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Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel

by Jesmyn Ward

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,260869,067 (4.13)189
  1. 20
    Beloved by Toni Morrison (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: Mournful spirits haunt both shattering works of African American magical realism that examine the effects of slavery (Beloved) and racism (Unburied) on women and children. Lyrical language and stylistically complex storytelling provide bulwarks from which to glimpse unbearable suffering in each.… (more)
  2. 00
    Of Love and Dust by Ernest J. Gaines (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: These searing novels feature complex, tragic, and flawed characters in the deep South and are set in part in punitive work camps where choices are limited, the threat of violence ubiquitous, and the corridors of fate narrow and unyielding.… (more)

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» See also 189 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 86 (next | show all)
The story of a family in contemporary USA. A well crafted novel with so many layers it may take more than one read to fully appreciate. It's less of a good read and more a commentary on American society - past and present. At times I was fully expecting a sensational, single disaster to unfold (e.g. death of the toddler), instead Ward focusses our attention on the wider impact of more subtle, wider, profound socety disasters - drug abuse, embedded racism, injustice. The result is a book that keeps you anxious about all the characters and their destiny. Not a book to read if you are already feeling low with very few uplifting moments. However, you will be rewarded if you do read it, and will have a better understanding of the issues Ward raises if you are, like me, unfamiliar with American contemporary family life and the history it has emerged from. ( )
  sachesney | Aug 18, 2018 |
Jesmyn Ward’s 2017 book, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner) is an engrossing novel of a Mississippi family struggling with issues of race, unemployment and threatened family breakup. It is a difficult book to put down.

Set on the Gulf Coast and in the Mississippi Delta, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a story of thirteen-year-old Jojo, his grandfather Pop, grandmother Mam, mother Leonie and toddler sister Kayla. Jojo has a close relationship with Pop, whose years of experience have made him wise and patient. Pop teaches Jojo how to cope with the difficult things in life, and Jojo wants to show Pop that he can take life as an adult.

Mam lies in her room, in the last days of her battle with cancer. Key to the story, Jojo and Leonie are able to see and speak to spirits of the dead who have not yet left this world. They inherited this ability, or burden, through Mam, who is able to use natural forces, herbals and words to help people.

On the surface, this is a story of the release of Leonie’s husband (Michael, Jojo and Kayla’s father) from Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s notorious high-security and historically black prison, after serving time on drug charges. Leonie is black and Michael is white. Michael’s father is a man who cannot see past race and he hates Leonie because of it; it is another family torn apart.

Leonie demands Jojo and Kayla join her on the trip to Parchman to pick up Michael, over Pop’s objections. It turns out Pop is right. Leonie is a neglectful mother, to the point of child endangerment. Leonie’s self-absorption and Michael’s absence force Jojo to be the parent to his little sister Kayla. The role of parent matures Jojo, but his maturity is also driven by the need of the dead to use his voice.

The spirits with whom Jojo and Leonie communicate are those of people who have suffered a deep wrong or have left something unresolved in life, and must stay in this world until these issues are answered. Leonie’s brother, Given, is one of those spirits, but Leonie can only see Given while she is using drugs.

Killed by Michael’s cousin, and the racially-charged murder thinly covered up as a hunting accident, Given cannot move on to the next world because he has been silenced, and his story remains untold and unresolved. The lack of a voice is both figurative and literal; spirit Given cannot speak aloud.

Another ghost appears to Jojo later in the book, when the group arrives at Parchman Farm. This is the spirit of a twelve-year-old African American boy, Richie, who was imprisoned at Parchman for a minor offense, at the same time Pop was serving a sentence there. Richie is young and naïve; he does not understand the forces at play in the prison, and Pop tries to protect him. But Richie is killed while serving his time.

On the ride back to the Gulf Coast after Parchman, Richie’s spirit haunts, gnaws at, weighs on Jojo, and constantly seeks something from the living boy. He demands Jojo ask: Why did your grandfather not protect me in prison? What happened to me? The spirits cannot speak, so they require that the living ask the questions.

And that’s the title of the book. Ward has her characters speak for the silenced and forgotten. In an interview on National Public Radio in August 2017, Ward referred to those killed at Parchman and elsewhere: “I thought about all those people whose suffering had been erased, and thought, ‘Why can’t they speak? Why can’t I undo some of that erasure?’” In Sing, Unburied, Sing, the living must provide a voice for the dead to ask the questions that most of the living do not want to answer. In the title, Unburied means that these questions are still unsettled and will not allow these spirits to rest.

Ward uses a multiple narrative technique: the perspective of each chapter is rotated among the different characters. This is a difficult technique, but Ward makes it work well. A very different Mississippi writer, William Faulkner, used this technique in his classic novel, As I Lay Dying. In that book, the Bundren family treks across the state to bury the mother of the family. Faulkner also has each of his characters takes a turn narrating a chapter, including the spirit of the deceased mother. But in Sing, Unburied, Sing, the multiple narrative effectively makes the family a living being itself, with a voice and a desire to survive.

