Arts & Culture » Lit

Unlucky Accidents

Author Jesmyn Ward on the success of her new novel


Author Jesmyn Ward had a great 2017. After her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing got favorable reviews in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The New York Times, it landed on an impressive number of end-of-year top-10 lists, including those of The New York Times Book Review and Time magazine. To boot, it also garnered a National Book Award for fiction and a nod from Barack Obama. Ward's visit to Boise on Tuesday, Jan. 16, as part of the Cabin Readings and Conversations series, has also garnered some attention: It's already sold out.

While America grappled with issues of race and class in 2017—the Black Lives Matter movement and ambivalence from the White House regarding white supremacy and right-wing terrorism among them—Sing, Unburied, Sing gives a more intimate view. In it, a drug-abusing (and dealing) mother takes her teenage son and infant daughter across Mississippi to collect the father of her children from prison and make their mixed-race family whole again.

Though Ward started writing the novel in 2009, many of the issues tackled in it, like opioid abuse, poverty and the plight of mixed-race children in the South, are still prevalent today.

"The characters just showed up and wanted me to tell their story. It seems that something about their story has really resonated with people right now. I think that in part, it's a lucky accident and in some ways an unlucky accident," Ward said.

The book hit shelves in September 2017 and immediately drew critical acclaim. Ron Charles of The Washington Post called it "powerful," and drew comparisons to Readings and Conversations alumnus George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo and Toni Morrison's Beloved, which also use the voices of ghosts to connect characters to the past. Writing for The New York Times, Tracy Smith said the book was full of "feats of empathy" that "feel genuinely inevitable when offered by a writer of such lyric imagination."

Part of the appeal of Sing, Unburied, Sing is the way it draws connections between characters and innovates within a tested formula for southern epics. Reviewers noted Ward's use of ghosts—the "unburied" from the title of the book—bonds living characters to the people (and injustices) of the past, and gives Sing, Unburied, Sing a literary lineage that can be traced back to Morrison and William Faulkner. A deep well of narrators offer a broad-spectrum presentation of events, giving readers comprehensive access to the plot and characters' humanity.

The book didn't start as a ghost story, however; it started as a road trip story. The first character that drew Ward's attention was the adolescent son JoJo, but she discovered as she wrote that his journey through the modern South would include many encounters with the past that she could most effectively explore through ghosts.

"Something I've learned is that history is not relegated to the past. It bears on the present, it lives in the present. I think that form allows writers to explore that," she said.