— Before the two National Book Awards and the
MacArthur "Genius" Grant, before the critics
called her "one of the most important American
writers today," Jesmyn Ward was an intern at
Pacific Northwest Ballet for a year.
I got over the summer weather," she said of our
lack of humidity, "I loved it. I’m used to
is used to Mississippi everything, which is why her
books—including her latest and third novel,
"Sing, Unburied, Sing"—are steeped in the
spirit, struggle and vernacular of the Black South. More
composed than written, Ward’s books are filled with
characters that readers embrace for their humanity,
flaws and heart—and the promise that can be seen in
the faces of children.
has really been overwhelming," Ward said of the
last year. "I was on book tour this year with ‘Sing’
and then it didn’t slow down and then in November I
learned about the National Book Award.
is a lot," she said with a laugh. "I don’t
think I have come to terms with it."
"Sing, Unburied, Sing," the author introduces
us to a wide range of characters both living and dead.
They include a 13-year-old Mississippi boy named Jojo,
whose neglectful mother, Leonie, is a drug addict and
whose father is in prison. Jojo and his 3-year-old
sister have been raised, for the most part, by their
loving black grandparents.
the way to visit their father, a white meth dealer, the
dysfunctional little family is visited upon by two
ghosts—one of them a boy who died in the very same
penitentiary where Jojo’s father sits; and the other,
Leonie’s brother Given, who was killed in a hunting
characters are also haunted by racism and poverty, and
the pain and precariousness that result. Their story is
told in Ward’s magical prose, which stirs up a mix of
sadness and charm and—when Jojo is narrating—hope.
like to say that I don’t write about people that I
know, but people that I might know," Ward said.
"They are informed by the people I grew up with,
people who are in my family."
lost her younger brother to a drunken driver in 2000.
She started writing as a way to honor him. She has said
that Given, Leonie’s dead brother, wasn’t a nod to
her brother. But she knows Leonie’s pain.
was nervous about Given’s character," Ward said.
"I hesitated in the beginning. I think I balked a
little bit about writing him, but if I can make him take
on his own life, and have Leonie take on her own life,
then they will be their own people."
is an associate professor of English at Tulane
University but took the semester off after she won the
American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Strauss Living
award, which requires that she focus on her writing for
supposed to live, and to write," Ward said.
"You’re supposed to write a complete manuscript,
which I have not done. But I am working on it."
understand, of course, when you hear one of Ward’s two
young children in the background. (Her daughter is 5 and
her son just turned 1.) She lives in the town where she
grew up, DeLisle, Mississippi, with her longtime
boyfriend. Her mother, Noreen, lives nearby.
with its acclaim and awards, "Sing, Unburied,
Sing" is the first selection for "Now Read
This," the new PBS NewsHour-New York Times Book
a timely choice, considering not only its recent
accolades, but also the country’s racial divide:
Charlottesville, police shootings.
she feel her stories are the ones people need to read to
better understand and relate to each other?
definitely feel a sense of responsibility because of who
I wrote about," Ward said. "And I think that’s
a natural. That naturally occurs because the people I
wrote about are marginalized.
it’s not as if my success or the current political
climate has made this sense of responsibility," she
continues. "This isn’t a recent thing."
Ward began writing in her 20s, she said, "I was
writing for black people. I wanted black people to read
the same time, she was writing for the kind of people
who attended the private, Episcopalian high school where
she endured bullying and racism.
wanted the kind of kids I had gone to school with to see
us and to see me as human beings," Ward said.
"And as I wrote more and as I began to publish and
meet readers, I realized that my ideas and my view of
who my audience could be was narrow. I needed to expand
remembered going to a book festival in New Zealand in
2011 with her second novel, "Salvage the
Bones," and meeting readers who had survived the
Christchurch earthquake, which killed 185 people and
injured several thousand.
had survived this horrible disaster and were relating to
characters they had nothing in common with," Ward
recalled. "These people could find a kinship with
them. There was a shared humanity there.
I think there are some important things that my books