We have read enough books together now for you to know that modern “literary” works all seem a bit high-brow for me. (See my challenge with Commonwealth by Anne Patchett). So, it goes without saying that I knew I would encounter a similar problem with Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward.
What I Liked About It
Let us start by giving the book it’s due. Jesmyn Ward is the first woman to win the National Book Award twice. Sing Unburied Sing won her the second; her first was for Salvage the Bones in 2011. Let’s just pause here to acknowledge that fact during National Women’s History Month. SUS was also a finalist for other numerous writing awards and the inaugural selection of Now Read This, a book club of PBS NewsHour and The New York Times.
Thus, it goes without saying that Ward is an excellent writer. There is a lyrical quality to her writing; I am currently taking a Creative Writing class and her work reads like the poetry that we are studying. It is truly beautiful.
What I Disliked About It
This book felt like a book that I am supposed to read; a book that I am supposed to like. But I slogged my way through most of it feeling despondent most of the time. It started with the first line – I like to think I know what death is – beautifully written but foreshadowing what was to come.
Set in the modern-day South, it involves the telling of past events, which let’s just face it, are not the most pleasant to read. The tragic history of Parchman Farm is discussed heavily in this novel. There are drugs, violence, drinking, poverty, disease, etc. Oh, and did I mention the dead people, or “unburied”?
As a woman of African American descent, it is hard for me to admit that I struggle reading these types of stories. First, I do not like reading about our tortuous pass, the atrocities and the hatred just because of the color of our skin. But more importantly, I desperately dislike reading about behaviors (ie. drugs, children being born without due consideration, unjust imprisonment) that seem to be always stereotypically attributed to my race but not a part of my experience.
I wrote the previous sentence believing it to be true. But as I think about it, though it may not be my first-hand experience, it is a part of my personal history. Alcohol abuse, poverty, etc. are a part of the experiences of some of my family. “History has real repercussions in the present,” Ward stated in an interview with Seth Meyers. I do struggle with the reality of my racial background: how we got here and how things seem to be going. And I don’t like reading about this reality as if it is THE only part of my experience as an African American.
What I Gained
I have always loved stories: stories in books and stories in movies. I have also always loved knowing what goes into the telling of the story – the behind the scenes. It was in doing the research for this book review that I developed an appreciation for SUS.
In an interview for the PBS NewsHour, Ward remarked growing up, she did not see herself in the stories that she read. “When you see yourself reflected in literature, it enlarges your idea of what is possible for you.” Ward didn’t see herself in literature so she wrote herself into literature. Like Ward, I would like to see myself and my experiences reflected in literature so that other ethnicities could have a better understanding of the totality of me, so that I can have a better understanding of the totality of me.
I appreciate Ward for sharing the truth of her story. For example, Given and his connection to his sister, Leonie, is inspired by Jesmyn’s relationship with her brother Joshua, who was tragically killed before he turned 20 years-old. And if our current social and political climate has taught us anything, it is the importance of the sharing of our stories with the world.
By courageously looking, and not disassociating, from how uncomfortable SUS made me feel, I was able to finish the book with a new respect and appreciation.
Was it a fun read? For me, no.
Did I like the ghosts? No.
Am I happy that I read it? Yes.
Do I need to write a book that reflects some of my own story and share it with the world? Probably.
What were your thoughts? Let’s discuss below and at our online Virtual Book Club on Thursday, March 25 at 8:30 PM CST. We’ll announce our next book and you could win a copy!
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