Sing, Unburied, Sing Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2017
The Men We Reaped Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury, 2013
Salvage the Bones Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury, 2011
The memory is a living thing—it too is in transit. But during its moment, all that is remembered joins, and lives—the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.
So says Eudora Welty in one of the epigraphs to the novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. And its author, Jesmyn Ward, makes you believe it. Moments where past seeps into present, boiling up like bruises on the page or blood-red clay in creek-water, create a visceral interchange between present, incarnate bodies and vivid earth, full of history. These are the concentrate of Ward’s art: where its power to move in a way that is vitally new begins. And this ain’t any old earth. This is ‘the wet red Mississippi mud’ of which she writes, whose ‘pine trees reach skyward, their green-needled tops stand perfectly still’, soaked with blood, with history. This is, as she puts it in the introduction to The Fire This Time (2017) ‘a place where, for all the brilliant, sun-drenched summer days, there is sometimes only the absence of light.’
My mother’s family live about an hour’s drive from Delisle, the gulf-coast town where Ward grew up, so I feel particularly in tune with her novels, having at one time or another felt that same red clay between my toes. Her work shines with a brilliance that makes such acclaim unsurprising. Two novels, Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) and Salvage the Bones (2011), have both won the National Book Award; her memoir, Men We Reaped (2013), explores her attempts to make sense of the violent and premature deaths of five young black men close to her, including her brother. She has recently edited and compiled The Fire This Time (2017), a collection of writing on modern racial issues answering the call of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. It is exactly how her writing, revelatory both for its beauty and its painful truths, explores the realities of ‘what it means to be Black and poor in the South’ that makes it so blazingly important. She does not just set out to expose the social wrongs that haunt Mississippi, but creates whole lives full of joy and loss, binding all her readers with a deep sympathy that actually pulls them into that world. She returns, ‘again and again…perpetually called back to home by a love so thick it choked me’, to this place between love and hate that makes up her work: this modern South into which she so completely draws the reader.
When thirteen-year old Jojo, one of the narrators of Sing, Unburied, Sing, remembers his grandmother on a car journey to collect his father from Parchman Penitentiary, the description of his hunger transforms the memory into something more sharply affecting. ‘We were sitting next to each other on the porch swing. I am still so hungry that I can imagine the taste of those pecans, how the dust around the nut taste bitter, but the pecan is wet and sweet.’ This recalls to me the very sensation of eating my grandmother’s pecans like nothing I’ve ever read before, forcing me to enter into the body of the novel and take its feelings into myself. The familiar taste echoes on my tongue, which I now share with Jojo, making his suffering all the more moving – and painfully tangible.
Such resonances are what make Jesmyn Ward’s work. They create an intoxicatingly sensual and honest portrait of rural life in Bois Sauvage – the fictional coastal town around which both novels are set – and in doing so force a movement outwards. The harrowing experience of being a person of colour in Mississippi becomes a near-violent grappling with the reader, forcing them, regardless of personal history, to share bodily in the joys and pains that charge her characters’ lives. Leonie, Jojo’s parent, evokes her mother’s illness in terms so powerfully physical and incarnate that they are connected to earth (‘Mama is bleeding under the skin. Everywhere my hands touch, there is blood. Trenches in the sand filling with seawater’). Language in these novels is, as she writes, ‘like language flipped inside out. A skinned animal: an inverted pelt’, exposing our innermost experiences as the most incarnate and concrete aspects of living.
Take Leonie’s reaction to a dreaded interaction between her white partner Michael and his bigoted parents:
I would throw up everything. All of it out: food and bile and stomach and intestines and esophagus, organs all, bones and muscles, until all that was left was skin. And then maybe that could turn inside out, and I wouldn’t be nothing no more. Not this skin, not this body. Maybe Michael could step on my heart, stop its beating.
