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Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing


2018 Fiction

Sing, Unburied, Sing
The novels of Jesmyn Ward create a fictional place – Bois Sauvage – rooted in her rural hometown on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. The vividness of Bois Sauvage and its inhabitants has provoked critical hosannas, and comparisons to William Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County. The ghosts in Ward’s most recent novel – Sing, Unburied, Sing – evoke the hauntings found on many of Toni Morrison’s pages.

“Growing up in DeLisle, Mississippi, has influenced me in many ways,” Ward told the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her a fellowship last year. “Growing up here taught me to appreciate beauty, the beauty of the bayous and of the forests and of the Gulf. Growing up in this community taught me to appreciate storytelling, taught me to appreciate language.”

That appreciation burnished Sing, Unburied, Sing into what Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates calls “a beautifully rendered, heartbreaking, savage and tender novel, a tour de force of exquisite language in the service of honoring the dignity and worth of its memorable cast of children, women and men.”

The story centers on Jojo, turning 13 as the novel opens and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His black grandfather, Pop, is one source; his white grandfather, who won’t acknowledge him, is another. Jojo’s own father, Michael, is being released from prison, so his drug-addled mother, Leonie, packs the family and a friend into a car to head north to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm, the state penitentiary. Sing, Unburied, Sing becomes a road book and a ghost story and a tale of sibling love. It won Ward her second National Book Award in November. She is the only woman in American letters to have two.

“I feel like in every book that I commit to telling the truth about the place that I live in, and also about the kind of people who live in my community,” Ward said on the radio show Fresh Air.

Growing up, young Jesmyn wore hand-me-down clothes and ate meals stretched by food stamps. When her father lost his job at the local glass factory, her family moved in with Ward’s maternal grandmother. Fourteen people wedged into the house – Jesmyn, her parents, two sisters and a brother, a cousin, her grandmother’s four sons and three daughters, plus the matriarch herself. “It was the first and only time I lived with so many people I loved,” Ward said.

Ward’s mother worked as a maid. Her employer recognized a spark in 11-year-old Jesmyn and offered to pay for her private school tuition. A senior year essay led to Stanford University, where she earned a B.A., then an M.A., then an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan. When Ward’s first novel came and went without much stir, she turned her thoughts toward nursing school.

But in October 2000, when a drunk driver killed Ward’s teenage brother Joshua, she re-dedicated herself to writing. It led to memorializing Joshua Ward in Men We Reaped, along with four other black men in their circle who died young.

After Ward won her first National Book Award in 2011 for Salvage the Bones, a novel set on the Mississippi Gulf during the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the recognition helped her land a professorship at the University of South Alabama, then Tulane University.

“The word ‘salvage’ is so close to ‘savage,’” Ward said in 2014 at the Cleveland Public Library. “It connotes resilience, fierceness and courage." She described her novel’s pregnant, 15-year-old narrator, Esch Batiste, brushing off the ants and standing up after the hurricane as the only thing she could do. “This is savage,” Ward said, “you make a future from it, you tell your story, you survive.”

The writer said that when Katrina hit her own family, she swam to escape alongside her pregnant sister. The Wards sheltered in a tractor in an open field during a Category 5 hurricane, she said, while a white farm family refused to take them in. Another family down the road eventually helped them.

Ward, her partner, their young daughter and son still make their home in rural Mississippi. She told an audience in November that she will continue to tell stories rooted in this Southern soil.

“I hope people who read my books perhaps feel empathy for us,” she said, “and really see us for a complicated people.”

