Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2017, 285 pp
This is an amazing novel! I read it just two weeks before Jesmyn Ward won the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. In fact, it is her second win for that award. She won for her first novel, Salvage the Bones, in 2011.
Sing, Unburied, Sing has ghosts. How many time have I run into ghosts in this year's reading? It tells the story of African American families by revealing one of those families through the eyes of Jojo, who is 13. His mother is black, his father is white. He has assumed the role of mother/father/brother/protector for his baby sister. Kayla is the shimmering star of the book and rendered so exquisitely by the author that you can feel her clinging to Jojo as if she is clinging to you.
Jojo, Kayla and their mother Leonie live with Leonie's parents. Grandpa has secrets in his past, including a prison term. Grandma is dying from cancer. Leonie's brother is dead due to one of those ways Black boys die in this country. Jojo and Kayla's father Michael is in prison on a drug-related charge but he is getting out and Leonie takes her two children on a road trip through two Southern states to pick him up.
Reading Sing, Unburied, Sing was like traveling in a foreign country for a white woman like me. It is almost too much, especially because the writing is so good, putting you into these people's lives. You live with them and with all the ghosts of their people who died of racism, by racism, through racism. Almost too much until I remembered that these are people who live in my country all mixed right in with the white people.
I have been reading books by and about people of color for decades. About slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights; about the customs, the music, the drugs, and all the work-arounds they have developed just so they can exist in American society. I made a count from my reading records, kept since the 1980s. Out of hundreds of authors I have read, only 33 are African American.
So you see that the stories we are primarily being told are by white authors. In her acceptance speech for her 2017 win at the National Book Awards ceremony, Jesmyn Ward said, "Throughout my career when I've been rejected, there was sometimes a subtext, and it was this: 'People will not read your work because these are not universal stories.' "
Translation: the predominately white publishing industry assumes that their predominately white readership feels these stories are not universal. What? As Richard Wright said, "White man, listen." Racism and it effects on citizens of all colors is a universal story. How else do we overcome this scourge on our nation if we don't know the stories?
It is a big win for America that Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award twice. It is a win worth being proud of for us all. She has brought to us the ghosts who live on in our history.
For your reading adventures, here is a list of the 33 African American writers who have told me their stories:
Zora Neale Hurston
N K Jemison
Edward P Jones
How many of them have you read?
(Sing, Unburied, Sing is currently available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)