I first encountered Jesmyn Ward’s work through her 2011 novel Salvage the Bones, a searing account of an impoverished Gulf Coast family facing Hurricane Katrina, which won both the Alex and the National Book Award. Ward’s 2013 lyrical memoir, The Men We Reaped, explores the death of five young African American men, including her brother, Joshua, in an attempt to analyze how racism, inequity, and lapsed personal and public responsibility impacted Ward’s community, the South, and America. In 2016 Ward edited the poetry and essay collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, inviting Claudia Rankine, Natasha Tretheway, Isabel Wilkerson, Jericho Brown and others to respond to James Baldwin’s seminal work.
Ward returns to fiction with her latest book, Sing, Unburied, Sing, an ambitious novel which explores the saga of a mixed race family in Mississippi, a state where interracial marriage was not legalized until 1967. In Sing, the mother, Leonie, journeys north to the Mississippi Delta with her children, JoJo and Kayla, to the infamous Parchman prison where her longtime partner Michael has been incarcerated, taking the reader on an allegorical journey to hell. Sing is a story of breathtaking beauty and suspense—it is haunted by ghosts whose untold past bears upon the present day inhabitants—and has just been longlisted for the National Book Award.
Ward and I are both the oldest of four. We both grew up in Mississippi in the seventies, and we both share an appreciation for the classic cars of our youth such as the Caprice Classic and the Buick Riviera. We spoke by phone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
—Deirdre Sugiuchi for Guernica
Guernica: In The Men We Reaped, you talk about how early on as an author you couldn’t figure out how to love your characters less. How has your approach to writing changed?
Jesmyn Ward: There was a couple of years’ time when I wasn’t working on anything when I was thinking about my first novel, Where the Line Bleeds. I came to the realization that I had failed in some respects because I had been more of a benevolent narrator than the world I saw reflected around me, and in the lives of the people in my community, and in my family. There was no benevolent God sparing us pain and loss and grief and struggle. If I was going to continue to write about the place where I am from, and the kind of people who live in my community and who are in my family, I owed it to them to be honest with what our lives are like.
When I began working on Salvage the Bones, and of course again in Sing, I resisted that urge. It was difficult. The children in Sing are even younger than the children I wrote about in Salvage the Bones. Kayla is two and JoJo is thirteen. Their grandfather is their primary caregiver, their father is in jail, and their mother is largely absent and also emotionally and physically abusive to them. The parents are even worse in Sing, as compared to the father in Salvage.
I feel like if you aren’t honest and if you don’t let go and ease up off of the narrator, then the story doesn’t take up a life of its own, and the characters can’t take up a life of their own. You handicap the story when you try to protect your characters.
Guernica: I like the way that you flipped back and forth between the different characters.
Jesmyn Ward: I have never written a novel that volleys back and forth between a couple of different first person perspectives. It’s definitely a challenge because I had to think about who knows what, when do they know it, when are they sharing what they know or what they think they know, how the reader’s perspective affects things. Telling the story in that way is challenging. It does require a lot of revision.
Guernica: Were there models that you referenced?
Jesmyn Ward: In the very beginning I thought about As I Lay Dying. That’s one of the first books that I read that featured multiple first person points of view chapters.
I was also thinking about the difference in voice between the different characters. Each voice has to be unique. Hypothetically you should be able to read each chapter without the heading that tells you who is telling the story.
I also thought about Ford Maddox Ford’s novel The Good Soldier. In that novel the narrator tells the story, but doesn’t reveal it all at once. He reveals one side, but then a couple of chapters later he reveals another side. As the story unfolds, it changes the reader’s understanding of what actually happened.
Guernica: I don’t know much about the history of voodoo, but with Mam’s character you resurrect the archetype of the conjure woman and you reshape it.
Jesmyn Ward: I think that voodoo as a spiritual tradition has been demonized for so long in popular culture. I wanted to write against that and write a character who practiced that spiritual tradition who was not evil and intent on creating zombies (laughs) or causing pain through voodoo dolls or whatever.
Jesmyn Ward: Yes. Because my understanding of [voodoo] is that it was important to the people who practiced it because it helped them survive. There are practical ways it enabled survival. It used herbal medicine to heal, to aid in childbirth. It was a spiritual system. It made room for hope and for magic and for possibility. For people who struggle and fight to survive and who fight to live, those are really important things. That you are able to affect your present and your future if you do this and this and this, and you pray to this loa, that’s important. Those are survival tools. I wanted the readers to see that and acknowledge that. I wanted to write about this tradition that I feel has been very important to survival of black people here: people of the African diaspora, people of this region, and throughout the south.
Guernica: There was a moment on the road trip up to the Delta where JoJo talks about the Delta being worse for Black people than the rest of Mississippi. It was something I always sensed when I was growing up, but I didn’t really understand until I left Mississippi, because the discussion of [the history of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement] was largely avoided in my community. Can you discuss why you chose to write about the Delta?
Jesmyn Ward: I wanted the characters from Sing to travel from the Mississippi Gulf Coast north into Mississippi. I feel like so much of what happened in the Delta over the decades since slavery was abolished seems much closer in the Delta, and maybe that’s because sharecropping was a fairly recent phenomena. I feel like the past is closer and it bears even more heavily on the present there than it does in the rest of the state. As my characters traveled north, it almost felt to me when I wrote it as though they were traveling back into the past. I wanted them to reckon with that history, to confront that history, to realize how the history of this place lives and exists in the present and has weird repercussions for the present.
Guernica: In all of your books you discuss the changing economy of Mississippi post-NAFTA. Do you have any ideas for how Mississippi can escape being Mississippi?
Jesmyn Ward: I consider myself a progressive, so my answer would be that we need to be progressive. For some reason the people in power in Mississippi still seem to be invested in these very American myths.”The individual is alone.” “We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” “We create success for ourselves, and if we work hard enough then we will succeed and have success beyond our wildest dreams.” I think that we need to do away with that kind of thinking and be more aware of history and how the history of this place bears in the present and how it affects people. I think that we also need to be more aware of how we are all interconnected, and how we actually need to invest in safety nets and in education, and that we need to come to the realization that health care is a human right and try to provide that for people. I think that we’re just too invested in that myth that we are not connected, and are all potential millionaires if only we put in the work. I think that’s destructive and ignores history and is one of the reasons we (as a state) are consistently at the bottom of all the lists because we handicap ourselves.
Guernica: You’re a writer and a mother. How does writing help you conjure the world you want your children to have?
Jesmyn Ward: I want people to read my work and I want those characters to stay with them when they are done. I hope that if the people who read my work encounter people in the real world who are like the characters that I write about, that maybe that might make them feel empathy for those people. I know it sounds idealistic in a way, but I do hope that my work maybe changes some minds, and that my work makes readers see people as human that maybe before they read my work they might not have seen as humans, and those people include me and my family and my kids, people in my community. So if that maybe makes the reader maybe a little kinder, a little less dismissive or hateful of people like me, then I feel like I’ve done good work and that maybe I can make a difference—so that my child perhaps has it a little easier than I had it, or my parents had it, or my grandparents had it, or my great grandparents had it.
Also, I think that I’m trying to hopefully change my children’s ideas about what is possible, and about what is possible for them.