There are a lot of different ways to read Jesmyn Ward’s new novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, and one of them is as a stand-alone achievement: a beautifully written story of a family’s struggle through poverty, prison, and drugs, bound together by the tremendous protection of the love they feel for one another. If you read the book this way you’ll probably have a great experience with it.
You may well decide it’s one of the best books you’ve read all year, and that it stands to win some serious literary prizes. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll come out of the experience with more compassion for the human condition because you’ll see a clear line between the unlawful incarceration of a wonderful father and the much-later drug addiction of his daughter, who is herself a terrible mother. What the book teaches us is that stuff sticks around, through generations and even through death. We’re all familiar with the idea that the sins of the father are revisited on future generations, but this book explores the idea that how the father is sinned against is also carried forward in the family line.
Or if you’re a fan of Jesmyn Ward’s the way I am, you can read Sing, Unburied, Sing in the context of her other books. I started with her second novel, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011. This is the story of a very poor family in southern Mississippi who can barely survive their circumstances and then have to live through Hurricane Katrina. It’s an epic journey of loss and resilience and I loved it. I later read Ward’s 2013 memoir Men We Reaped, in which she struggles with the impossible loss of five young men she was close to (including her brother) who died over a period of five years. From there you’ll want to read the 2016 collection of essays and poetry she edited called The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, which is more than a tip of the hat to James Baldwin’s essential 1963 book, The Fire Next Time. When you read Ward’s new novel as part of this body of work, you start to see how themes of family, loss, and the lack of justice on so many levels begin to replicate, and you might find your experience with the characters in this book begin to deepen. How Jojo cares for his little sister Kayla is a beautiful thing on its own, but taken in the context of all the brothers and sisters throughout Ward’s work, it means even more.
Or you can cast a wider net and think of Sing, Unburied, Sing as part of a larger literary landscape. It’s easy enough to see The Odyssey here, and magical realism is always going to make me think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the book that will be most often referenced in the discussion of Ward’s new novel is Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, Beloved — not because Sing, Unburied, Sing is like Beloved so much as it is in conversation with Beloved, the way The Fire This Time is in conversation with The Fire Next Time. How does the pain of subjugation travel from one generation to the next? How did it happen then and how does it happen now?
Which brings me to another book I really want to urge you to read: White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson. I mentioned it in a previous post about the National Book Critics Circle Award because Carol Anderson won in the category of criticism. I hadn’t read the book yet then but I’d been meaning to (oh, what a giant stack of books THAT is!), and I was so impressed by her and moved by her acceptance speech. Then I met Carol again a couple of weeks ago when we were both at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. I bought the book and got it signed and stayed up half the night reading because truly, I couldn’t put it down. It’s a book that draws a razor-sharp line from the Civil War to Trayvon Martin with all the stops in between. If you want context for Jesmyn Ward’s books or the life we’re living in this country right this minute, I urge you to pick up a copy. It’s short! Without the end notes the text is a mere 160 pages, but those 160 pages have the power to change your life.
Of course, Carol Anderson hadn’t read Sing, Unburied, Sing before she wrote White Rage, nor is it likely that Jesmyn Ward had read White Rage before she wrote Sing, Unburied, Sing. The books were published too close together to make that possible, and still, they’re talking away, each one adding more layers onto the other. To have something explained in both fiction and nonfiction, to come at the same American problems from different sides, is what makes our reading experiences richer, our lives better, and our actions more informed. You can look at a painting alone on a wall and it can be a powerful and moving thing, but to see a painting hanging with other paintings, to see it in the context of its times, can show you a bit more of how the thing was made.
Forgive me if this reads like a paper for a high school AP English class. I wish I were Lin-Manuel Miranda, so I could put all of this into a song that would have you singing the names Jesmyn Ward and Carol Anderson in the shower. These are magnificent books. They should be sung.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is our First Editions Club pick for September, which is the toughest month to pick because so many great books are published then, and Jesmyn Ward will be in the store to read and sign books on September 12, 2017, as part of the Salon@615 series. You’re not going to want to miss her. I’ll be in the front row with Sparky in my lap.
* * *
Read along with Ann! Click any title in this post to toss it into your cart, and we’ll hold it for you or ship it to your door. Can’t be in Nashville for Jesmyn Ward’s event on September 12? Order your copy of Sing, Unburied, Sing before the 12th, write “SIGNED” in the notes section at checkout, and we’ll gladly have her sign or personalize a copy for you. Or simply join the First Editions Club now — and this will be the first signed book you receive!