For Jesmyn Ward, Writing Means Telling The 'Truth About The Place That I Live In'

Nov 28, 2017
Originally published on November 29, 2017 11:17 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's been quite a year for author Jesmyn Ward. She received a MacArthur Fellowship, and this month her novel "Sing, Unburied, Sing" won the National Book Award for fiction. Her previous novel, "Salvage The Bones," also won that award. "Sing, Unburied, Sing" tells the story of Jojo, a mixed race 13-year-old boy. He lives with his black grandparents. His grandmother is dying from cancer. His drug-addicted mother Leonie is unreliable. She's self-medicating her grief from the covered-up murder of her brother when they were in high school. Jojo's white father, who was never much of a presence in Jojo's life, is doing time for drugs at the state penitentiary, the infamous Parchman Farm. Helping bolster Jojo through these trying circumstances is the unfaltering love between him and his grandfather and his toddler sister Kayla.

Ward's characters live in the fictional rural town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Ward based it on the town she grew up in and lives in today called DeLisle. Jesmyn Ward has written and edited other books, including the memoir "Men We Reaped" about five men from her hometown who died young, including her brother who was killed in a car crash. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: I'd like to start with a reading, if you could - maybe the beginning of the book. And maybe just set it up for us. Who's speaking here?

JESMYN WARD: So the narrator here is Jojo. He is a 13-year-old mixed race boy. He's growing up in a small town in the South, in rural Mississippi, called Bois Sauvage. And the novel opens on his 13th birthday.

(Reading) I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it's something I could look at straight. When Pop tell me he need my help and I see that black knife slid into the belt of his pants I follow Pop out the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger. That's how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I've earned these 13 years, so Pop will know I'm ready to pull what needs to be pulled, separate innards from muscle, organs from cavities. I want Pop to know I can get bloody.

(Reading) Today's my birthday. I grab the door so it don't slam, ease it into the jam. I don't want Mam or Kayla to wake up with none of us in the house. Better for them to sleep. Better for my little sister, Kayla, to sleep because on nights when Leonie's out working she wake up every hour, sit straight up in the bed and scream. Better for Grandma Mam to sleep because the chemo done dried her up and hollowed her out the way the sun and the air do water oaks.

(Reading) Pop weaves in and out of the trees, straight and slim and brown as a young pine tree. He spits in the dry red dirt, and the wind makes the trees wave. It's cold. This spring is stubborn. Most days it won't make way for warmth. The chill stays like water in a bad draining tub. I left my hoodie on the floor in Leonie's room where I sleep and my T-shirt is thin, but I don't rub my arms. If I let the cold goad me, I know when I see the goat I'll flinch or frown when Pop cuts the throat. And Pop, being Pop, will see.

BRIGER: That's Jesmyn Ward reading the beginning of her new novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing." Jesmyn, you have three narrators in this new novel. One of them is Jojo, who we just heard from. Can you tell us a little bit more about him? I heard that part of the reason you wanted to write this book was you wanted to tell the story of a biracial boy growing up in Mississippi.

WARD: Yeah. You know, Jojo is the character that came to me first when I was casting about for novel ideas. He popped into my head. And I wondered what it would be like to write about a kid like him, a biracial kid. You know, one parent is black. The other is white. I knew, because I'm writing about him at this moment in his life when he is attempting to figure out what it means to be a man, what it means to be a black man in the South, in America - I knew that this would be a moment that had a lot of dramatic potential.

And he's confronting basically the history of the South - right? - you know, of racist violence, of slavery, you know, of Jim Crow. But he's - it's a very personal battle for him because of who his family members are. And I just thought that he as a character, that - you know, that he would be a very rich character to write about.

BRIGER: And speaking of his family, his father Michael is white, and he's in prison for drug charges, and his mother Leonie is black, and she's one of the other narrators of the book. And you've written her into a pretty bad place. I mean, she's addicted to drugs. She's doing meth and cocaine. She's neglectful of her children.

And I don't think you ever spell this out, but I think the reason that she's addicted to drugs is that she's, you know, self-medicating her grief from her brother's murder. He was shot by a white man and it was covered up as a hunting accident. To make things more complicated for her, the father of her kids is cousin of the person that killed her brother, and his father was an ex-sheriff who helped cover it up. So why did you want to write her into such a hole?

