Jesmyn Ward will forever be one of my favourite authors. Her writing is simply like no other. Gritty, bleak, palpable, physical, and fertile all at once. In her novels, the American South is brilliantly brought to life; a great big centrifugal force that demands acute attention and which takes undeniable inspiration from the strange and disturbing ghost stories of Charles W. Chesnutt; one of the great writers of the Gothic South.
In Ward’s case, nature becomes a vehicle through which she can fiercely declare the visibility of her characters. By visibility, I am referring to the character’s humanity, their sentience and mortality. In a world where her characters are often invisible, Ward vehemently declares their visibility. Like her characters, nature becomes this wild and unmanageable force that defies cultivation and demands immediate acknowledgement. In nature, past, present and future collapses.
This is no different in Ward’s third novel ‘Sing Unburied Sing’ which uses nature as a vehicle through which she can explore the ghostly vestiges of African-American history. Nature is the omniscient overseer that possesses a pure and objective, collective memory that flagrantly admits to the brutality and inhumanity that underpins the American South. It refuses to be silenced: it sings and bleeds and multiplies. It is unrestrained and harsh; it is the ultimate trace of ‘what was’ which refuses to buried.
In ‘Sing Unburied Sing’, Ward uses this familiar trope to tell the story of a broken family, living in the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. As with her other novels, ‘Salvage the Bones’ and ‘Where the Line Bleeds’, Ward takes the seemingly negligible minutiae of one family’s life and reimagines it in truly extraordinary fashion. In this outstanding piece of writing, Ward takes an ordinary family’s life and realises it in spectacular, Wagnerian terms. I use the word ‘Wagnerian’, because I believe that Ward takes the often neglected and ignored parts of society, and extrapolates them in a fashion that can only be compared the grandness of a western opera.
As the family grapple with the seemingly normal existence of drug-addition, poverty, disease, racism and injustice, Ward makes a comment on the history of African-American slavery and how it irrevocably creeps from the past, into the present and on into the future. This of course, is deeply entrenched in the natural landscape which, as Ward demonstrates again and again, is the ultimate witness of that which has passed throughout history.
Words By: James Glover