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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