Jesmyn Ward is highly decorated. At a recent reading, the roll call of her awards felt like they’d fill the full hour; that day's shortlisting for The Women’s Prize for Fiction was tagged to the end of an already weighty list.
But this Mississippi author was once rejected by book agents who thought her literary stories of impoverished black lives in America’s Deep South would fail to resonate. Instead, she’s not only articulated the struggles and personalities of those previously stripped of a voice, but found something universal in all of them.
Before the Black Lives Matter movement took hold, Ward had already published her memoir, The Men We Reaped. It told the story of five friends and relatives, including her brother — all young, black and male, all lost to accidents, murder or suicide.
Now, she’s releasing more non-fiction, The Fire This Time, an edited collection of writing about race; and her latest novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, which tells the story of a 13 year-old boy, Jojo, and his drug-addicted mother, Leonie, as they travel to collect his father from prison. And to mix things up a bit, there are ghosts.
Read our review of Sing, Unburied, Sing here.
Ward talks about her fictional characters as though they’re real people she’s met — she’s surprised by their decisions and brimming with compassion for them. Her books are also dripping with a palpable atmosphere. She told Those Precious Stolen Moments why that claustrophobic setting is always present in her work.
Lucy: As you live your everyday life, are you constantly tuned in to atmosphere?
Jesmyn: Yes, in a literal sense I guess, and in a figurative one. In a literal sense, because the air is so heavy in the South. When you combine heat with 100% humidity the air is a physical thing, you feel it. You step out of your door in the summer and its almost as if the air just embraces you. And sometimes that embrace is not so kind.
But also in a figurative sense, because I think one of the skills, or character traits, that writers have is that they’re observant people. They sit, and they look, and they listen, and they perceive, and they try to understand the story behind the stories that they see. So, I think that’s a part of who I am.
"When I was growing up I heard lots of ghost stories from people in my family."
I also did a lot of driving when I was at The University of Mississippi, at Oxford. That’s in the far north of the state, and where I am from is the southern most tip of the state, and so I would drive back and forth. I was observing how things were different the father north you’d get. I knew how the landscape changed, and maybe how the people changed, and the interactions I had with them, they differed. So I used a lot of that in Sing, Unburied, Sing.
L: Sing, Unburied, Sing features two main ghosts: Richie, a boy who died in Parchman Prison, and Given, Leonie’s murdered brother.
You’ve said you didn’t know you were writing a ghost story until you got to Chapter Five, but there’s other magic in the book. Did Jojo always hear the voices of animals for example?
J: Yes. He always looked at animals and thought he understood what they were saying to him. Mam [Leonie’s mother] always was going to be a little mystical — she practices voodoo and hoodoo and herbal medicine, and they were always facets of her character that I knew from the very beginning.
The reason I didn’t know it was a ghost story was because, for one, Richie didn’t exist as a character until I found out about 12 year-old boys being re-enslaved, basically, at Parchman Prison. And the other reason I didn’t know it was a ghost story, was because when I was working on the first draft of the book, Leonie was not seeing Given, she didn’t even have a brother. She was seeing a phantom of Michael [Jojo’s father]. I was playing around with the idea and I thought, ‘Oh, she’ll just see him when she gets high.’ At that point he’s just this figment of her imagination, an embodiment of her longing.
Then, when I discovered Richie, and realised he was going to be a ghost, then I looked back at the phantom Michael. It couldn’t be a phantom Michael, because he’s not doing any work in the narrative, he’s not telling us anything. So I thought, ‘Well, since I’ve already gone off the deep end and I’m writing about magic, and psychic powers, and the afterworld, and ghosts — why can’t he be a ghost?’
So yes, some of it I knew at the very beginning, and some of it I came to as I was learning more about the characters, the world they lived in, and the rules for that world, and what was possible in that world.
L: To someone like me, who's never been there, it feels like there might be more ghosts in the American South — is the idea of magic different there?
J: It’s famous for that! People often write about ghosts in the South. New Orleans is ghost central, there are ghost tours through the French Quarter.