Here, the somatic power of Sing, Unburied, Sing seems to climax in self-destruction. The world becomes so unbearable for Leonie that she figuratively rends herself limb from limb, desperate for erasure, and, following the chain of her deeply embodied narrative, such violence transfers onto the reader with its suffering so powerful as to affect and effect the flesh.
Esch, the teenage narrator of Salvage the Bones, expresses her experience of hiding her pregnancy as the pre-hurricane sun beats down on her, ‘burning, evaporating the sweat, water, and blood from me to leave my skin, my desiccated organs, my brittle bones: my raisin of a body.’ As she thinks about what would happen ‘if I could I would reach inside of me and pull out my heart and that tiny wet seed that will become the baby’, the reader is able to resonate with her concrete and bodily trauma, as remote from the ‘Pit’ Esch lives in with her dysfunctional family as they might be. Using language like this Ward forces us to reckon with her characters’ sufferings as if within ourselves.
Esch’s visceral lexis of drying up and disappearance also mirrors a wider pattern of erasure that Men We Reaped explores. In the memoir, Ward muses upon the suicide of a friend: ‘in the end, I understand his desire, the self’s desire to silence the self, and thus the world. Ronald looked at his Nothing and saw its long history, saw it in all our families and communities, all the institutions of the South and the nation driving it.’ Where a society says to its most vulnerable, those it has castigated, ‘You are nothing’ (the tragic sentiment of negation at the heart of Men We Reaped) it forces them, as Ward imagines, to forget their own materiality: what it is like ‘to stand outside under the hot Mississippi sun, to burn gold in it, to feel loved and alive and beautiful.’ Ward’s work both exposes and reverses these destructive societal messages; a task rooted in the ways her ‘Bodies tell stories’ – stories that, for Ward, must not be forgotten. Hurricane Katrina, too, which made landfall at the end of August 2005, arrives in Salvage the Bones with the same movement of erasure. Images, too, are shattered and distorted. The storm, says Ward on an NPR interview in 2011, ‘unmade the world, tree by water by house by person. Even in language, it reduced us to improbable metaphor.’ In Esch’s words, ‘Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood.’
As I was sheltering in my grandparents’ bungalow – windows blew in, the barn imploded with a shuddering gasp, my sister’s fingernails broke off in the door and fluttered away as the eye gaped above us – Jesmyn Ward and her family were living a far greater hell 80 miles to the South. She told the Paris Review:
We left my grandmother’s flooding house, were refused shelter by a white family, and took refuge in trucks in an open field during a Category Five hurricane. I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive. I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness. I couldn’t dull the edges and fall in love with my characters and spare them. Life does not spare us.
The Katrina tragedy was not one of body counts and relief packages, but of the people who the storm – and indeed the American government – left in its wake. Ward does not spare us such horrors as readers; we become complicit in the scars that poverty and racial violence have inflicted on Mississippi. After enduring (for only this verb can do justice to reading Men We Reaped) the stories of five deaths, the last of which is her own brother Joshua’s, the reader is pulled back to face again the image of the storm: ‘We who still live do what we must. Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach.’ Katrina is figured back onto the social realities that it violently exposed in Mississippi, where systemic inequality and governmental apathy have festered to the point where the state ‘ranks dead last in the United States on the UN’s Human Development Index.’ Whilst the storm-surge of these evils rages still, ‘here at the confluence of history, of racism, of poverty, and economic power, this is what our lives are worth: nothing.’ Ward’s writing fights to reverse this flow, grounding these negative abstracts in her almost-too-vivid human stories.
The moment in Salvage the Bones where Esch’s family shelter from flooding on their roof is particularly haunting. They are forced out ‘into the hungry maw of the storm’, where the water ‘is swirling and gathering and spreading on all sides, brown with an undercurrent of red to it, the clay of the Pit like a cut that won’t stop leaking.’ It strikes me as a faint echo of an image from William Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, set during the aftermath of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Fleetingly, far off, the convicts see from their truck a ‘Negro cabin’ where ‘the water was up to window ledges’ and a family cower on top. Here, ‘the woman on the housetop began to shriek at the passing truck, her voice carrying faint and melodious across the brown water, becoming fainter and fainter as the truck passed and went on, ceasing at last, whether because of the distance or because she had stopped screaming those in the truck did not know.’
