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Jesmyn Ward answers your questions about ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’

Award-winning writer Jesmyn Ward joins Jeffrey Brown to answer readers’ questions about her novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” the first selection in the Now Read This book club, plus we announce what we’ll be reading for next month.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we want to catch up with many of you and our new book club.

    It is our joint effort with The New York Times called Now Read This.

    We launched it just a few weeks ago, got a great response from many viewers who joined, and we promised at the time that authors would answer some of your questions.

    Tonight, Jeffrey Brown returns with those and our author of the month, and he announces next month's selection.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I want to begin with a big thank you to all who joined us for Now Read This and read along and sent in thoughts and questions.

    Our first book, the novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing," is set near the Mississippi Gulf Coast. It has themes that feel as up to the minute as today's news, but it's also a ghost story. The dead in several cases do not stay dead. It recently received the National Book Award.

    And, Jesmyn Ward, congratulations to you for that, and thank you for helping us to get off to such a great start.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This was a pleasure to have you as our first book in the new book club.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    Yes, I'm really honored and grateful. So, thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, we asked people to send in questions. And we're going to get right to that for this portion of our talk.

    And let's go to the first couple of questions. There were a number that were about how your work connects to your life.

    Let's look at a couple.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    OK.

  • Mary Ellen Ziegler:

    I'm Mary Ellen Ziegler from the Chicago area.

    And I wanted to ask if you based your characters on family or extended family.

  • Jackie Hamblet:

    My name is Jackie Hamblet. I'm from Glen, New Hampshire. And I would like to ask the author how her experiences with racism affected this story.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    I don't really base any of my characters on specific people that I know, although my characters are informed by the kind of people who live in my community.

    And when I say that, I mean I mostly write about, you know, poor people, black people, Southerners. And those are the kind of people that make up my community. So those are the kind of people that I write about.

    As far as the second part, the second question, I have struggled with racism and I guess been the object of racist bullying, especially when I was younger. And so — and I think that my awareness of racism definitely informs my work and informs what my characters go through and what they struggle with.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK, I mentioned that there are ghosts in this story. And a number of people wrote us to and sent in questions about the supernatural element.

    Let's look at those.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    OK.

  • Terry Margherita:

    I am Terry Margherita from Colgate, Wisconsin.

    Spirits in fiction can be fantastical, as they are in "A Christmas Carol," but yours remind me more of the ghosts in "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

    Can you tell me what influenced you to give ghosts such an important role in "Sing, Unburied, Sing"?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jesmyn?

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    So, I knew from the very beginning that the characters would travel to Parchman Prison. And I knew nothing about Parchman Prison.

    And so when I began to read about Parchman Prison Farm, I read that, in the 1940s, that kids, black boys, children as young as 12 were charged with petty crimes, like vagrancy or theft or loitering, and they were sent to Parchman Prison Farm, right, where they were basically reenslaved.

    And I was so shocked by that fact and also horrified that I didn't know about it beforehand. And I immediately felt very strongly for these children, right, who in some ways had been erased from history.

    So I thought, well, I really want to write about a 12-year-old kid. You know, I really want to write a character who endured this, but who is able to interact with Jojo, who is able to have some sort of agency that that person didn't have when they were alive.

    And I figured out that the only way that I could do that was by making that character, this 12-year-old kid who had been to Parchman in the '40s, making that character into a ghost.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Come back to life.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    Exactly.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You tackle some difficult subjects. And we got questions about that.

    Here is one of them.

  • Kiersten Lawson:

    I'm Kiersten Lawson from Portland Oregon.

    Some Facebook readers have said they cannot recommend or enjoy this novel, no matter how beautifully written, because of the painful realities that it delves into.

    My question for Ms. Ward is, what is your take on a writer's or a reader's accountability to plumb uncomfortable depths in art? And has your take on this changed at all as the world has grown increasingly distracted and divisive?

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    That is a really good question.

    And I understand that — and I do it too, right? As a reader, sometimes, I just want to not think. You know, I want to read something that is purely enjoyable, that is like escapist.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Escape, yes.

  • Jesmyn Ward:

    As an artist, I feel a certain responsibility to write about difficult subject matter.

    I mean, I am a black person from the South, right? And so I come from a place and from a community where often people's lives are really hard. I mean, they're living with the — you know, the difficult things that I am writing about. You know, they are living with addiction, they're living with grief.

    So I feel a certain responsibility. If I'm choosing to write about the people that I write about, then I have to be honest about their lives and about what they are living through.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, we will continue with our questions, more questions from readers.

    But we will do that, so readers and viewers can watch the full conversation online and on our Now Read This Facebook page. We invite to you go there later.

    Before we, though, I get to announce our book club choice for February. We are switching gears to nonfiction with a real-life murder mystery in a fascinating, but lesser known period in American history. The book is "Killers of the Flower Moon- The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI."

    It's by David Grann. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker.

    And we will have reader's guides and more material on the book and author and, of course, an interview with David Grann at the end of the month. I hope will you read along with us.

    And, for now, thank you again for joining Now Read This.

    And thank you, Jesmyn Ward. Thanks very much.

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