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The Carnegie Shortlist Interviews: Jesmyn Ward

By Annie Bostrom

Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, portrays three generations of a Mississippi family as they grapple with the ghosts and entrenched sorrows of their shared past, and with their incalculable love for one another.

Jesmyn Ward, Carnegie 2018

BOSTROM: Sing, Unburied, Sing is narrated by several characters. Jojo, a 13-year-old boy who’s just beginning to grow out of his softness, inspires such tenderness and awe in readers. What prepared you to write from his perspective, in particular?

WARD: Jojo was the first character who was clear to me. I found his softness and his strength, and the way, as a mixed-race child, he contends with the past and present of the South all at once, immediately compelling. I really fell in love with him, as I do with many of my characters. Perhaps part of what prepared me to write from his perspective was having children, worrying about how they’ll grow up here, in the South, with all that history. Jojo’s youth, his tenderness, his love for his little sister, combined with the way the world might see him—as a man, as a threat—was something I really needed to write about.

BOSTROM: As Leonie and her children head to Parchman prison, we learn of the horrors this place has already wrought on her family. Do you remember when you first learned about Parchman or knew you would write about it?

WARD: Unlike my last novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing required a lot of research. As a child, I knew the prison existed, but I knew nothing about its past. I learned about its history when I first started writing the novel; really, my first encounter with it was in a book called Worse Than Slavery (1996), by David M. Oshinsky, which I picked up at Eso Won Books, in Los Angeles. I knew, as soon as I read about the prison, that I had to write about its history. At one time, it was basically a black prison—98 percent of the inmates were black—and there were children as young as 12 sent there for petty crimes. Reading that is when Richie, the child who Pop served with in Parchman, became real to me. And that’s when I knew that Richie had to speak, and that the novel had to be a ghost story.

BOSTROM: Do you, as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction, have a preference for writing one over the other?

WARD: Writing Men We Reaped (2013) was incredibly hard, and I don’t think I could do something like that again. Editing The Fire This Time (2016) was a wholly different experience, emotionally, gathering all those voices to write about race in the U.S. in the wake of so many tragedies; bringing together that diversity of experience and ideas felt really important to me. Generally, though, I find writing fiction to be much easier than writing creative nonfiction, because it can be painful to really write into the heart of what I need to say with nonfiction, and I have to work not to be avoidant. Fiction is what feels like home to me.

Annie Bostrom is Associate Editor, Adult Books, at Booklist. She is a cat person, but also really likes dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @Booklist_Annie.

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