In October (2017), Jesmyn Ward was awarded one of the twenty four MacArthur “Genius” Grants for 2017. Awarded annually since 1981, the grants are given to Americans deemed to be “intelligent, creative, driven, and doing important work.”
In addition to the honor, the award includes $625,000 paid over five years. In announcing the grant, the MacArthur Foundation praised Ward as a “fiction writer exploring the bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans in the rural South.”
Ward was raised in DeLisle, a community separated from Pass Christian by the Wolf River Marsh Coastal Preserve. Ward returned to DeLisle after receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University followed by an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan.
A DeLisle-like community, Bois Savage, is the setting for Ward’s three novels. She won recognition for her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, but her second novel, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award. Her third, Sing Unburied, Sing, was released in September, 2017 to universal praise from readers and critics alike. I believe it to be her finest writing to date.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is told from three points of view: JoJo, a 13-year-old mixed-race boy, his unreliable mother, Leonie, and Richie, a ghost. JoJo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their maternal grandparents because Leonie has a drug problem and their white father is in Parchman Prison for distributing meth. Pop and Mam provide a stable and loving home for the children, but Mam is dying of cancer.
Leonie decides to take her children to the Delta when her husband, Michael, is released from Parchman. Leonie’s drug sharing friend, Misty, joins them. The road trip occupies much of the story with constant misadventures.
In spite of troubled lives, this is a book filled with love. Pop is a strong father figure attempting to prepare JoJo for manhood. I flagged several well-written accounts of their relationship such as this passage that occurred between Pop and JoJo prior to the road trip:
“You a man, you hear?” he said. I nodded…Pop with his straight shoulders and
his tall back, his pleading eyes the only thing that spoke to me in that moment
and told me what he said without words: I love you, boy. I love you.
Because Mam is dying, JoJo is the primary caregiver of Kayla, a job he accepts with tenderness and responsibility. Their relationship troubles Leonie because Kayla seeks comfort from JoJo instead of her. Leonie and Michael are difficult to like because they love each other more than their almost abandoned children. Surprisingly, Leonie makes a good narrator in the chapters written in her voice. She brings Mam to life remembering her as a wise woman passing along extensive knowledge of herbal medicine and folk remedies.
In addition to three novels, Jesmyn Ward wrote a nonfiction book, The Men We Reaped, and edited The Fire This Time which I wrote about in the October, 2016 Bay Reads column. Pass Christian’s community reading program, One Book One Pass, chose The Fire This Time as their selection for 2017. Events were planned throughout the year culminating in a discussion and reading by the author on October 18.