Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

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Jesmyn Ward: “There is an amazing array of beautiful black expression out there right now”

Yomi Adegoke speaks to the author of Sing, Unburied, Sing ahead of the Women’s Prize for Fiction

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By Yomi Adegoke on

In 2011, Jesmyn Ward released her National Book Award-winning debut, Salvage The Bones, and cemented her status as the voice of a generation. Six years later, her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing launched the writer on to even further heights. Named one of the 100 most influential people of 2018 by Time, Ward’s writing is described as both “crucial” and “lyrical”, drawing comparisons to the likes of literary legends Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. Ward’s writing is, by no exaggeration, some of the most important work being produced right now – Sing, Unburied, Sing was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2017, one of Obama’s best books of 2017 and won a second National book Award last year, making Ward the first woman to win two US national book awards for fiction. Now, it’s up for the Women’s Prize.

Set in a bayou town modelled on her own in modern Mississippi (which fans of her work may recognise from Salvage The Bones), the beleaguered family at the centre of the book are haunted by ghosts, both literal and figurative, as they attempt to grapple with the scars of the past. The themes of power, race, terminal illness and child abuse are explored through the weary characters of 13-year-old Jojo and his drug-addict mother, Leonie. Ward spoke to The Pool about Trump, black art and blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

The Pool: Your novel is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast based on DeLisle, where you grew up. How much did you draw on your personal experiences of the area and your community when writing?

Jesmyn Ward: Bois Sauvage is physically very much like my hometown. While none of the characters are based on specific people in my family or community, aspects of many people I know help shape my characters, the decisions they make and the circumstances that impact their lives. I’m trying to write realistically about people like those in my small Mississippi town.

The Pool: What made you decide to do so and was it difficult writing about it when living within that community?

Jesmyn Ward: I suppose part of the project of my fiction has been to write my community on to the page, to make clear to readers that our concerns are the same as everyone else’s, no matter if we’re poor and black. As a group, we are easily marginalised; that’s certainly the case in the US – and in many other countries – but my characters are trying to live and to love each other as best they can, just like everyone else. There’s universality in that. My characters are drawn from people close to me, people I love, so I do feel protective of them, but I force myself to tell the truth. I force myself to let them suffer, although I also want readers to know that we are not defined only by our suffering.

The Pool: Many of the themes explored in Sing, Unburied, Sing are present in your earlier works, but the supernatural element is new. What made you choose to include this?

Jesmyn Ward: I knew early on that I wanted the characters to take a road trip to an infamous prison in Mississippi, Parchman Farm. When reading to research Parchman, I learnt that boys as young as 12 were imprisoned for vagrancy or loitering or stealing a loaf of bread or for trumped-up charges, and that some of them didn’t survive the experience. I knew I needed to write one of these children into the narrative, to give these lost boys the agency they never had in life. I figured out how to write the character into the plot – through Pop, the grandfather in the novel, who was also imprisoned at Parchman as a teenager – and then it occurred to me that Richie needed his own voice, and a ghost was born. It’s hard not to talk about present-day Mississippi’s problems without looking at the past.  

The Pool: What are your own personal beliefs when it comes to “the other side” – spirituality and ghosts? Do you share any of the beliefs of your characters, such as Pop and Mam?

Jesmyn Ward: I don’t know that I have any specific beliefs, but I do know that when I have lost people in my life, I look for them. I want to see them or feel their energy. Maybe it’s this desire that helped inspire the ghosts in the book.

The Pool: The magic realism of the book has seen it compared to Toni Morrison's Beloved. Did her book inspire your work on a conscious level at all?

Jesmyn Ward: As a black, woman writer, I am very aware and respectful of my literary mothers. Toni Morrison is among the most important of them. I didn’t necessarily set out to write ghosts, but when it became clear I had to, I was definitely conscious of the ghosts that had come before.

Leonie was definitely the most challenging to write. She’s a mother, but neglectful. She’s selfish, but she still loves her kids

The Pool: What made you decide to switch between characters as narrators to tell the story? For me personally, it created empathy for characters such as Leonie who, on paper, may have been hard to warm to. Was this the intention?

Jesmyn Ward: I wanted to try multiple perspectives, as a challenge, when I set out to write Sing, Unburied, Sing. And Leonie was definitely the most challenging to write. She’s a mother, but neglectful. She’s selfish, but she still loves her kids. Writing her in the first person allowed me to create more empathy for her, to show the nuances of who she is.

The Pool: The hauntings of the past are both literal and symbolic. The weight of the past bears heavily on the present in the book. Why did you feel this was important to convey?

Jesmyn Ward: I’ve been reading more history in recent years, and the more I read, the more it’s clear that all of the issues of the present relate to decisions and policies and institutional racism that lingers from the past. For black Americans, it is decidedly to our detriment and I want to create a counter-claim to the “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” American adage that is imposed on us at every turn.

The Pool: The book feels topical in a post-Trump world, with nods to the Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing racial tension in the States – was this an intentional commentary on America today?

Jesmyn Ward: I don’t write with the news cycle in mind, but I live in the contemporary world and have so far written mostly contemporary characters, so it finds its way into my work.

The Pool: Some have argued that in the wake of political change in America, some excellent artistic commentary has been produced by black artists, such as Donald Glover's This is America. Others argue the current climate stifles black creators and artists – what are your thoughts?

Jesmyn Ward: I suppose both things are true. There is an amazing array of beautiful black expression out there right now, from poets, painters, filmmakers, musicians… across all of the art forms. But it’s also a terrible time, especially for those of us living in so-called Trump country. The government officials elected by my state don’t represent my interests. The federal government is working against my interests every day. And yet, we thrive artistically and we create.

Sing, Unburied, Sing has won several awards and is now up for the Women’s Prize. Do these accolades put a sense of pressure on you to write a particular way?

Jesmyn Ward: I don’t feel pressured to write a particular way as a result of these incredible accolades, but it makes me more aware of audience and what they might expect from me. So, I do what the great poet Nikky Finney recommended to me: I try to put it all out of my mind. Whenever I receive an award, I take it over to my mother’s house. As much as I appreciate being acknowledged, I don’t want to think about it when I’m trying to write the next book.

@yomiadegoke

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Photo: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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