“Ghosts are unfinished business,” says American author Jesmyn Ward, “and as black people in a country that formerly enslaved us, we have a lot of that.”
Her third novel Sing, Unburied, Sing is haunted by such ghosts. Its narrators, 13-year-old Jojo and his drug addict mother Leonie, can see them: a black boy murdered in prison at 12; Leonie’s 19-year-old brother Given, who was shot dead by a white man and who appears to her when she takes cocaine; Ward’s younger brother was killed by a drunk driver when he was 19.
He is one of five men in her life who died young, whom she writes about in her 2013 memoir Men We Reaped. In an email interview, she says she still feels his presence, although not in the ways that her characters experience their ghosts. “There’s comfort in imagining a visit from my brother. I would love that.”
Ward, 40, made history in November 2017 by becoming the first woman to win two US National Book Awards in Fiction, one of America’s most prestigious literary prizes.
She says of her win: “I hope that it indicates a growing interest in a wider array of stories. I hope we are moving in a direction where the definition of ‘universal’ is expanding, where it can contain stories about people of colour, working-class people and women.”
She first won the award in 2011 with her second novel, Salvage The Bones, told through the eyes of a pregnant black teenager as she and her desperately impoverished family struggle to prepare for Hurricane Katrina.
Ward’s rural home town of DeLisle, Mississippi, was hit by Katrina in 2005. Her house was flooded; she and her family managed to reach their truck and drive to the house of a neighbouring white family, who refused to let them in.
DeLisle and its inhabitants are the inspiration for the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage, the setting for all her novels so far. “I write about my people – black people, Southerners – and what we live through.”
Her mother was a maid who cleaned for her classmate’s family, who sponsored her tuition at private school. She was the first in her family to attend college, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master of Arts in media studies and communication from Stanford University, followed by a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Michigan.
Last year, she received a MacArthur “genius grant” of US$625,000 (RM2.4m), to be paid out over five years in support of her creative pursuits. Ward counts among her inspirations William Faulkner, that literary giant of the American South.
“And yet his black characters weren’t as fully developed,” she observes. “I thought, there’s space for me there. That’s something I can add to the tradition of Southern literature – black characters whose inner lives are real and varied as mine, as the people I grew up with.”
It was Jojo, caught between the private struggle of identity and the enormous weight of history, who first drew her into Sing, Unburied, Sing. She found it much harder to write from the perspective of his neglectful mother Leonie.
“As I understood her motivations better, it became easier,” says Ward, who has a daughter, six, and a son, one, with her partner. “But, nevertheless, it was hard to write a mother being so awful to her children.
“In the end, I decided that she had such unresolved grief from her brother’s death and all the ways she thinks she’s disappointed her parents that she couldn’t re-focus on her children. She’s someone who’s been so marked by loss that she hasn’t found a way to move forward.”
Jojo and his sister Kayla are forced to accompany Leonie on a road trip – which doubles as a drug run – to collect their white father Michael from Parchman Prison. While researching the infamous prison, Ward read that in the 1940s, black boys as young as 12 were charged with petty crimes and imprisoned there, where they were essentially re-enslaved and tortured.
“I felt immediately that I had to write about one of those children and the only way to do it while really giving that character agency, allowing him to interact with the other characters, was by making him into a ghost,” she says.
Thus she created the character of Richie, a phantom 12-year-old inmate who insistently follows Jojo back home.
“I wanted to write about voodoo, too, because it’s also part of the culture of the African diaspora and it’s been so maligned in popular culture. We have a strong, complex spiritual tradition and I wanted my work to reflect that.”
The current political atmosphere under Donald Trump has made her angrier and, accordingly, more vocal on social media.
“There have been many ignorant and insensitive utterances from the White House in this last year. We are, sadly, coming to expect it. It’s infuriating and frustrating and I hope we can make some changes in our mid-term elections that will lead to changes for the next presidential election.”
What she wants people to do in response to such frustration is to keep making art. She is working on a fourth novel set in New Orleans, at the height of the domestic slave trade before the American Civil War (1861-1865).
“It’s a hard world to write into because the characters are experiencing so much pain and loss. But it’s also a world that I want to make visible to readers. Living with the constant presence of racism and loss is an emotionally devastating experience.
“Part of what I want to do with my fiction is reflect black children’s experiences back at them, to show their complexity and depth.” – Olivia Ho/The Straits Times/Asia News Network