Ward is almost always faced with questions about Mississippi’s literary tradition when interviewed. Her work often seems to court this with explicit references. An example is when Esch remembers: ‘after my ninth-grade year, we read As I Lay Dying, and I made an A because I answered the hardest question right: Why does the young boy think his mother is a fish?’. However, it would be an injustice to assume that her relationship to Mississippi’s ‘canon’ is merely one of influence. Whilst it is clear that her polyphonic narratives and lyrical depictions of the rural South resonate with those of Faulkner, Ward transmutes this echo into a message of her own. She spoke to the Paris Review about her first reading of As I Lay Dying: ‘He’s done it, perfectly. Why the hell am I trying? But the failures of some of his black characters – the lack of imaginative vision regarding them, the way they don’t display the full range of human emotion, how they fail to live fully on the page – work against that awe and goad me to write.’ It is as if she revisits the family Faulkner abandons, bringing disregarded lives back to the page, embodying the voices of the silenced; this allows her work’s visceral subjectivity to not only affect its reader, but also to sound the voids, negating the negations of the ruthless racial strictures of Southern society.
The viciousness of the racist language Ward recalls being used against her during high school, and that spoken by Michael’s parents in Sing, Unburied, Sing, is disturbing. These are words that enact violence on bodies; they dehumanise people of colour and attempt to remove their right to exist in society. It can be easy, for white readers such as me, to read them as cliché and thus hide from their reality. But the knowledge that I have met people in the South who still espouse such attitudes and use such language daily evidences the uneasy truth about Mississippi’s extant racism. This is why Ward’s voice is one that must be amplified. She is not only insisting against wrongs past and present – wrongs which prove concretely fatal not just for characters in books, but members of her own family and community – she also writes against their grain, in a movement towards hope. Ward’s words in ‘Cracking the Code’, from The Fire This Time, on the richness of her interracial heritage that the ‘one-drop-rule’ South attempts to erase, are unforgettable: ‘I would like to think there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experiences, our lives, through words. That sharing stories confirms our community. That it creates community, both within our community and beyond it.’ If more people read Ward’s work, it would constitute a movement in the right direction.
‘This is where the past and the future meet.’ So begins Ward’s account of her brother’s death in Men We Reaped. The convergence of threads of history and pain which lead to horrific reality, this axiom is the distillate of her writing. Beyond the pain and poverty, beyond self-erasing drug abuse and hatred; beyond legacies of racism and atrocity, Sing, Unburied, Sing creates a beautiful compresence of the concrete and that beyond it. It is a space where whispering suggestions of the burden of the South’s history manifest in the haunting figures of those left behind: ‘And the branches are full. They are full of ghosts, two or three, all the way to the top, to the feathered leaves. There are women and men and boys and girls.’ These presences, the victims of Mississippi’s tragedies, seem, in spite of the agony they embody, to move towards hope in the form of a child’s joy.
Kayla sings, and the multitude of ghosts lean forward, nodding. They smile with something like relief, something like remembrance, something like ease. Yes.
We get a glimpse of this through the eyes of Richie, one of the ghosts. ‘[A]cross the face of the water, there is a land. It is green and hilly, dense with trees, riven by rivers. The rivers flow backward: they begin in the sea and end inland. The air is gold: the gold of sunrise and sunset, perpetually peach’, where people sing ‘the most beautiful song I have ever heard.’ This paradise is undeniably familiar. It is Mississippi; America without its hatred. ‘Home, they say. Home.’ is the last utterance of the dead at the close of Sing, Unburied, Sing. The novel, with all its unspeakable sadness and unbearably embodied human suffering, offers the living a chance to read in ultimate sympathy.
Sammy Moriarty does English at Merton, and is notorious for a love of long coats and all things pickled.