Last week I had the opportunity to witness Jesmyn Ward speak in front of a packed auditorium regarding her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, the title that won her a second National Book Award. Though I still haven’t finished the topic of discussion, I was still excited to attend the event, half-hoping that Ward’s words would inspire me to return to the novel. Spoiler alert: they did, and I am so thankful.
Ward began her time by reading a prepared piece about her role as a mother to first her daughter and then her son, and the competing experiences she faced with each. With her firstborn child, her daughter, Ward had all the initial anxieties of pregnancy, with the stress of statistics against the survival rate of black newborns vs. white newborns, and the added fear of mothering a daughter. With her second child, her son, Ward still feared bringing a black child into the world, but this time, it was specifically the thought of bringing a black boy into the world that increased Ward’s anxieties. She feared for his fate while pondering the fates of boys like Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, and the fates of her own relatives; as a younger woman, Ward suffered from the deaths of five close male relatives, including her brother and her great grandfather, to various causes including gun-related death. Thinking about these tragic cases only heightened Ward’s anxieties for her boy.
Coping with the five deaths of men close in her life was just one of the many struggles Ward faced as an adolescent. She began her life three months early as a premature newborn, gasping for life and surviving unexpectedly to the amazement of her family and team of doctors. Ward also witnessed the horrors of Katrina; she credits books as a source of her survival. Without the power of storytelling, first reading and later writing, Ward may not have lived to tell stories of her own.
After Ward finished reading her written piece, her story of motherhood and survival, for which she got a standing ovation, the evening proceeded to an audience Q&A. Among many topics, Ward discussed her college experience, as there was a heavy population of high school and university students in the audience like myself. Ward studied hard in high school and became the first person in her family to attend college, at Stanford of all places.
Ward also answered questions about Sing, Unburied Sing, specifically her use of the supernatural with the introduction of Given, the ghost. She stated that initially, she did not plan on including a ghost element in her story, but as Ward continued writing, she realized she disliked her drafted Leonie, and she worked out a likeable backstory for Leonie including Given and his ghost in the present. Ward admitted that after this addition to the story, she understood and appreciated Leonie more, something that is essential to her as a writer. To Ward, it is also important to experiment with at least one element of storytelling in every book she writes, whether the focus is on point-of-view, style, or magical realism in the case of Sing, Unburied, Sing. She likes to reach outside of her comfort zone; currently, Ward is challenging herself by working on two books at a time, another fiction book and a middle grade/young adult novel, which is a challenge for her in and of itself, having never written a children’s book before.
I am so thankful that I was able to attend Jesmyn Ward’s event and listen to her inspirational words, and I am so eager to continue my reading of Sing, Unburied, Sing!