Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Novel, Ward Jesmyn > Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Déjà Vu

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Déjà Vu

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (2017) French title: Le chant des revenants. Translated by Charles Recoursé.

This is a book I received in my monthly Kube subscription.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward takes us to a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. It’s owned by an African-American family. JoJo, 13 and his sister Kayla, 3, live with their maternal grandparents Mam and Pop. Their mother Leonie is a drug-addict and motherhood is only a second thought for her. Leonie married a white man, Michael, who is currently in prison. Michael’s parents are racist and never accepted Leonie as a daughter-in-law. They have never seen their grandchildren.

Mam is dying of cancer and Pop tries to hold everything together. JoJo has reached this pivotal age between childhood and adolescence when children appraise their parents and his parents’ value is down to zero. He even calls them by their first names. He understands he needs to grow up quickly. He does his best to help Pop, to take care of Kayla who relies on him and spend time with Mam.

After three years at Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitenciary, Michael is released on parole and Leonie decides to take her kids to a road trip accross the State to bring their father home.

Jesmyn Ward dives into this family’s past: their golden son Given was murdered at 18 by Michael’s cousin, Pop did time at Parchman too and Mam is a healer. Given’s death was masked as a hunting accident. Given visits Leonie when she’s high, both a soothing and a frightening figure in her life.

I know this book has won a lot of awards, that critics brought up comparisons to Toni Morrison and William Faulkner but honestly, I wasn’t blown away. I had a feeling of déjà vu that made me sigh with disappointment and weariness.

The structure of the book uses the several voices device. Like in Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult or Loyalties by Delphine de Vigan, narrators switch from one chapter to the other. It sounds more like fashion for contemporary fiction than an artistic choice and it made me long for a good old omniscient narrator.

The supranatural elements of the story didn’t agree with me either. The ghost of Given and the one of Richie, a young boy from Pop’s past, insinuate themselves in the livings’ lives. Both deaths have been masked into something else and the two boys don’t rest in peace. And it’s not new, I’m not fond of books with ghosts and haunted people.

The theme of the book itself isn’t really original. Maybe I’m just tired of Black/Indian/Aborigine children raised by worthless or absentee parents and who have to fend for themselves. There’s Blood by Tony Birch and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and now Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Each of these book is good in itself but reading the three within a year proved to be too much to me.

If you’ve read Sing, Unburied, Sing, I’ll be glad to discuss it with you in the comments.

For another vision of this novel, have a look at Buried In Print’s review.

  1. May 12, 2021 at 5:25 pm

    After taking on the creative writing world, it’s now the turn of the several voices device. What is up next for your criticism, Emma?! (Faulkner also uses several voices in As I lay dying, and the effect – combined with the language used – was quite dizzying).
    I haven’t read this particular one, but I did read “Salvage the bones” and was interested enough (mostly because of the storyline) to plan to follow it up with “Men we reaped”. I’m also not fond of ghosts and other supernatural creatures/events, so I sympathise with you on that one.

    Like

    • May 13, 2021 at 8:34 am

      I guess that almost three books in a row with several voices device got on my nerves. I thought “Again?” and sighed.
      Only future reads will tell what will get to me next.

      Are Ward’s other books in the same vein? Several voices and ghost stuff?
      The ghost elements reminded me of Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye.

      Like

      • May 13, 2021 at 8:01 pm

        I seem to remember there was only one narrator, a young teenager, for Salvage the bones, and no ghosts. I did enjoy the book so I recommend it, with the caveat that I’m not as familiar as you are with books on “Black/Indian/Aborigine children raised by worthless or absentee parents and who have to fend for themselves”!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. May 14, 2021 at 12:33 am

    I do wonder sometimes if those of us not belonging to these cultures really appreciate and grasp the richness and range of voices coming from them if the books focusing on their suffering seem to get so much of our attention.

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    • May 15, 2021 at 7:00 am

      It should be just another story about absentee parents or misfits, and this happens in all kind of social classes or communities. (Like Joe by Larry Brown)
      Other books talk about these communities’ suffering without needing dysfunctionning families as characters.

      And then, there’s the debate that, if I’m correct, Baldwin had with Wright. Baldwin wanted to be a writer. Not a writer of the black community hardship, just a writer. And that ambition gave us Giovanni’s Room and didn’t prevent him from writing If Beale Street Could Talk.

      Liked by 1 person

      • May 15, 2021 at 10:43 pm

        I take your point about the dysfunctional families. I’m just glad Baldwin and Wright wrote whatever they were inspired to write.

        What concerns me about how books from especially Black, Indigenous, Latinx communities and how they are marketed and recommended to white readers (in the US) is that sometimes it feels as though we’re being invited, not to understand, but to be a voyeur of their pain. If that makes sense. There’s just so much more there to explore, though the painful books are necessary too.

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        • May 16, 2021 at 9:13 pm

          I understand what you mean. The risk is that only these books get published.

          I’ve noticed something about German lit in France: I caricature but sometimes it seems that if it’s not about WWII, it doesn’t get translated.
          During German Lit Month, I see a lot of books available in English but not in French and we do read a lot of translated books.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. buriedinprint
    May 21, 2021 at 9:41 pm

    We had very different readings of this novel but it’s been so long since I read it that I don’t have hold of enough details to start a good conversation here. My post is linked here and I included several outside links that I found interesting/helpful at the time, so maybe they will be of interest to you, as you sort out where you parted ways with this novel? And my reading was in the context of all her other work, so perhaps I was also more comfortable in the community she’s created, right from the start (but to answer your other question, no actual ghosts in her other fiction).
    http://www.buriedinprint.com/jesmyn-wards-sing-unburied-sing-2017/

    I think Julé raises a significant issue above, in that marketing departments are catering and shaping readers’ expectations about what a story from an underrepresented community “should” look like (as if *any* community has a monolithic experience).

    Publishers are in the business of making money, not social change, so if another house has profited from a certain kind of story, that’s seen as an opportunity. And when we as readers only buy/read despairing and bleak stories from members of a community, we reinforce the idea that that’s what “we” want. But of course there are all kinds of stories within any given community…we just have to look for them! And that’s an excellent reason to just buy/read more than we already do! LOL

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 22, 2021 at 10:31 pm

      Thanks for the message and for the link to your excellent review.
      I’ll try another of Ward’s books. I should have liked this one better.

      Liked by 1 person

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