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HomePageTurnerAfterwordThe Sick of History: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing

The Sick of History: A Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing

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Jesmyn Ward’s haunting control over language, like the stench of history, remains lodged under the reader’s skin. 

The present cannot truly begin if the past never really could untangle itself. Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, is her vision of the timeless space between the ghosts of a past which refuses to give way, and a present which promises hope but denies entry.

Jesmyn Ward has authored three novels and won two National Book Awards for Fiction.

A band of family and friends, Black and White, goes down an American road like tumbleweed. Everyone is coiled into each other in various relations of love, lovelessness, guilt, greed, responsibility, and meth-induced delirium, “pulling all the weight of history behind” them.

Leonie, the young mother, is in love with the cousin of the White man who killed her brother in a fit of racist violence. Her love for him impedes her instinct to care for her children, Jojo and Kayla, who are left to each other and to their grandfather, River, or Pop. The grandmother Mama lies cancer-ridden keeping faint account of her mystical gifts which she has passed on to her children and her children’s children.

Jesmyn Ward’s own gift emerges in how she brings the ghosts of a divisive and unforgiving past into language.

Specters Who Speak  

 Ward asks: How can you put the trauma of unspeakable evil into words? What language can articulate a past which it is trying desperately to leave behind? The novel answers with its specters.

The ghosts who chase Leonie, her son Jojo, and her mother too, are not shadows. They are solid beings with names and memories, who sit and stand and occupy space, who ask questions and make demands for answers, and respond.

They are the ones who make Ward’s prose sing and bring into being a history which cannot be forgotten yet because it has not been answered yet for the crimes committed upon it. They are the ones most deeply and actively enmeshed into the tumbleweed of this band of journeying friends and family.

There is a lot to be said about Ward’s craft which gives the novel a sinking rhythm, from which its characters are thrashing in pithy descriptions to stay afloat.

Smelling the Sickness

This is a terse observation, but Sing, Unburied, Sing works so well partly because it is grounded in two sturdy metaphors of vomit and smell.

Regurgitation occurs throughout: baby Kayla vomits in dehydration, just as others do in starvation or in drug-addled sickness. The car which makes the road novel is covered in shit, vomit, and everything else that has been thrown up, and the smell is almost as haunting as the ghosts are. The overpowering smell which the characters refer to again and again, is almost like the weight of history which cannot be contained anymore.

You can close your eyes and ears but you cannot refuse to smell. It leaves a strong sense of the politics of the novel.

You can be sure that the dysfunctional lives of neglect which characters like Leonie lead have been inherited from an unescapable history. There is no one to blame or to point fingers at.

Then how do you stop the story from disparaging those who have to deal with the present as it is? The clue is in the stench which refuses to leave, just like Pop River cannot wash the smell of blood off his hands. They keep regurgitating that which they want to be rid of but it all keeps coming back as stench. The smell enters their bodies, gets under their skin, and they simply endure.

It is almost as if you cannot throw up your history. Even as Sing, Unburied, Sing ends with a fading song like a tumbleweed left to escape in the wind, Ward’s haunting control over language, like the stench of history, remains lodged under your skin.

Shantam Goyal is a Writing Tutor at Ashoka University, while also doing his M.Phil from the Department of English, University of Delhi.

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