WARD: Bois Sauvage - right, so the fictional town that I write about is actually, I guess, a fictional twin of my hometown, DeLisle, Miss. I feel like in every book that I commit to telling the truth about the place that I live in, and also about the kind of people who live in my community. There are a lot of people in my community who struggle with addiction. Back in the '80s and the '90s it was basically a crack epidemic in my town. But now I'd say in the past five years that crack epidemic has transformed into a meth epidemic.

And I think that I connected Michael to Leonie's brother's killers because I feel that often racist violence in the South is intimate. You know, it's - it - in some ways it reminds me of what I know about domestic violence. Like, these crimes seem to be very intimate crimes. They happened between people who know each other, you know, who live around each other, who share community sometimes. And so I think I wanted Leonie's situation to reflect that. But I think you're totally right about the wound that she's carrying with her, the wound of her grief and the loss of her brother. And I think that does motivate a lot of her struggles with addiction.

BRIGER: You know, you have actual ghosts in your novel. You have two ghosts. There's one who's Richie, who was a 13-year-old boy who Jojo's grandfather, Pop, met at Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, when Pop was pretty much kidnapped and forced to work there. And then there's also Leonie. Whenever she gets high she sees her brother's ghost, Given. Why did you decide to have actual ghosts haunt the work?

WARD: I knew that Leonie would see a phantom of her brother from the very beginning of the rough draft, right? But I wasn't convinced that he was an actual ghost. I thought, well, maybe he's just a figment of her imagination. Maybe he's just the embodiment of her grief and her guilt that comes alive whenever she uses drugs, whenever she's high. And I thought this until I - you know, I was doing research about Parchman prison in order to write about it.

And I was reading a book called "Worse Than Slavery" by David Oshinsky. And in that book I read that there were boys as young as 12 and 13, young black boys, who were charged with small crimes and then sent to Parchman prison. And, you know, those children were enslaved and suffered and were tortured and sometimes died in Parchman prison, and their suffering had been erased from history in some ways. And so I was so, like, horrified and also heartbroken when I read that that I thought, OK, I have to write about a kid like this, and this child has to have agency. This child has to have voice. You know, this child has to be able to act in the present moment with Jojo, you know, with Pop, with Kayla. And the only way that I could do that was by making this character a ghost. And so then I understood that I was writing a ghost story too.

BRIGER: You know, a lot of your book seems to be about the personal traumas the characters are trying to cope with, but there's also trauma on a larger, systemic level. These characters are burdened with a history of oppression that shaped their lives and, you know, limited the choices available to them. And I think that Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, looms large as sort of a symbol of that in your book. Is that true?

WARD: That's totally true.

BRIGER: Can you tell us a little bit about it?

WARD: Yeah, I mean, you know, Parchman prison is the large state - Mississippi State Prison. And when it was established, the people in power sort of changed the laws and criminalized really small offenses or criminalized things that, you know, weren't even really criminal acts, like loitering - right? - vagrancy, right? They also criminalized a lot of, like, petty thievery. And they did all of this in the hopes that they could arrest and send a lot of black men to Parchman and populate Parchman because basically, they wanted to work them, right?

They wanted free labor, and that's what they did. You know, I mean, Parchman was mostly black - mostly black men. They were basically enslaved again, and they worked the fields, right? So Parchman prison was basically a big plantation in the 1930s, the 1940s. Those inmates were also - so they worked the plantation. They worked Parchman prison.

But they were also rented out to regional, like, industrial barons. They were rented out to these men who used them to, you know, clear large tracts of land, to lay train tracks, right? So any jobs that, you know, these men wanted them to do, that's what they did. And so, yes, they were re-enslaved. I mean, Richie is based on a real - real children who were charged with petty crimes and then sent to be slaves - right? - and to die in Parchman prison.

BRIGER: When you were growing up in Mississippi, did you know of Parchman Farm? Was there the presence in your life?

WARD: It sure was. I mean, I didn't know, you know, specifically, like, what happened. I didn't - I wasn't - I didn't know the history of Parchman prison. But I knew that it was a bad place that you never wanted to go. But I also knew that the danger of being sent there was, like, ever-present for people like me, for black people, right? I remember being very, very young. And I wrote about this briefly in "Men We Reaped." But I remember being 7, 8 years old and having nightmares about my uncles and my father being arrested and being sent to Parchman prison.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jesmyn Ward. Her latest novel is called "Sing, Unburied, Sing." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Jesmyn Ward about her latest novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," which won a National Book Award this month.

