Rating: 5 stars
Sing, Unburied, Sing is Jesmyn Ward’s third novel. It’s the first I’ve heard of, thanks to the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s also the book I chose to win in the Reader’s Room March Madness Reading Challenge. It didn’t win, but so what? It’s a book that is more than a reading challenge target.
It’s a book that is full of life. A book that will enrich the life of anyone who reads it. This book is vital.
Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of Jojo and his family. We meet him when he’s thirteen years old. He’s mixed race, with a black mother and a white father. He’s been raised by his black grandparents. His mum, Leonie, has addiction issues. His dad, Michael, left when Jojo was nine, and ended up in prison. His grandmother is sick. He idolises his grandpa. He is surrogate parent to his baby sister.
The novel starts with a mixture of scene setting and family folklore. Jojo is firmly positioned in time, space and society. He listens to his grandpa’s tales of growing up poor and black in a community that still believes black people should be the property of white people. His grandpa’s stories hold little back. They are an aperture into the black American experience.
Slavery casts a long shadow. Black families generations before Jojo refused to register births, refused to complete the census correctly, because they saw it as another way for white people to account for them as property. Jojo’s family history, therefore, is difficult to trace and only his grandpa’s recollections are available to him. From this source, he builds his own history.
Ward has different characters narrate the chapters, usually Jojo and Leonie alternating, so that we get his perspective followed by hers. It’s a way for Ward to show both the impact that Leonie’s addiction has on her son and the reasons Leonie is an addict. It provides space for the reader to understand Leonie, rather than condemning her outright.
There’s a third narrator who sews different elements of the story together. I don’t want to give too much away, but they add depth to the telling. The story rolls out languidly. Ward’s descriptions of everyday things are poetic at times. Jojo’s grandpa’s grey and brown clothes are likened to a stormy sky.
He matched the sky, which hung low, a silver colander full to leak.
Jojo himself is described as having nature in his nature.
Jojo cuddles the golden girl to his chest and whispers to her as she plays with his ear, and as he murmurs, his voice like the waves of a calm bay lapping against a boat, I realize there is another scent in his blood. This is where he differs from [his grandpa]. This scent blooms stronger than the dark rich mud of the bottom; it is the salt of the sea, burning with brine. It pulses in the current of his veins.
The relationship between Jojo and his baby sister Kayla is intense. Jojo is brother, father and mother to the child. Leonie tries to compete, to assert her maternal right, but she knows that the choices she has made mean that she has lost.
This is a road trip story as well as a family story. Ward’s telling of the journey from Jojo’s home to the prison where his father is due to be released is full of tension, knotted with anxiety, overheated with fear. I could feel the claustrophobia in that car, sense the anger and the yearning.
When they stop en route and Jojo reveals why he never challenges his mother, why his response to her behaviour is more mature than she will ever be, I felt sad for all the children whose parents let them down and force them to grow up too soon. I liked Jojo. I wanted his life to be better.
The reverse of the road trip brings more tension. It involves an almost inevitable stop and search scene that reminded me of the way, in America, the police are a law unto themselves and are ready to see a thirteen-year-old boy holding a baby as a threat simply because the boy is black. They are ready to presume guilt on the basis of appearance. It made me think about how the odds are stacked against boys like Jojo and women like Leonie. It was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King while I was reading this book. I saw an interview with him that I had never seen before, in which he spoke about black Americans needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps the same as anyone else but not being able to do so because their freedom released them into a different slavery, the slavery of poverty. The narrow choices that poverty brings join ends with a presumption that everyone takes the criminal route to survive, pre-condemning people of colour in the eyes of bigoted whites. Fifty years on from Dr King’s interview, people of colour like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Jesmyn Ward are still talking about how people of colour experience the world because white people still aren’t listening. The UK news has been full of reports of gang-related murders in London, of teenagers shooting and stabbing each other, of the inadequate way that authority handles the issue, allowing that same presumption of guilt based on appearance to dictate its actions. There was a really good interview with the founder of Gangsline and one of the charity’s support workers and a piece on a community response to the issue on BBC Breakfast. Both embody Eddo-Lodge’s call for people of colour to be the solution because whites don’t get it.
Ghosts haunt the story, too. Past mistakes lurk at the edges of present behaviour, hauled up from memory at moments where characters wonder how they got to where they are and who they are. Family history, family traits, the long reach of old religions covered over by catholicism, the idea that old souls never leave you. It made me think of Cynthia Bond’s novel Ruby.
The practising of those old religions by Leonie’s mother leads to Leonie’s classmates calling her a witch. Madeline Miller’s reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey came out this week. Focused as it is on the witch Circe, Miller wrote an article about witches for The Guardian. It was timely for my reading of Sing, Unburied, Sing, concerning itself with the deliberate misunderstanding through history of women and their role as healers and carers in the community. Leonie’s mother, Jojo’s grandmother, uses West African voodoo remedies because pharmaceutical medicines are unaffordable. She prays to both catholic saints and voodoo goddesses. Jojo’s grandpa tries to protect him with gris-gris. Why would you put your faith in the structures and products of a society that has enslaved you and denied you your humanity? Why wouldn’t you hold on to the traditions that give you a sense of self? Miller’s article addresses the use of ‘witch’ as a pejorative to take power away from smart women. Sing, Unburied, Sing adds to that usage by showing how white people ‘other’ people of colour by denigrating their ancestral traditions.
The book made me think about parenting and how well-intentioned but flawed adults can accidentally abuse their children emotionally. Jojo’s adulation of his grandpa leaves him with a sense of having to live up to a certain standard and not let his grandpa down. This as much as Leonie’s abdication of responsibility as a parent makes Jojo more mature than his years. Leonie feels overlooked and disapproved of because her brother is dead and she is treated as less significant than him. Her obsessive love for her children’s father is because she feels noticed by him and she fears the loss of his witness of her existence if she allows her attention to be on her children. Anxiety for both mother and son stems from a feeling of not being good enough.
The ending is gripping. I could barely breathe as all the threads came together and some inevitabilities came to pass.
I want someone to make a film from this story, but I don’t want them to Hollywood-ise it. Ava DuVernay can direct. Or Barry Jenkins. I also want it to win every literary prize going.