Jesmyn Ward on the evolution of her haunting novel Sing, Unburied, Sing
It’s tough to imagine a writer as gifted as Jesmyn Ward struggling with a book. Her last novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award in 2011, and her wrenching 2013 memoir, Men We Reaped, was nominated for a National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
But her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, a luminous, magical realism-tinged masterpiece set in rural, post-Katrina Mississippi, went through quite a few permutations before it finally crystallized into the version you can hold in your hands today. Ward initially envisioned the setting as a sort of post-apocalyptic landscape, for instance. And the ghosts that move through Sing’s pages weren’t always actual ghosts.
The star of the book is Jojo, a lonely, mixed-race 13-year-old who lives with his grandparents, Pop and Mam, and helps raise his toddler sister, Kayla. His mother Leonie, one of the other narrators, is haunted by the ghost of her dead brother, Given, and struggles with drug addiction and a blinding love for Jojo’s white father, Michael, who’s just been released from prison. Pop, meanwhile, is haunted by his past at Parchman, the brutal, inhuman prison where he met a young kid named Richie — Sing’s spectral third narrator.
Ward spoke with EW by phone from her Mississippi home to discuss Sing, Unburied, Sing‘s evolution, how her teenage love of fantasy and sci-fi informed the book, and how she hopes readers will feel about her resonant, unforgettable characters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you started this book, what came first, the characters or the story?
JESMYN WARD: Jojo. Even when I was writing bad first chapters of the novel that I had to throw away again and again, his character, for some reason, was the clearest in my head.
Was he in a different story or this one?
It was the same story, but a different version. I think I was trying to find my way to the story that eventually became Sing, Unburied, Sing. [Jojo] was so compelling as a character that it was hard for me to focus on the story surrounding him and figure out exactly where he came from and where he should be in the world.
When I first began writing about Jojo, he was in this sort of weird post-apocalyptic landscape after Hurricane Katrina. So he had lost his family, and he met an older man who, I think, was probably the prototypical figure for Pop. But in those first chapters, he wasn’t related to Jojo.
But then I kept writing that chapter over and over and over again, and something about it wasn’t working. And then I sort of clarified what was so interesting about Jojo’s character to me, which was that he’s this mixed race kid growing up in the modern South, so he’s contending with the past and the present all at once. All of that is very personal to him, I guess, because of who he is and where he comes from, and because of his family members. So that was when I clarified, “Okay, that’s the reason I really want to write about Jojo — because of who he is and what he has to contend with.” Once I focused on that, then I found my way to what became the story for Sing, Unburied Sing. But it took me a while to get there.
I see why Jojo stuck with you. I still want to scoop him up!
Yeah. I think that’s part of the reason he was so compelling to me from the very beginning. I cared about him and fell in love with this idea of him so much that I had to return to him. I couldn’t leave him out there in fictional character limbo.
You blend so many themes together so smoothly: poverty, race, drug addiction, grief. Did one of them stand out in sharper relief when you were working on the book?
It’s interesting, because when I’m working through revisions, then I’m thinking about the themes of the work or the questions that I’m asking, and whether or not I’m finding my way to any answers. But I tend not to when I’m writing the initial draft, because for me it really is all about character, and putting this character that you care about in a situation and just seeing what happens from there.
That makes sense. Of course you didn’t have a checklist.
Yeah. I mean, it was important to me to write about that specifically because… you know, I still live in my hometown, which is really small, in rural Mississippi. There are a few middle-class families here, but overall, it’s poor and working class, and at least my part of the community is black. I’ve seen, throughout my life, the way that drug addiction has affected the community and affected peoples’ lives, and really put a strain on families. So I think that in order to stay true to the characters that I’m writing about who live in a place like this, I had to confront those things in the story.
Why did you want to write some sections from Leonie’s perspective?
