Before Reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

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Before Reading “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

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For my Survey of American Literature class, I’m reading the novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward, who came to the college this past January for a reading and interview about her gold sticker prize donned book. In analyzing literature with professor Markovitz, who acted as the Q&A moderator for this event, has taught me anything, it’s that context matters before opening a book. Just peering into the lives of writers gives you a better understanding of why they wrote what they wrote and more info when studying their work with whatever literary lens you use. It’s what I and other curious questionaires, the ones who’ve read, are reading, and haven’t read asked Ward gave us her words.

“Black men are so maligned in the public imagination. They’re killed and put on trial for their own deaths,” Ward said, in response to a question about the male protagonist in her novel. “In my work, what I want to do is write against that and write about black men, women, and children and make them as human as I possibly can.”

“It takes a black writer to know a black writer,” I thought as Markovitz handed the microphone to another inquiring mind.

“I am an aspiring psychologist and I’m wondering how mental health played a role for you in writing this book?” a psychoanalytical race theorist and therapist asked, also curious about her use of voodoo and how that has been connected to mental health and the black community.

“With this project, I thought a lot about mental health,” Ward responded. “What does it do?” she asked when taking the lack of proper mental health care into consideration. “When I look at my family and community, I see a lot of people who are struggling with their mental health and they’re not getting any help … and the institutions aren’t making it any easier [for black people] to get help.” In terms of voodoo and spiritual conditions, Ward uses them in her novel as a way to combat the lack of mental health, the same way her ancestors did. “One of the reasons spiritual traditions are so important in the black community, it helps us live through trauma.” Perfectly appropriate, given that it was gospel that got slaves through working on the plantation, and like that, Parchman Prison, now Mississippi State Penitentiary, is in “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” a prison that mirrored a slave plantation.

Along with the children in another Jesmyn Ward book, “Salvage The Bones”, “Jojo is wise beyond [his] years and do you think that these characters are like that because they’re forced to be parents or because children, in general, are underestimated” asked by likely another psychoanalytical theorist. “I think children are very perceptive and are able to put things together in a way that surprise adult.” Ward paints children in her novels with a brush that makes them “bare adult burdens” as she said responding to the interviewer. “As a writer, I like to think that characters can be uneducated … yet, I’d like to believe that limits  the way they perceive the world.”

Ending with a book signing by the woman herself, including by the writer of this article who asked her if there was a moral to expect before my read. I had just bought the book that day and with the words of Ward, I think I’ll have plenty to look out for.


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