. Poles carrying power lines are sun-bleached, rain swallowed is like a thin knife, scabs dot a scalp, and sound is cleaved from a body as though with a shovel. A “scar meanders in a scratchy line”, memories rise “like bubbles of decay to the surface of a swamp”, and a fan chops up the sound of laughter. A frown is like fishhooks and there is so much devouring, by termites and drugs and loss and injustice.
Throughout, there are weights and pressures which take a toll. Mud cakes shoes, spit is thick as paste, a wet spring night seeps into house like a fog, and longing is “like a cut power line set to sparking”. A car door grinds open, wisteria twists and twines up porch railings, and the “day pulses like a flush vein”. Gas fumes are thick with the smell of wet earth, a “heart is a squirrel caught in a snare”, and figures are “whispering and shivering like a tree, juddering in the wind”.
And just as important as these burdens are the absences and the losses. Which are felt from every direction. I was struck by the image of Kayla’s arms while she is sleeping, which Jojo observes is like she is trying to hug air. But I was just as struck by Leonie’s sadness when she hands her to Jojo for comforting: “Without her, my arms feel weightless.”
We carry the dead with us and their absences grow heavy. Writing and reading can redistribute that weight.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is one such act of redistribution. It is painful and hopeful, all at once.