And then, when I was growing up I heard lots of ghost stories from people in my family. The earliest one I remember hearing was my great-grandmother, her name was Ellen, and she would tell this story. Her husband died when she was young, and she would always tell us this story: she was asleep, and she woke up, and she saw him in the room that she was in, and he began talking to her. And she would always tell us how surprised she was to see him, and how surprised that he said the things that he said. And, of course, now I cannot remember what he said! I just remember being a kid and listening to her.
"We see it with Tamir Rice — twelve years old — and he's not afforded that natural tenderness that’s granted to children. He’s not granted that careful consideration and tenderness, and that is really heartbreaking to me."
L: As a kid, did you just take for granted that what she said was true?
J: Yeah! I was like: ‘Oh my God’ I was sort of surprised, but I think I was like ‘Okay, so there are ghosts, and sometimes the people that you love, sometimes they come back. Sometimes they come back and they speak to you. I guess they have things that they need to tell you.’ And I just took it as reality. I accepted it, because it came from my great-grandmother and I respected her and that’s just the way things were.
L: Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story from both Jojo’s and Leonie’s perspective, laying bare the misunderstandings between them. Leonie is a bad mum, and its heartbreaking to see the gap between her intentions and her actions. Would you like the chance to let Jojo read Leonie’s chapters?
J: I would, I really would. Because, I think… you know, he doesn’t talk about reading much, but I think that it would be riveting for him. I think he would definitely feel for her, like I think most readers feel for her when you read her point of view here. You’re able to see all the ways that she struggles, and attempts to become a better person, in spite of her character flaws. Or become a healthier human being. So I would love to give him that opportunity.
L: The narrative feels timeless until their car is pulled over by the police. Suddenly, you’re right in the middle of contemporary politics. In your introduction to The Fire This Time, you talk about how the media failed to see Trayvon Martin as a child; is part of writing Jojo an attempt to say: ‘This is a young black child, this is who you’re not seeing’?
J: Yes. Yes. And that’s specifically why one of the few moments I knew would happen in Sing, Unburied, Sing, when I was writing the first couple of chapters of the rough draft, was that I knew that they would run into the police, and I knew that there would be heated situation, and I knew that there would be a moment in which the police would not see Jojo as a child.
That was one of the things that infuriated me, and horrified me, about Trayvon Martin, and his death, and what happened after his death. Because he was kid. He was baby, he was a child, and no-one recognised that. I mean some people did…his family did, a lot of people of African descent and people of colour did, but the people who control the narrative that was happening around his death definitely didn’t. They never called him a child. I was watching the news, and y’know they were reporting about him, and about the person who murdered him. They never called him a kid. He was ‘a weed smoker’, he was ‘a troublesome man’, but he was never a child, and that was really problematic for me, yes.
I think that some of that definitely motivated me to want to write about Jojo, and a character like Jojo. Because it’s so frustrating to me, and I feel like we see it again and again. Like with the 12-year-old who was shot for playing with the toy gun, Tamir Rice. So, we see it with Tamir Rice — twelve years old — and people talk about his death and, I don’t know, they don’t call him a child. He’s not afforded that natural tenderness that’s granted to children. He’s not granted that careful consideration and tenderness, and that is really heartbreaking to me. So, yeah, I think that a lot of my work is a response to that and pushing back against that.
L: In the book, at least, from Richie to Jojo, you portray things as getting better?
J: Yes? I mean kids aren’t enslaved. But they’re still locked up. There’s a lot of discussion in the U.S. right now about Juvenile Detentions Centres, and the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, and how kids are often charged with stupid things in school. Y’know, they get into a fight and they’re charged with assault. They’re basically sent to a children’s prison, and then that’s the start of a cycle. They’re marked, right, as a ‘behavioural problem’, a kid who will act out in violent ways. So then they’re policed, and they’re sent back again, and then they’re 18 and they’re sent to adult prison. So, yeah, it has gotten better, but it’s still ugly. There are ugly truths, I think, and realities that we’re not necessarily confronting. So, I feel like that’s part of my job, as a writer, to bring that to readers.
L: Is that a big responsibility?
J: It is, and it’s a little daunting. And I always feel a great responsibility to do it well. I try to do it well.