Guest of Honor

Jesmyn Ward Examines A Few Hard Truths About Race

The author shares what inspired her latest novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," a few intriguing historical facts she learned while writing it, and why you might question her taste in films.

(Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan)

Author Jesmyn Ward was raised in coastal Mississippi and she was the first in her family to go to college, which is where she started writing. Her second novel “Salvage the Bones,” informed by her experience enduring Hurricane Katrina, won the National Book Award.

Her latest novel, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” is a ghost story, a road trip novel, and a family saga. It is narrated by JoJo — a sensitive pre-teen — and Leonie, his immature, drug addicted mother. They and others go on a trip through Mississippi to pick up Jojo’s white Dad from prison. Find out what inspired her to write the tale, how she incorporated Southern history and more.


On what inspired “Sing, Unburied, Sing”

Jesmyn Ward: JoJo was the spark that brought this book into being, because I was casting about for ideas for my next novel, and I heard this question and the question was, “What would it be like to grow up as a 13-year-old mixed-race boy in the modern South?” Like, “What would that be like?”

On why she decided to have a mixed-raced character at the heart of her story

Jesmyn Ward: I grew up in Southern Mississippi, and the Southern Mississippi that I knew when I was a child through the ‘80s into the mid-‘90s, that’s when I left for college. Like, that Mississippi is very different from, I think, the Mississippi that I know now.

At least on the surface, it seems like a very different place because there seems to be more acceptance of interracial relationships now. But I was wondering about, the surface quality of that, right? Because I have heard stories from various people — friends of mine, cousins, people in my community — that the old assumptions about black people and their being worth less and the old, like, prejudices and racism, they’re still there underneath the surface, right?

And so, I think that I [was] interested in writing about this mixed-race boy who has to struggle with those tensions, but in a very personal way.

On why she put the real life Parchman Penitentiary at the center of the book

Jesmyn Ward: So, Parchman Prison is the Mississippi state prison.

Brendan Francis Newnam: It used to be called a farmhouse, right?

Jesmyn Ward: Yes, it was a farm. The Parchman Prison Farm. The reason why is because, for many decades, it was a working plantation, basically. Ninety percent of the inmates who were sent to Parchman Prison, they were all black men, basically. There were some, there was a very tiny number of black women that were sent to Parchman, and then there was an even tinier white male population of prisoners.

And once they were sent there, they were worked like they were slaves. They were also tortured like they were slaves. They were also killed like they were slaves, I mean their lives were totally expendable.

On using the prison’s history and former inmates in the book

Jesmyn Ward: I read a book called “Worse Than Slavery” by David Oshinsky and that book is all about Parchman Prison. And so, that’s where I found a couple of those characters.

The character that sticks with me the most is probably Hog Jaw. He was an actual white inmate in the prison, I guess, who was somewhat famous because — I don’t think that he had multiple escapes, but they would let him out of Parchman, and then he would, like, kill somebody or kill multiple people and then they’d send him back. And then they’d let him out. And then they’d send him back.

And he was known for being particularly cruel. I mean, with that name, he’s just like the figure out of a nightmare.

On why she chooses to keep living in the South

Jesmyn Ward: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I mean, especially the political climate in this country right now, which is really horrible and I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and I haven’t come to an answer about whether or not it’s best for me to stay where I am.

I’ve just been wrestling with this idea that maybe the South is not the best place for me and for them [her family]. And then I think about leaving and I think, “Well, what am I gonna do about my mom? What am I gonna do about my sisters and my nephews and my nieces?” Like, “And my grandmother, and my cousins. How do I leave everyone that I love?” And then part of me asks, “OK, so where do you go?” Right? “Where are you safe?”