Jesmyn Ward, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” (2017) (read by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rutina Wesley, and Chris Chalk) – This is a perfectly decent example of contemporary literature! Ward tells the story of a young mixed-race boy named John, his black mother Leonie, and some bad trips, both physical and psychological, that they take. The story is set in more or less contemporary Mississippi. Leonie and Jojo live with Leonie’s elderly parents in a rural part of the Gulf Coast. The two take a trip with Jojo’s toddler sister Kayla and a friend of Leonie’s north to Parchman, the ex-plantation prison where Leonie’s lover and Jojo and Kayla’s white dad, Michael, is being released after serving a stint for drug dealing.
Parchman, Angola, Sugarland… I’m aware that the prisons of the north, your Atticas, Sing-Sings, Norfolks, are no happy valleys, but those old southern plantation-prisons skeeve this New Englander right the fuck out. Ward leans into that haunting feeling. Jojo’s grandfather did time in Parchman and tells the boys stories that never seem to come to a conclusion. On the way up to the prison, the travelers encounter many of the inconveniences that come with life when you’re poor. Car trouble, police trouble, drug trouble, above all puking baby trouble. It is a genuinely uncomfortable ride, in a highly relatable, human way that Ward gets across effortlessly.
Leonie was the most interesting character for me, especially because she is a rare thing in literature: a bad mother, portrayed unsentimentally (the voice actor puts a little “poet voice” in her, all breathy, but it comes to work for the character) but sympathetically. Is there any more agreed-upon villain than the bad mom? Whole theories of crime, of civilizational collapse, have been placed on her head! Murderers can be made cool and relatable, terrorists, thieves, seemingly every crime under the sun, but not a shitty, selfish, indifferent mother (as someone whose mother is none of these things, I relate to why people would be repelled). So Leonie is interesting- she’s those things because she is weak. Aspects of her life that tried to make up for her weakness just mire her further: she genuinely loves Michael, and so has babies with him that she can’t properly care for. Guilt over that makes her mothering worse. Guilt and trauma — her brother was murdered, her lover arrested and imprisoned — drive her to drug abuse, which doesn’t help anything. Some people don’t have what it takes to raise kids. It doesn’t make them evil. They probably shouldn’t then have kids, but people make mistakes. Ward conveys well the weird lassitude of the structurally fucked.
Ward’s humans are humans, and so are her ghosts. The family is immersed in the supernatural traditions of the black people of the Gulf area. Leonie’s mother (dying of cancer- no one has a good life in this book with the possible exception of a crooked white druggie lawyer) practices conjurings and prays to the divine feminine in various forms. Leonie sees her brother’s murdered ghost when she gets high. Jojo has a more impertinent ghost problem- the ghost of a Parchman inmate, who did time with his grandpa, following him home from the jail. Jojo doesn’t want to deal with ghosts, he’s only thirteen and has to take care of a toddler most of the time because of his weak mom and absent dad. He tries to find ways to get rid of him. Terrible revelations from his granddad are what the ghost is after, but he doesn’t go away, and soon enough Jojo is seeing more ghosts, all the black lives ended by violence in that cursed part of the world.
All in all, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” was pretty good. Being me, I preferred the human parts to the ghostly. But the ghosts weren’t too much of an intrusion. Mississippi is probably roughly midway on my list of states to visit — mostly as a fan of blues music, I’d like to see the Delta — but this didn’t exactly light a fire under me to go, more due to its painfully vivid summoning up of inconveniences (you really, really want to get that baby some pepto or dimetap or something) than its horrors. It’s good to see literature carrying on. ****’