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Jesmyn Ward on the moment in ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ that changes her character forever

Below, Jesmyn Ward isolates a pivotal moment from her novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” and explains the writing choices she made.

The scene takes place during a traffic stop. The family has just been pulled over, the mother Leonie has swallowed a small bag of methamphetamine to hide the evidence, and a police officer has handcuffed Leonie, her boyfriend, Michael, and their 13-year-old son Jojo, as 3-year-old Michaela cries and calls out for her brother. When Jojo reaches for his pocket, the officer points a gun to his face.

The novel is written from various perspectives, and the page below is from a chapter narrated by Leonie.

Click on the highlighted words to see Ward’s insights.

From page 164

…the sound raw and carrying in the air, and Jojo shakes his head without pausing and staggers when the officer kicks his legs apart, the gun a little lower now, but still pointing to the middle of his back. I blink and I see the bullet cleaving the soft butter of him. I shake. When I open my eyes again, Jojo’s still whole. Now on his knees, the gun pointing at his head. Michaela thrashes against Misty.

“Sonofabitch!” Misty screams, and drops Michaela, who runs to Jojo, throws herself on his back, and wraps herself, arms and legs, around him. Her little bones: crayons and marbles. A shield. I’m on my knees.

“No,” Michael says. “Don’t, Leonie. Baby, don’t.”

I snap. Imagine my teeth on the officer’s neck. I could rip his throat. I don’t need hands. I could kick his skull soft. Jojo slumps forward into the grass, and the cop is shaking his head, reaching under Michaela, who kicks at him, to cuff Jojo with one hand. He motions to Misty, who runs forward and grips Michaela under her armpits, wrestles her like an alligator.

“Jojo!” Michaela screams. “Have Jojo!”

The officer stands in front of me again.

“I need your permission to search the car, ma’am.”

“Take me out of these cuffs.” If he would come close enough, I could head-butt him blind.

“Is that a yes, ma’am?”

I swallow, breathe. Air shallow as a muddy puddle.


Jojo only has eyes for Michaela. He twists his neck to look at her, speaks to her, his voice another murmuring, like the trees as they sway in the wind. The clouds, like…