In her latest novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," Jesmyn Ward tells the story of a family’s odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present. It is also the story of a place haunted by slavery and lynching, and how that racial violence persists today. Ward won the National Book Award — her second — for "Sing, Unburied, Sing."
Ward stopped by the Boston Public Radio studios to discuss the book with Jim Braude and Margery Eagan. Below are some highlights from the interview:
On the inspiration for "Sing, Unburied, Sing":
WARD: The first thing I usually say about "Sing Unburied Sing" is that it's a cross between a road trip and a ghost story. ...One of the main characters is a 13-year-old, mixed race boy named Jojo. He was the first character who popped into my head, and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting to follow this boy through the modern South and see what life is like for him at this pivotal moment as he's coming of age?'
... He has a mom who's black, she neglects him somewhat. His father is white, [and] his father is at Parchman Prison at the beginning of the novel. The direction of the novel and the road trip comes from the family going on a road trip to pick the father up from Parchman Prison. So as I began to research Parchman Prison, I found out more about the history of Mississippi, the history of Parchman Prison Farm, the fact that children were sent to Parchman Prison Farm in the 1930s and 1940s. I realized I had to write about a child who might have served time at Parchman Prison Farm in the 1930s and 1940s. That's when I realized I was also writing a ghost story as well as a road trip.
On the relationship between Jojo and his younger sister Kayla:
WARD: Their grandparents have basically raised them. Pop is their maternal grandfather and Mam is their maternal grandmother. But as their grandparents get older — Mam is very ill as the novel begins, and Pop is trying to juggle everything himself, basically taking care of his sick wife and also raising the children — they have to depend on each other. It was a real joy to explore their relationship, because I don't think that readers would really expect a 13-year-old boy to be as sensitive and as kind and as tender as he is with his 2-year-old sister, but he is. He really takes care of her and does his best to parent her. It's heartening, but it's heartbreaking all at once.
On the ghosts who populate the novel:
WARD: Leonie is Jojo and Kayla's mother — their absent and neglectful mother — and the first ghost is actually her older brother, Given, who died when they were teenagers. He was killed, he was murdered, because he went hunting with a group of his white friends, basically, and his death was covered up, and they said it was a hunting accident. The person who killed him was never held accountable for his murder. ... Then Richie is the other ghost in the book.
Richie is the ghost of ... a young boy who was sent to Parchman Prison in the 1940s for stealing food. This actually happened: boys as young as 12 and 13 were actually sent to Parchman Prison for things like loitering or vagrancy, and then once they were sent to Parchman Prison Farm, they were basically re-enslaved. This is a ghost of a young boy who actually spent time in Parchman Prison Farm in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s with Pop, who is Jojo's grandfather.
On what she knew about Parchman Prison as a child growing up in Mississippi:
WARD: As a kid, I knew that [Parchman Prison] was a horrible place, and that it was somewhere that I never wanted to go, but that there was a real danger I could end up there because I'm black. Encountering racism and learning about racism in history in the South — and the Civil War and Jim Crow and lynching — you learn about those things very early as a young black child. So I was terrified. Kids are already powerless, and you're adding another layer of powerlessness to a child's existence and to what they're aware of. Kids understand that they're powerless because they're children, but now you're adding this different layer, where they understand that they're also powerless because of the color of their skin, because of who they are, because of who they come from, because of who their family members are ....
I'd have all these bad dreams. ... There was a sense of threat always present, so I would have all these bad dreams, one about all the men in my family being arrested and taken away. These were recurring dreams. Then I would, unfortunately, have these dreams where I was running from the Klan as a child, and I was running through the forest and I was fleeing, and I'd climb trees and hide in ditches, I'd pull pine all over myself. I'd have those types of dreams over and over again.
Click the audio player above to hear more from Jesmyn Ward.