Jesmyn Ward's 'Sing, Unburied, Sing' is a ghost story about the real struggles of living


Judy Woodruff: And now a look at love, loss, class, race, and the mystical, all topics in Jesmyn Ward's latest novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing."

Recently named a MacArthur genius fellow, the Tulane University professor has been nominated for this year's National Book Award, an honor she previously won in 2011.

Jeffrey Brown visited her in Mississippi in the latest episode of our Race Matters series.

Jeffrey Brown: A late summer day in the small town of DeLisle near the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Jesmyn Ward plays in the yard with her 5-year-old daughter and her friend, while her infant son sleeps inside.

When Ward was a child growing up here herself, she was a voracious reader, especially of books about the adventures of young girls. But there was always something missing.

Jesmyn Ward: I would have liked to have had the chance to read about an 8- or 9-year-old girl of color who was having some amazing adventure in some magical place, right, so like not — and not bound by the world, the world that we live in.

Jeffrey Brown: Were you aware, though, even as a child that you were not — that story wasn't being told?

Jesmyn Ward: Yes. Yes, I was. And it made me very sad.


Jesmyn Ward: I don't know, because I think that when you see yourself reflected in literature, that it enlarges your ideas of what is possible for you.

And this is the DeLisle Bayou. Isn't it beautiful?

Jeffrey Brown: It's very beautiful.

In book after book, the 40-year-old Ward has been enlarging the world by focusing on a particular place and people, mostly black, rural, a Mississippi of rich family life and brutal poverty and racism.

Her 2011 National Book Award-winning novel, "Salvage the Bones" was a fictional account of Hurricane Katrina's very real toll on her community.

Jesmyn Ward: That storm taught me that everything you love, everything that means something to you can be taken away from you in five hours, six hours, and you have no control.

Jeffrey Brown: Ward's family, the extended group numbering now in the hundreds, has been in DeLisle for generations, and she lives within a few miles of her grandmother, mother and two sisters.

Jesmyn Ward: This is Scenic Drive. My mom worked in a house like one of these.

Jeffrey Brown: When Jesmyn was young, her mother, Norine, worked as a maid in nearby Pass Christian for a wealthy white family, who helped Jesmyn attend an Episcopal school, where she was often the only African-American.

Jesmyn Ward: On one hand, I was very conscious of the fact that my mom cleaned houses like this for a living, and that, historically, like, people like me didn't live in houses like this. We served in houses like this.

You know, I was just a teenage girl who loved her friends and wanted to have fun with them.

Jeffrey Brown: Her 2013 memoir, "Men We Reaped," told a darker story: a portrait of five young black men from her community who died violent deaths in a span of just a few years, one of them, her younger brother Joshua, killed in 2000 by a drunk driver. He was 19.

Jesmyn Ward: He didn't even make it to 20. In some ways, I write about him so much because it is also enabling him to live, both in my nonfiction, when I explicitly write about him, and then, of course, in my fiction, when he takes on life in my characters, in some ways.

Jeffrey Brown: Have you thought about how you have managed to create such an alternative life?

Jesmyn Ward: I do. And I think that sometimes I feel guilty about it, because I lived and because he died. And then with that life, you know, that I had, I did this thing. I did this really foolish thing.

Jeffrey Brown: You mean this thing of writing?

Jesmyn Ward: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: And getting out in the world in a different way?

Jesmyn Ward: Yes, yes. I did it for myself, because I love books, I love writing, I love literature, I love telling stories, I love creating.

But I think that, in some respects, I did it for my brother, too, because he's not here. And I don't know. I think that's an achievement, you know?

Jeffrey Brown: In her new novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," the dead, as ghost-like figures, are present in the lives of the living. The story is narrated by different characters, including a teenage boy who'd met a violent death in prison years before.

Jesmyn Ward: Most of my fiction is pretty realistic, right? And so here I was, you know, introducing the supernatural, introducing, like, the magical into my fiction, and it's a different kind of writing, right?

It's the kind of writing where you have to invent an entire world. It has to make sense. It has to be believable, right, to your reader.

Jeffrey Brown: But if Ward has added a few ghosts, she's also continued to ground her story in very real-world pain and problems, much like literary great William Faulkner, who also used his native Mississippi as a backdrop.

Jesmyn Ward: That's the world these characters live in. And in some sense, in some respects, it's the world that I live in, because I live in my hometown.

And there are many people that I know of in my hometown who are battling drug addiction, who are, you know, struggling with poverty, who are struggling with the fact that they have little to no access to quality health care.

Jeffrey Brown: What's very striking about your writing, though, is, while you're dealing with these very sort of hard, real issues, the writing itself is more poetic, including bringing in ghosts.

Jesmyn Ward: Ghosts.


Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

Jesmyn Ward: I feel like so many of the writers that I love have done that. Like, you know, I think about Faulkner's work, and here he is writing about poor white people. But the language is amazing. The structure can be so impressive and unexpected, and it can surprise you. So — but he's just one of many, right?

Jeffrey Brown: Well, he's a big one, especially here in Mississippi.

Jesmyn Ward: Yes, he's a big one. He's a big one, yes, yes, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Having left DeLisle to become the first in her family to attend college — she earned two degrees at Stanford and a master's at Michigan — Ward made a decision to return to raise her children.

Her books have a prominent spot in the Pass Christian bookstore. But she continues to balance what she loves and fears here.

Jesmyn Ward: One of the most important things that I want for my kids is, I want them to live. You know, I want them to live to see 21 and beyond.

And I don't necessarily know if this is the best place for that. I mean, even though there are all these wonderful things about raising my kids here. So, that is something that I struggle with, right, this choice that I have made to come back here and to stay. It's something that I struggle with all the time.

Jeffrey Brown: From DeLisle, Mississippi, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."

Judy Woodruff: And Jesmyn Ward is already starting her next work, an historical novel set amid the 1800s New Orleans slave trade.

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