When I finally got to a place in 2013 when I wrote a good first paragraph from Jojo’s perspective, I was beginning to figure out who Leonie was. At first, I thought his mom was white. But by that point, I was like, “No, she’s actually black, and he lives with his black family, and his dad is white.”
At that point in time, I was thinking about As I Lay Dying a lot. I love that novel, and I love the way, in part, that it’s about this family’s trip through Mississippi. So it’s a novel about a journey, but it’s also very specific to that time and to that place, and to Mississippi.
So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to write this novel about Jojo where he’s on a journey like that, but through the modern South, through Mississippi as it is now?” But then I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll play around with the narrative form a little bit. Maybe this won’t just be a novel told from Jojo’s perspective, but maybe it could be told from multiple perspectives.” Again, because I was thinking about As I Lay Dying.
I try to grow as a writer with every book that I write. So I think I wanted to challenge myself, because I had never written a novel where there were multiple first-person perspectives, and you had to juggle those perspectives, and yet tell the story in a coherent manner. [You have to] be aware of who knows what, and at what time they know the things that they know, and what time they should reveal whatever they know, and how what they know will work in concert with what the reader knows but what the characters don’t know.
NEXT: How Leonie’s phantom came to be…
Was it hard to write such a bad mother, even though we do learn why Leonie has the problems she does?
It was really hard. I found that when I was writing her, especially the first couple chapters told from her perspective, it was really hard for me to feel sympathy for her. Because as a writer, I’m like, “Oh God, she’s a terrible parent. She’s abusive to her children, she’s neglectful, she’s so selfish and self-centered.” She’s just a really bad mom.
With all the main characters that I write, it’s always very important to me that they have good and bad aspects of their personality. It’s important to me that they’re complicated and that they’re human. And because I was so unhappy with Leonie and with the decisions that she made, and the way that she treated her kids, it was hard for me to feel that sympathy for her and to make her a complicated character, because I couldn’t understand what was motivating her to act the way she does. It couldn’t just be this self-centeredness.
Then I figured out the phantom that she was seeing.
Well, first of all, in the first third of the first draft, it wasn’t a phantom of Given that she was seeing. It was a phantom of Michael that she was seeing. I have no idea why. In the beginning, I’m thinking, “She’s just hallucinating. She’s using too many drugs. She loves this man so much that she’s seeing this phantom of him.”
Was the phantom Michael dead?
No, he was alive! But that was not helping me to figure out who she was, or to feel some sort of sympathy for her. It wasn’t revealing anything about who she was inside. So I revisited it and I thought, “Okay, so what if she’s seeing someone that she lost? What if this is someone who actually died?” Because at first, she was an only child. So [I thought], what if she had a brother that she was seeing who died when she was younger?
And at first, I was sort of hesitant to write Given as a character into the story because of my own history, because of my own brother. [Ward writes about her brother’s death in her memoir, Men We Reaped.] I thought, “What if people begin to confuse me and Leonie?” That was a concern at first.
But it’s also this experience that you have—
That I can draw from, yeah. So I thought, “The way that I can push back against that is if Leonie is a fully recognized, complicated human being.” Making Given a part of her life does a lot of work to accomplish that. But also Given — even if he’s a phantom — if he’s present, if he’s his own person, if he’s complicated, if he’s different, if he’s present enough in the text, then maybe that won’t be the reaction people will have to him, or to her, because those characters will live and take on a life of their own in the readers’ imagination.
And then I found that once I discovered that wound, that momentous wound, then I was able to understand the pain that’s at the heart of Leonie’s dysfunction. Then, she was an easier character to write, because I understood her better, and I felt sympathy for her and love for her.
So when you realized you were bringing Given into it, is that when the whole supernatural element came in?
