Tuesday, November 21, 2017


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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:

James Baldwin
Paul Beatty
Gwendolyn Brooks
Pearl Cleage
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Edwidge Danticat
Ralph Ellison
Angela Flournoy
Paula Fox
Yaa Gyasi
Zora Neale Hurston
Marlon James
N K Jemison
Mat Johnson
Edward P Jones
Jamaica Kinkaid
Imbolo Mbue
James McBride
Kim McLarin
Terry McMillan
Toni Morrison
Barack Obama
Dexter Palmer
Ann Petry
Alice Randall
John Ridley
Zadie Smith
Lalita Tademy
Alice Walker
Jesmyn Ward
Dorothy West
Colson Whitehead
Richard Wright
How many of them have you read? 

(Sing, Unburied, Sing is currently available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this book. It is indeed special. Luminous, even.

    1. Yes, this one will be in the Top 25 for this year!

  2. I pay little attention to the authors behind the books, or their races for that matter, but I guess I'll have to start. Your list has put me to shame. Great review, by the way! I think you did the book justice as well as talking about something as tangent and divisive in our American society as racism is.

    1. Thank you Carmen. It took me two days to write this review and I still wasn't completely happy with it. But I had to get it posted before Thanksgiving, when I will get nothing done! I hope my list gives you some ideas.

  3. That's a great list you have jotted down. I probably have only read half of the 33 authors you have listed, but many of their works have made a huge impression on me. Perhaps too: Alex Haley, Lawrence Hill, Solomon Northup, Gloria Naylor, and Brit Bennett off the top of my head. I plan to read more from your list in my years ahead. Universal indeed.

    1. Yes to your additions! I have read Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years A Slave and Brit Bennett's The Mothers. So my list should be 35 authors. Gloria Naylor is one I will read soon. I am not familiar with Lawrence Hill but I see that he is Canadian. I will check him out.

  4. Ps. Adding Adichie too

    1. I love Adichie! I didn't add her because technically she is, I think, Nigerian. She has lived in America though and added her voice to the situation in a fabulous way.

  5. Yeah I forgot your list was meant to be Americans though I see that Zadie Smith sneaked onto the list. She's deserving though.

    1. Ah, you caught that! Zadie got on the list because one of her novels, the first one I read, On Beauty, is set in America and features a mixed race couple.

  6. Definitely on my MUST READS lists! Glad u enjoyed this one.