Other recurring themes in Sing, Unburied, Sing include blood and water. Pop’s given name is River and Mam is called the saltwater woman. On the drive to Parchman Farm, Leonie buys drinks for herself and her girlfriend, but leaves the children thirsty. “Sometimes I wonder who that parched man was, that man dying for water, that they named the town and jail after,” Jojo says.

In this book, water is a symbol for life, love and nurturing. Leonie is not a nurturing mother; instead, she is neglectful and her children go thirsty. But Pop and Mam have always looked out for their grandchildren.

Blood is sometimes used to represent both family and maturity. As the book opens, Jojo narrates a scene in which he helps Pop slaughter a goat.

"I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody. Today’s my birthday."

Jesmyn Ward knows well the part of the country in which the events of Sing, Unburied, Sing occur; she was born in DeLisle, Mississippi, not far from the Gulf Coast, and resides there now. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University. Other books from her include novels Salvage the Bones (2012, Bloomsbury) and Where the Line Bleeds (2018, Scribner), and essay collection The Fire This Time (2016, Scribner). She is a two-time National Book Award winner.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is an important and thought-provoking book that deserves reading. ( )
  MWarner2018 | Aug 6, 2018 |
I have mixed feelings about this book. I only picked it up because I made myself a little challenge of reading all of Entertainment Weekly's best books of 2017. Fifty pages in, I considered stopping because I was not particularly enjoying the prose style or the character of Leonie. This ghost story was starting to remind me too much of [b:Lincoln in the Bardo|29906980|Lincoln in the Bardo|George Saunders|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1492130850s/29906980.jpg|50281866], which I found highly overrated. I found the book so dull that, unless I was standing or walking while reading, I tended to fall asleep after reading just a couple pages.

After putting the book down repeatedly over the course of a week, I forced myself to read the last 100 pages in a shot, and most of the elements came together near the end in a satisfying if not wholly surprising way. I can't imagine I'll ever try this author again. ( )
  villemezbrown | Jul 28, 2018 |
3 stars until the final twenty pages. Then, absolute, aching perfection. ( )
  leahlionheart | Jul 12, 2018 |
Lincoln in the Bardo meets Moonlight; a compelling portrait of a troubled family. The book is at its best when we are seeing through the eyes of Jojo - a child who is by turns fierce, scared, wise and adrift - but almost every other character offers something other than we first expect. Highly recommended. ( )
  alexrichman | Jun 28, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 86 (next | show all)
Ward’s prose counterpoints the inhumanity. She’s always reaching for a simile, something to pin the moment and find redemption in it..Jojo, Leona and Richie tell the story in turn. The fecund delta draws out the baroque. You’re never far from growth. You’re never far from decay. Ward brings story to the edge of allegory and keeps it there without tipping over...Ward has to deal with the festering cache of Black American history, to look at historic and present hurt, and to look past it at the same time. She does it brilliantly... Ward’s writing is laced with compassion. The wonder is that she can find room for it.
Sing, Unburied, Sing won the National Book award for fiction in the US. In many ways, though, it’s not as strong as Ward’s previous work, including her 2011 novel Salvage the Bones and her 2013 memoir Men We Reaped. Its dense lyricism is often heavy handed. In drawing on William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying – both in its multiple first-person narratives and its story of a poor rural family that embarks on a wagon trek to Mississippi – it comes across as self-consciously literary...Jojo, fierce and tender, is the endearing heart of the novel; other characters, including Leonie, are fitfully ventriloquised and remain rather distant. The ramshackle journey at its spine and Ward’s rendering of the region’s dark geologies and histories are more potent than her awkward stage-managing of spirits and apparitions in the second half. Still, for all its occasional mis- and oversteps, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a brooding, pained meditation on the proposition, spelled out by Colson Whitehead in The Underground Railroad, that “America is a ghost in the darkness

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ward, JesmynAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Miceli, JayaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Sundström, JoakimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Who are we looking for, who are we looking for?
It's Equiano we're looking for.
Has he gone to the stream? Let him come back.
Has he gone to the farm? Let him return.
It's Equiano we're looking for.

----Kwa chant about the disappearance of Equiano an African boy
The memory is a living thing---it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives---the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.

---from One Writer's Beginnings,
by Eudora Welty
The Gulf shines dull as lead. The coast of Texas
glints like a metal rim. I have no home
as long as summer bubbling to its head

boils for that day when in the Lord God's name
the coals of fire are heaped upon the head
of all whose gospel is the whip and flame,

age after age, the uninstructing dead.

--from "The Gulf," by Derek Walcott
For my mother, Norine Elizabeth Dedeaux, who loved me before I took my first breath. Every second of my life, she shows me so.
First words
I like to think I know what death is.
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Haiku summary
JoJo is tender,
Straight-backed as murdering Pop;
Kayla, too, sees ghosts.

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"Jojo and his toddler sister Kayla live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother Leonie on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she's high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie's children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm--the Mississippi State Penitentiary--on a journey rife with danger and promise"--… (more)

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