This year, I started a book club on my Youtube channel. While I wasn’t sure where I wanted the book club to go, I knew I wanted to share the books that I read on another level. It’s something I have tried before and failed to carry through, dithering as I did on interaction from others. While I wasn’t assured of participation, I am a strong believer in “If you build it, they will come” so the Runwright Reads Book Club was restarted and on January 25, 2018, I hosted a live discussion of our first read: Sing, Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward.
This novel won the National Book Award last year and has been generating international buzz with nominations for other book prizes since then. The story offers a look at racial integration in the south as well as incorporates supernatural elements to show generational dynamics and the unintentional inheritance passed on to the children of our times.
At the forefront of Sing, Unburied, Sing is a thirteen-year-old mixed-race boy named Joseph, called Jojo to distinguish him from his paternal, white grandfather for whom he is named, although they have no relationship. His Caucasian father, Michael, and African-descended mother, Leonie, also have another child, a baby sister who JoJo calls Kayla although his mother wants her to be known as Michaela, in honor of her father. His parents are separated not by relation but by circumstances since Michael is in jail, so they live with his grandparents, Pop and Mam. Pop is the patriarch, a sturdy farmer who is teaching Jojo how to be a man while Mam is sick with cancer. We meet the family on the day of Jojo’s 13th birthday when the announcement of his father’s impending freedom overshadows his party and his mother all but bails on Jojo’s celebration to talk to her baby-daddy on the phone.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a multi-perspective narrative, with one interpretation of events offered by Leonie, the young mother and functional drug addict, who waitresses during the day so she can get high at night. In her drugged haze, she communicates with Given, her older brother, who’s been dead for 15 years. Even through her own representation though, Leonie is an unlikeable character and her misplaced value of erotic obsession over filial and maternal responsibility, the immaturity she shows in her relationships with other adults, and her weak will and repeated bad choices, put the reader in a slightly unfamiliar and even more uncomfortable position – that of rooting against a mother.
The added complication to Leonie and Michael’s relationship is that Given was killed by Michael’s cousin, and Joseph helped in the cover up. So one might imagine that part of Big Joe’s refusal to engage with Leonie and her children is his guilt for what happened but instead, Joe’s racial and bigoted attitudes suggest that he is just angry that his nephew had to face those consequences at all.
At the novel’s center also, are supernatural themes. At the prison to meet his father, JoJo and his family also pick up a stowaway passenger – the ghost of Richie, a fellow inmate when Pop was incarcerated, known to JoJo from a story his grandfather has been telling him now for a long time, without telling him how the story ends. The fact that both children can see the ghost, reminds the reader of the generational curse and the residual effects of adult choices being suffered by those who come after them.
I found this to be an interesting story but a thematic disappointment. Ward’s representation of motherhood leaves a lot to be desired since it contradicts the sacrificial character we expect in a story such as this. Of the three maternal relationships the author depicts, all produce scarred children – Leonie abandons her children willingly; while she is being ravaged by cancer, Mam invites her daughter to participate in her death; and the indulgent mother they meet on their road trip fails to discipline her child, raising what we expect will be a social monster in a matter of time. When death becomes a character and takes up residence in the home as they commune with the other world, it highlights the disparity between Pop’s reaction to the death of an unrelated male and his stoicism on the death of his own son. The violence that the children of both generations endure and are invited to participate in, suggests the perpetuation of the problems on display in the novel. However, I appreciate how the author incorporated hauntingly familiar stories of a terrible history and the various coping mechanisms that too many people resort to, even when the power to change their bad circumstances lies within easy reach.
Did you read the book? Please comment below and tell me what you thought about it.
Click to watch the live show on YouTube (the video is terrible but it makes a good listen, I think)