Jesmyn Ward: ‘So much of life is pain and sorrow and wilful ignorance’

The Mississippi novelist on the afterlife, the smells and sounds of her childhood home and why she’s always been a pessimist

Jesmyn Ward, 40, who grew up and lives in Mississippi, has been hailed as a tough yet poetic new literary voice. Her novel Salvage the Bones and her memoir Men We Reaped have both won prizes, while the collection of essays she edited and contributed to, The Fire This Time, is a​ US​ bestseller and is published in theUK ​next April. Her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, has been nominated for the National Book award and the Kirkus prize. It is told chiefly through the eyes of Leonie, a drug-taking mother, and her watchful teenage son, Jojo, and unsentimentally conveys the pain of bereavement and the risks of life on the edge of survival.

There are few physical descriptions of the family home at the centre of Sing, Unburied, Sing, yet a strong sense of it comes across. Did you draw on sounds and smells of the home you grew up in?
Place is important to my writing; I believe that if a reader gets a clear picture of the place where a character is from, then they can understand what motivates the character, what limits him or her. I grew up in a lot of different homes when I was younger: my parents rented trailers and small, boxy houses set high on cement block pillars. For three or so years, my family lived in my grandmother’s house, which is the house my mom grew up in. There were 13 of us in a four-bedroom house, and it was one of the happiest times of my life, surrounded by so many people who I loved. There was a wood-burning stove in the living room because the house lacked central heat, and gas-burning heaters installed in the hallway. So I remember the smell of the burning oak and pine most strongly, and the sulphur smell of the gas. And then I remember the food, of course. My grandmother made biscuits almost every morning, and we ate a lot of red beans and rice. We had to eat cheap meals that would feed a lot of people because there were so many of us.

The idea of parallel life forces, spirits and ghosts, play a big part in your new story. What does that mean for you personally? Do you share the beliefs you give to the loving grandmother and grandfather figures, Pop and Mam?
I don’t believe everything Mam or Pop believe. But some of it I want to believe, without reserve, without cynicism. My brother died when he was 19, so a part of me indulges and thinks that some part of him that made him uniquely him is out there, on another plane. So inventing the fictional afterlife in Sing, Unburied, Sing was a way of making that wish real.

Is it just coincidence that Lincoln in the Bardo, the Booker prize winner that others have linked to your work, also goes into a spirit world to communicate the sorrows of corporeal life?
Well, we’re at a difficult moment in history. Many people in power are attempting to rewrite the past and the present to fit their narrative. Writing about spirits is a way to counteract some of that, because the people of the past are allowed to be present in the moment and tell their own (true) stories, and often, there is a reckoning between the living and the dead. And perhaps both books wrestle with grief; writing about ghosts allows us to puzzle through that heaviness.

Do you welcome being lined up in an emancipatory black tradition? Or should a writer like you be allowed to speak more individually?
I celebrate my blackness. I love the artistic vibrancy of the culture I was born to. I’m proud of the fact that the people of the African diaspora fight to survive, to thrive, all over the world, so of course my work reflects this pride, this investment in telling our stories. And I don’t find that problematic. I also work very hard at writing, at developing creatively; I like to think that the work I do means that my books have power and weight and lasting beauty, regardless of my colour or the colours of my characters.

Has it become harder for you to write fiction in the current political atmosphere?
Our current horrors haven’t silenced me yet. I don’t know if they will. If anything, the current political atmosphere has made me angrier, and that’s driven me to my desk, to my computer, to my books. I didn’t write for two years after Hurricane Katrina hit, so it will take something like that to silence me again. And even if something like that occurs, I will return. I can’t help telling stories.

Were you an optimist or a pessimist as a child? Has that changed?
I was a pessimist. Nothing has changed. Young people have a right to optimism, and rightly so; human beings have grown and developed and accomplished wonderful feats in the world. But what mires me in pessimism is the fact that so much of life is pain and sorrow and wilful ignorance and violence, and pushing back against that tide takes so much effort, so much steady fight. It’s tiring.

What are you working on now and where do you work?
I’m working on a novel set in New Orleans during the height of the domestic slave trade. I write in a room in my house that I’ve set up as a small library, and my desk faces a window. Outside, I can see a tall cypress tree I planted five years ago and a live oak I planted at the same time that has been super slow to grow.

Finally - a big one – what is the way to combat drug addiction in communities that are hampered by prejudice and poverty?
Well, you have to go to the root of the problem. When people are struggling with undiagnosed mental illness, they may turn to drugs. When people are hopeless and feel trapped by lack of opportunity, they may turn to drugs. When people don’t feel like they are accorded human dignity or freedom, they may turn to drugs. There’s a lot to unpack around the drug crisis in America, things like generational poverty and systemic racism and the constant winnowing of the social safety net. All of this is complicated by the fact that a lot of Americans see drug addiction as a moral failure. We have to acknowledge all of that, and then put in place policies to counteract those things that drive people to addiction. But I’m no expert.

• Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Interview by Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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