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Blog Posts about Jesmyn Ward

New Exhibition Pulls Local Community Into The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Canon

Cleveland photographer Amanda King took this photo, "What's Next," as part of the Inter|Urban public art project. Her work was inspired by Isabel Wilkerson's "Warmth of Other Suns" and was one of the pieces selected as a reflection prompt in this year's exhibiton. An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to... Read More →

Celebrating Zora Neale Hurston With The Release Of "The Zora Canon"

Anisfield-Wolf recipient Zora Neale Hurston would have turned 129 years old January 7. To celebrate her birthday, the editors of ZORA, an online magazine eponymously named after the Harlem Renaissance writer and pioneering anthropologist, compiled the ZORA Canon, its definitive list of the best books written by African American women. Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge (“We Love You, Charlie Freeman") writes that the editors decided to take up the task when they realized no one seemed to have published a comprehensive list of black women authors, a... Read More →

"Sing Unburied Sing" Gets Its Own Mural In Cleveland

(from left to right) Katie Parland, Jesmyn Ward and Daniella Rini Uva. Photo by Alan Ashby Look closely at the multicolored mural in the old Irishtown Bend in Cleveland and you'll spot a small teal "JW" in the lower interior of an archway.    Author Jesmyn Ward initialed the mural inspired by her Anisfield-Wolf award-winning book, Sing Unburied Sing, during her second trip to Cleveland this year, thanks to a suggestion from the Cleveland Foundation’s Alan Ashby. She got an intimate tour by the artists themselves, Danielle Rini Uva... Read More →

Jesmyn Ward On The Politics Of Being A Southern Writer

When Jesmyn Ward took the stage with Ayana Mathis, each novelist glanced around the warm, lush Maltz Performing Arts Center in Cleveland and toward the hundreds of faces turned in their direction. “Here we are,” said Mathis, “two black women on a stage, two writers able to talk with each other; it’s really a beautiful thing.” Bathed in applause, Mathis acknowledged that this wasn’t their first public duet. When contacted about staging a conversation, Ward, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, requested... Read More →

Introducing Our Class Of 2018

  The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf honoree, made the announcement. The 2018 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity are: Shane McCrae, In the Language of My Captor, Poetry N. Scott Momaday, Lifetime Achievement Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Fiction Kevin Young, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake... Read More →

The New York Times And PBS NewsHour Team Up For A New Book Club

Jesmyn Ward, whose fiction is drawing comparisons to William Faulkner's, received a new honor this week: her 2017 novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” will kick off a new book discussion led by the New York Times and the PBS NewsHour. Called Now Read This, the organizers hope to become a go-to resource for reading groups across the country. Ward, the only woman to win a National Book Award twice for fiction, continues to live in rural Mississippi, the source of her family life and much of her inspiration. Born in 1977, Ward attended Stanford... Read More →

REVIEW: "Sing Unburied Sing" Fits Perfectly Into Jesmyn Ward's Canon Of Southern Literature

The pages of Jesmyn Ward's third novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," smell of Mississippi. Set in the same fictional town, Bois Sauvage, as her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, “Salvage the Bones,” her latest fiction returns to tell again of family bonds, tested by unresolved trauma and unrelenting Southern poverty. She undergirds the sense of place with a seven-line epigraph from Derek Walcott’s “The Gulf.” At the heart of “Sing” is Jojo, a 13-year-old narrator focusing on his budding manhood. His role model? Pop, whose... Read More →

REVIEW: "The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race"

There are 108 tally marks on the cover of The Fire This Time, the new essay collection that brings forth 18 perspectives from a new generation of writers, working in the tradition of James Baldwin. Each mark represents a black life lost too soon, a visual representation of the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter. In the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, Jesmyn Ward went to Twitter to share her frustration, but found the platform too ephemeral. She was much more struck by the pertinence of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Ward,... Read More →

Jesmyn Ward Stresses Importance Of Telling Stories That Matter During Recent Visit To Cleveland

On a freezing, overcast March day, the writer Jesmyn Ward made her first foray to Cleveland.  She barely smiled as she stood behind a lectern in brown leather boots, red corduroy pants and a gray sweater set. Yet several in her audience at Cleveland Public Library murmured that the piercing, prepared remarks Ward read should be published immediately. Others were visibly moved and brimming with questions. Ward, 36, who won a National Book Award for her second novel, “Salvage the Bones,” spent the morning with Cleveland students from... Read More →
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