“Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.”
– Jesmyn Ward
If you have had the distinct honor of reading the 2011 National Book Award-winning “Salvage the Bones,” then you’re likely already prepared to return to the fictional city of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. If you haven’t read Salvage, then jump in any way. You won’t be disappointed.
In Ward’s newest work, Sing, Unburied, Sing, we meet Jojo and his baby sister Kayla, whose drug-addicted mother, Leone, frequently has visions of her dead brother. Jojo and Kayla are the wards of their grandparents, Mam, who is ill, and Pop, who is the ever-present male figure in Jojo’s life. The story chronicles the children’s road trip with their mother and her friend to Parchman Farm State Penitentiary in Mississippi. The purpose of the journey? To pick up their white father whose family, readers will later discover, has a history with theirs. As one can imagine, Mississippi has a few challenges in store for them. One of which may come to the surprise of the reader is the ghost.
One cannot entertain the concept of a ghost without becoming engrossed in the concept of death. Jojo, early on, tells us, “I like to think I know what death is,” and he does. Whether it is through his own experiences or conveyed via stories from his grandfather or even watching it stalk his grandmother, but do not be deceived for in this work, Ward has other themes in store.
As in her previous works, Ward directs her attention on the challenges of being a black man in America, a subject she pulls few punches with when calling out both the treatment and injustices that have been the inheritance of black men. This theme may seem to some as overused or even outdated but make no mistake; it is quite relevant; even more so given the time we now live in.
Sing, Unburied, Sing touches on many difficult themes that may hit home to many but are certain to resonate within the very core of any American of African heritage. This tale in all its dark intricacies is carried on musical wings of prose Ward has skillfully crafted.