BRIGER: As you said, your novel is based on a fictional town called Bois Sauvage, but it's also based on the town you grew up in and live in now, DeLisle, Miss. Can you describe it?

WARD: So DeLisle is situated on the back of the Bay of St. Louis, right? And it's very small. I think - I don't know the exact population count, but it can't be much more than a thousand. You know, maybe it's 1,500. Most of the black people who live in the town have lived there - you know, their families have lived there for generations. And, you know, this is the case with my family.

It's interesting because it's the kind of place where family and community are sort of the same thing. You know, I'm related to a lot of the black people who live in the town. Like, if I just count my maternal grandmother's people - so my grandmother's sisters and brothers, and then all their kids, and then their kids and then their kids - there are over 200 of us.

BRIGER: Wow.

WARD: That's just a fourth of my - you know, like, of my family tree.

BRIGER: But you left. You left the town to go to college and grad school, and I think for work too, and, you know, stayed away for a while. And you've said before in earlier interviews how much you dislike the town because of the history of racism, and the state and how it limits the opportunities for African-Americans there, but now you've moved back. How did you come to that decision?

WARD: Well, I did. I returned around six years ago, and I have mixed feelings about it. You know, on one hand, I love my town, you know? And I love the place where I'm from, and I think in part it's because of my family. I think it's because of my community. I think it's because of the beauty of that place. But, you know, it's really frustrating to live in a place where you can see that, you know, the people in power do not care about your community. They don't care about your family. They don't care about people like you. They don't invest in your neighborhoods. They don't invest in your community.

You know, when I think about, like, just living in Mississippi and I feel like my elected representatives never represent my interests, ever, it's very frustrating because I can see what happens when generations of people live in poverty. I can see what happens when generations of people, like, struggle to bear up under the yoke of racism - of systemic racism. I see that when so many of the people in my community are addicted to drugs, you know, when so many of the people in my community never go on to seek education beyond high school - if they graduate from high school - right? - when so many people in my community spend their entire lives without health insurance, without dental insurance, without mental health treatment, when so people in my community spend their entire lives working dead-end jobs only to, you know, become senior citizens and then survive on grease, basically - and because their family members take care of them.

Like, all of that is very frustrating for me. And because I have two kids now, like, I don't know if I will stay there. I don't know if I want my children, you know, to live there as teenagers. In some ways, I feel like I might be - I don't know, like I might be doing them a disservice.

BRIGER: Yeah, I was wondering.

WARD: ...You know, by...

BRIGER: ...If you were feeling ambivalent.

WARD: ...By remaining there.

BRIGER: ...About raising your kids there.

WARD: Yeah, I definitely am. I mean, I felt that way when I had a daughter, but I especially feel that way now that I have a son.

BRIGER: Yeah, yeah. Can you describe that a little bit?

WARD: You know, I - you know, my brother died when he was 19, right? He didn't even make it to 20, and he was hit by a drunk driver, and then no one was held accountable for his death. And I want my son to live. You know, I want him to live to be an adult. And not only do I want him to live, I want him to thrive, and I don't necessarily know if he will live or thrive, you know, if he spends his teenage years in Mississippi - in rural Mississippi. You know, that - I don't know. You know, part of me is really thinking that it might not be possible.

BRIGER: You've had some success in life. You've - you were able to - I think you were the first person in your family to go to college. Is that right?

WARD: Yeah, in my immediate family, so...

BRIGER: In your immediate family, right - and then you went to grad school. And you - you know, you've had success as a novelist. And it feels like you have a responsibility - that you feel responsibility to your family in Mississippi. I was wondering if that's also one of the reasons why it's hard for you to leave.

WARD: Definitely, yeah - because I do. I feel a sense of responsibility to them - right? - because I am at this point in my life where I have more resources than they have, so therefore, I feel like I should help. And so, you know, I do what I can. And it does. It does. It makes it harder for me to leave.

BRIGER: So there's that - the joy of having an extended family close to you, but then there's also responsibilities that come with that.

WARD: Yeah, definitely - plenty of responsibilities.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Well, Jesmyn Ward, thanks so much for talking with us.

WARD: Thank you.

GROSS: Jesmyn Ward's new novel is called "Sing, Unburied, Sing." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

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