It’s funny because it actually wasn’t. I still thought there was a chance he might not actually be a ghost. I thought, “Maybe he really is just a hallucination.” But even if he were a hallucination, and he was only visible to Leonie, his presence would still be important. He would not exist as an actual, material ghost, but more as a psychic ghost, I guess? I’m making these terms up as I go along. But you know what I’m saying? Because of the way that he died, because of the shortness of his life, because of how his story reflects on the South, reflects the legacy of the South… in a way, he would be a psychic ghost.
But I discovered that there would be real, actual, physical ghosts in this when I discovered Richie’s character. That’s when I saw it. I knew nothing about Parchman Prison when I started writing this book. So I had to do research on it, and I was doing an event at a bookstore in Los Angeles, and they had a book on Parchman that was displayed on the wall. It’s called Worse Than Slavery, and I picked it up and began to read it.
I got to this section where they were talking about the crimes that people were charged with and sent to Parchman for. There were some white inmates, but it was basically like a black prison. I mean, 98 percent of the inmates in the prison were black.
So I came to this part in the book where the writer reveals that there were black children as young as 12 and 13 who were charged with small, petty crimes and sent to Parchman Prison. When I read that, I was immediately struck by that. It broke my heart in a way, and I thought, “This is a character, and this character has to be in my book. And they have to be real, and they have to be present in the story.” Like, I don’t want this character to be a memory. I want this character to be real, and to be in the present. So as soon as I read that fact and felt that impulse, I thought, “Okay, so the only way this character can exist in the present is if this character’s a ghost who interacts with the characters.” That’s when I knew it was going to be a ghost story.
I think I was a few chapters into the first draft, and I already knew that Pop went to Parchman, but I didn’t know that one of the people that he would encounter and that he would become close to would be Richie — until, like I said, I read about people like Richie and I thought, “Okay, Pop, as a teenager, is going to meet a kid like this.” Then Richie became really important to the story and to that world.
The whole vision of heaven — or maybe purgatory — that Richie sees is so beautiful. All those swimming, dancing, singing people he sees kind of off in the distance. Where did that come from?
It came from my imagination. It was actually really challenging to write that section, specifically, and also to write the chapters that are told from Richie’s point of view. In the first rough draft and, I’d say, the first 13 revisions, there were no chapters told from Richie’s point of view. When I was writing the first draft, and when I discovered Richie’s character, I thought maybe I could write a couple chapters from his point of view. But I didn’t. I completed the first draft, and each chapter was told from either Jojo’s perspective or Leonie’s perspective, and I don’t know why.
Part of the reason I think that’s the case is because I mostly write fiction that’s rooted in reality. And even though I’m a voracious reader and I’ve loved fantasy and sci-fi and the supernatural and magical realism since I was a teenager, ever since I decided to try to be a writer, I hadn’t attempted writing like that. I hadn’t done it before, and I think that I was nervous about doing so and uncomfortable, so I didn’t.
And then when I got my manuscript to a place where I wasn’t embarrassed to show it to my editor, she asked me, “So, did you think about writing any of the chapters from Richie’s perspective?” And it’s almost like she gave me permission to do so, but also challenged me to do so. I was like, “I can try, at least.” So I tried, and that was the result. It was interesting because I had to do world-building that I had never done before. I had to create a world, that world had to have a certain logic to it, and that was all new to me. But it was enjoyable! Once I got over my initial fear and tried it, I liked it.
What feelings do you want your readers to be left with after they finish the book?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that one before. This is going to sound sort of corny, but I think I want them to actually feel love and tenderness for these characters. I think that’s part of the reason why it was important for me to end with Jojo and Kayla and Pop together — this little family who find strength and courage and succor in each other.
I think that’s why I wanted to leave with that image of them coming out of the woods and Kayla singing, because I want the reader to feel that when they close that last page, maybe they’ll think about those characters after they close the book. And maybe the next time they encounter people like Kayla and Pop and Jojo, either in real life or in the news, that they’ll feel that same emotion again. Maybe it will humanize the kind of people that I write about, because the book will make people feel that kind of sympathy and tenderness and affection for those characters.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is available now.