Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward deserves the National Award that it proudly holds. Written in the backdrop of a colored family living in the United States, it is narrated by Jojo/ Joseph, a thirteen-year-old child; Leonie, his mother, and Richie a former prison inmate whom Jojo’s maternal grandfather befriended.
This novel raises some serious question on the attitude of the Whites against the Blacks. The theme of racism is portrayed through major and minor incidents- like when a shopkeeper moves further off from Jojo while he is making a purchase; or during his grandfather’s stay at The Parchman, the official prison. It is seen that the Blacks are subjected to not only racism but also have to face brutalities like getting beaten up or getting raped- men and women alike- by the Whites. This raises some very pertinent questions-Should people be discriminated only because of their color? Is this path humane enough for contemporary educated individuals to follow? Where are the activists who propagate social equality, when it is needed the most? Does society not alienate a group of people, maybe even ostracize and turn them hostile through racial discrimination?
Interestingly, amidst all this, Leonie marries Michael in an inter-racial marriage. This, however, brings a storm in both the houses. Leonie is colored and Michael, the son of a proud, yet racist White Man; the marriage ends in distancing both individuals from their families. While Michael’s does not even bother to keep in touch and check on their grandchildren; Leonie’s family, on the other hand, accepted the marriage and took them and the grandchildren in. Nevertheless, the relationships were always strained between Michael and his in-laws.
Leonie is shown as a woman who is too full of herself. All she can think of is her needs and her life with Michael, which makes her ignore her children- Jojo and Kayla. In fact, she even resorts to substance abuse to distance herself from the harsh and strenuous realities. However, her behavior deeply hurts the children and to such an extent that they have stopped caring about her and do not try to build any parental relationship with her or Michael. She often neglects her children, especially Jojo and does not hesitate to resort to corporate punishment, when she thinks it is necessary. Hence, Leonie comes off as a mother who does not deserve to have children. Her attitude questions the ethics of parenting. It is her father and mother, referred to as Pop and Mam respectively who sympathize with the children and try their best to bring them up providing them all the facilities and love. In fact, with the absence of parents, Jojo steps up to be the parent Kayla would never have. He is more of a mother and a father to Kayla than their own parents. Further, Leonie, at times does want Kayla to come to her, to love her and spend time with her. But the fact that she values her needs more than that of her children, have already distanced them from her; and thus, she is also jealous of Jojo for getting the love from Kayla that she sometimes wants herself.
Sing, Unburied, Sing holds a cloud of mystery around each of its characters. It is as if they all have a dark past and an enthralling tale to tell. However, they are restricted in narrating their tales due to various external factors. Leonie could see her older brother every time she experiences a high from her substance abuse; Jojo could see Richie, a young inmate of Parchman who knew his grandfather; Pop would narrate stories of his time at the Parchman but never had the courage to end Richie’s story; Richie, on the other hand, seemed to be held captive in an undead dimension knowing he might be released if he gets answers to his questions from Pop.
The novel also resonates the Idea of Home. Leonie and Michael wanted to settle down in a home of their own instead of living at Leonie’s place. But neither had the means nor the finance to do so, having gone wayward a long time ago. For Jojo and Kayla, the home was never a happy place. Jojo, burdened with the duties and responsibilities of a parent to Kayla, could never live a liberated life like other children of his age. Pop, at his ripe old age, spent his days looking after the house, his sick wife and bringing up the children. He too was burdened with the sadness of losing his son and seeing his daughter go full rouge in front of him. Often the sense of belonging is attached to the idea of home. But looking at the situation and circumstances of this family, any onlooker can comment on the authenticity of their belonging to where they were and whether they were satisfied with it.
One of the most important themes that Sing, Unburied, Sing explores is the theme of being trapped and liberated. It is seen that external forces have trapped each of the characters in their own realm. Though they live together, they are burdened by their own thoughts, misdeeds, questions, answers, and expectations. This traps them in their own world making it less possible to understand the other and sympathize with them.
However, the way Jesmyn Ward weaves the personalities of the various characters, it is impossible to not sympathize with even one of them. They all have their own shades of grey and those are quite justified in their own positions. Ward has built an imagery of intellectual montage throughout her novel which kept unfolding past and present sequences along with esoteric notions.
I would definitely recommend my friends to read this book. It is a contemplative book on various thought-provoking issues that must be paid attention to. Sing, Unburied, Sing is available on Flipkart, Amazon, and Snapdeal.
*Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of the book by Bloomsbury in exchange for an honest review.