2017 National Book Award Winner, Fiction

Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn WardMin Jin Lee(Scribner / Simon & Schuster)

ISBN: 9781501126062

National Book Foundation: Why did you write this book?
Jesmyn Ward: As a lifelong reader, I fell in love with classic “odyssey” novels early on—especially As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yet I always felt somehow outside these books. This novel responds to that tradition, reflecting the realities of being black and poor in the South, the realities of my people and my community. While the novel explores darker aspects of Mississippi’s past and present, through Parchman Farm, the Mississippi State Prison, and the complicated legacy of slavery and mass incarceration, it’s also a celebration of the black family and familial love. My characters face the terrible consequences of racism and poverty wherever they go, but they also have an incredible, tender, transformative love for each other. I wanted to acknowledge all of the forces that work against us and our ability to survive despite all.
Foundation: What’s your favorite bookstore or library?
Ward: That’s a hard question! I’m fortunate to live in a region with great booksellers – Lemuria, Square Books, Turnrow, Octavia, and Garden District, to name a few – and I also had a meaningful experience at Eso Won, in Los Angeles. And libraries were often my refuge as a girl. But I have to say that my favorite is my local bookstore, Pass Christian Books. The original store was swept away in Hurricane Katrina, but the owner came back and rebuilt. It’s a beautiful space and a fantastic resource for the small town where I live, and it always has great literature, including great Southern literature. Pass Christian has been a meeting place for all kinds of people, across age and status, and I’m lucky enough to consider my local bookseller to be a friend.

judges' citation

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is a narrative so beautifully taut and heartbreakingly eloquent that it stops the breath. Through fully imagined characters both living and dead, this road novel moves beyond the road into the bigger story of what it means to be an American in the rural South both now and decades before this moment. From the elderly, loving Pops, to the clairvoyant toddler, Michaela, the living and the dead confront racism, hope, and the everlasting handprint of history.


Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

About the Author

Jesmyn Ward received her MFA from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Tulane University. She is the author of the novels Where the Lines Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, which won the 2011 National Book Award. She is also the editor of the anthology The Fire This Time and the author of the memoir Men We Reaped, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts and Letters selected Ward for the Strauss Living Award.


- WEBSITE: jesmimi.blogspot.com

- TWITTER: @jesmimi

(Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan)


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