Book review

Black meets white in a novel from America that matters to Indians because of race

Jesmyn Ward’s new novel is again in the running for the National Book Award in the US.

“The little White boy waves his stick in the air, and then grabs it with both hands, pointing it like a rifle. His blond hair sticks to his head, curls into his eyes like worms. “Pow pow,” he says. He is shooting at us.”

This book struck me as three things: cinematic, tragic, and unreal. The road novel is a genre of fiction, true, but somehow the audiovisual component to such writing, in my mind, is always exactly that: audiovisual – very audible and very visible. I could see everything: the dirty cars eat to which baby Kayla must have been strapped, the stolen saltines hidden by Jojo, disappearing into the cracks of the back seat, Misty’s foot in the front seat tapping casually against the secret compartment where the meth is hidden, and the various stops the family makes, surrounded always by flowers and trees and strange, addicted people.

Sing, Unburied, Sing – now longlisted for the National Book Award in the USA, an award that its writer Jesmyn Ward has already won in 2011 for her second novel, Salvage The Bones – gives us the lives of a black family (or, as the lives themselves would put it, a Black family.) It tells us what happens when these lives embark on a journey to receive a newly freed “White” man.

The passengers

Our hero is Jojo, a golden-hearted, oxidised thirteen-year-old we only love more and more as the story progresses. Jojo lives with his sister Kayla, his mother Leonie, and her old parents, Mam and Pop, in a dilapidated, isolated house somewhere in the wild heart of Mississippi. Jojo’s family is surrounded by other Jojo’s families: crumbling households nursing old hurts and working alongside drug addiction and alcohol abuse, raising families even as their own blood runs thin.

Our hatred for Leonie grows almost organically: she is an awful mother, cloying and nostalgic in the wrongest of moments, still hormonal about her currently incarcerated white boyfriend, a woman who runs ahead facing backwards, trampling over others as she goes. Leonie is that person whose existence can form a big list of admonishments for sensible parents to read to their kids: don’t do drugs, don’t get pregnant just because you want some children that look like your sexy boyfriend, and don’t do drugs. Jojo sums it up for us when he chillingly declares, in his adolescent, hardened grammar, “Leonie kill things.”

We watch this family on the move as they travel to the ominous Parchman Farm, a penitentiary where Leonie’s white boyfriend and Jojo’s father, Michael, is getting released from prison. The narrative gives us alternating voices, first Jojo, then Leonie, then Jojo again, until we are also given Richie. Richie is where the novel’s sharp, agonising unreality comes from: he is a ghost, the ghost of a young boy ruthlessly killed at Parchman Farm several years ago. Visible only to Jojo because of stories Pop told him, Richie seems to make reality unbearable for Jojo only in order to show him how unbearable it always was.

What Jojo thinks

The novel can be criticised on counts of occasionally ornate language, and a tendency towards the overblown when what Ward is really going for is a slicing, undercutting voice. But these seem forgivable in the light of the work as a whole. Ward is dealing with brutal questions of race and gender, and equally so of class, and with an adept lyricism, she traces their genealogies as they rise from unalterable historical truths and morph into deadening, deepening, daily facts of life, like addiction, disease, and murder.

It is worth citing a few instances to illustrate Ward’s sensibility. The first is the opening scene, in Jojo’s voice: he and his grandfather, known as Pop (his actual name is River) trek through the darkness, enter a shed, and kill a goat for the days ahead. Of the many sharp, memorable things Jojo has to confide in us, this is one example: “I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years, so Pop will know I’m ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody.” But only a page later, Jojo admits, “…then I look at Pop, who’s already snapping the skin of the end of the goat’s foot, and I know my wondering’s made me slow.” Instead of getting bloody, Jojo, surrounded by gore and an animal’s helplessness, has got to thinking. The scene ends with him throwing up outside the shed. Nobody, including us, is surprised.

About a hundred pages later, Jojo, Leonie, little Kayla, and Leonie’s friend Misty are on a highway, on their way to see Michael. Kayla starts crying and throwing up some electric-blue power drink Leonie has fed her, and Leonie’s solution to her daughter’s throwing up is to feed her the same thing again. This takes place three times, and on each occasion the baby cannot keep down the blue drink and throws it up.

Finally, Leonie stops the car on the roadside and goes off in search of blackberry leaves to put into a tea. Her mother apparently has healing powers and an extra-sensory awareness of nature’s healing processes, and Leonie assumes it is inside of herself as well. Jojo, as he observes this, once again defiantly confides in his audience: “I know that’s what she thinks she need to do, but she ain’t Mam. She ain’t Pop. She ain’t never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don’t know.”

And then there’s the quote at the beginning of this review, where Jojo observes, from the parked car, a little white boy playing gun-gun violence-violence with a branch. The scene goes on to show the white child as particularly destructive – he smashes the TV in his mother’s RV, and is consequently thrashed for it. Jojo has little else to do but observe that RV, which, he notes, is stocked not only with food, but also with appliances.

A historical reminder

The black family leaves this fortified white family in the middle of nowhere and resumes its journey, but the thankfully brief presence of the little white boy and his family serve as a miniature encapsulating historical reminder, something this novel can also be called. In Ward’s world, where there only exist poor white people and poor black people, the fundamental truth is still that some people are poorer than the others. Every paradigm of understanding the world – gender, race, sexuality, age – is mercilessly subdivided, fragmented, juxtaposed, even, to expose love as both possibility and miracle.

As Richie’s ghost demonstrates, faith in this novel is unconvincing enough to seem wrong. The road, standing in for both life and death, stretches as far along as you think you can go. But Jojo is only thirteen, his life is only just beginning. Ward plants in us a need to imagine what Jojo’s pitstops will be, and whether his detours will be as bad as those of his parents’. And the need that we feel by the end, to protect Jojo, to draw him a perfect map, is more than reason enough to admire and love this novel.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.