Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

Sing, Unburied, Sing
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ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward is our April selection.

From Wikipedia:

Reviewing Sing, Unburied, Sing for The Washington Post, Ron Charles compared the novel to George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo and Toni Morrison’s Beloved; at NPR, Annalisa Quinn found it "reminiscent of As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner.

Sing, Unburied, Sing was the winner of the 2017 National Book Award for fiction (her second), and was selected by Time magazine as one of its top ten novels of 2017. Former U.S. President Barack Obama included the novel in a list of the best books he read in 2017.


I have an e-galley sent 6-months prior to the books publication and no breakers. Can someone with a finished copy let me know if the book is divided into parts and how many chapters there are? Would like to set the discussion schedule today.


Ella (ellamc) | 219 comments I have it in large print and an audio copy. It seems to simply be divided into chapters (15 total, alternating characters) followed by acknowledgements and "about the author."

Not sure that's much help, but that's what I've got.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Ella wrote: "I have it in large print and an audio copy. It seems to simply be divided into chapters (15 total, alternating characters) followed by acknowledgements and "about the author."

Not sure that's muc..."


Thanks, Ella. It’s the same for the e-galley then so that’s good to know.


message 4: by Ace (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ace (aceonroam) Same on the kindle version, 15 chapters followed by acknowledgements and "about the author."


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Ace wrote: "Same on the kindle version, 15 chapters followed by acknowledgements and "about the author.""

Thanks much, Ace. I’ll go with that.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
So, has anyone finished SUS yet? How many others are still reading or awaiting a copy?

I’ve read SUS, Salvage the Bones and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, so far. I’ve yet to read Men We Reaped or the recently rereleasd, Where the Line Bleeds. Did I miss anything? Which have you read and what are your thoughts on the author?


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Jesmyn Ward * Wikipedia: Early Life & Education, Literary Career, Awards and Honors:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesmy...

Book reviews, videos, essays about the book and author:

The Guardian:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...

The New Yorker:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...

PBS video * Race Matters:
https://youtu.be/P5E01GVW6gQ

Time:
http://time.com/4913697/jesmyn-ward-h...


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
How about we start the discussion beginning today with the first three chapters and break it up evenly throughout the month.

Remember to indicate as “spoiler” if you reference something beyond the discussion schedule.

April 1-5 * Chaps 1-3
April 6-10 * Chaps 4-6
April 11-15 * Chaps 7-9
April 16-21 * Chaps 10-12
April 22 Entire Book Open


message 9: by Ella (last edited Apr 01, 2018 06:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 219 comments The PBS interview is wonderful. I watched it a while ago, and she discusses bringing her children back to the South, particularly her hometown, to raise them. She's clearly conflicted b/c as she says, she'd like them "to stay alive." I found this gut wrenching.

Also, PBS/NYTimes book club picked SING, UNBURIED for their first book club pick. Here's the author interview for that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBKMh...

PS - I finished this just recently too. Have read Men We Reaped & The Fire This Time.


message 10: by Wilhelmina (last edited Apr 02, 2018 02:55PM) (new) - added it

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I finished this book a while back also. I thought that it was brilliant, even though it pushed most of my buttons for things that I try to avoid in books - neglectful parenting, ghosts, etc., but all of them seemed to fit perfectly in this book. I think it's because I really enjoy writers whose work is rooted deeply in place - Tayari Jones's SW Atlanta, Edward P. Jones's DC, August Wilson's Pittsburgh , for example. If there was ever a place that was haunted, it would be Mississippi.

I have read and loved everything that Ward has written.


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
I read Sing, Unburied, Sing a little while ago and for me it was her best book to date.

I remember reading Salvage the Bones and thinking this is definitely a author to watch and I have so enjoyed seeing the progression of her writing with each book being more captivating than the prior book.

Also a fan of her NF books.

I have passed my book on to my daughter who also enjoyed and has since passed the book unto my granddaughter.

I can't wait to hear to read the discussion threads.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
I’m one of those who love a first line, the first couple of lines or the first paragraph in a book. The first two lines in this book is no exception:

I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.

Those are the words of Jojo and you’re immediately sucked into this story. Jojo is the biracial son of Leonie and Michael and the older brother to three-year old Kayla. But the conversation Jojo is having is with grandfather, Pop. I’m not exactly sure which relationship I enjoyed more, that between Jojo and Kayla or the one between Jojo and his grandfather. I think Jesmyn Ward does a magnificent job in portraying relationships and language in the way real people actually talk.


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Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I agree. I love Jojo and his grandparents. His parents are a train wreck.

I couldn't help wondering whether Ward took the pain of her loss of her own brother to the extreme to create Leonie.


message 14: by Ace (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ace (aceonroam) Columbus wrote: "I think Jesmyn Ward does a magnificent job in portraying relationships and language in the way real people actually talk. ..."

I agree with this but had a lot of trouble reconciling how Leonie thought and how she spoke, they seemed like two separate people (one being Ward and the other being Leonie respectively).


Nadine in California (nadinekc) | 189 comments The whole idea of 'talking to yourself' or 'internal dialogue' is so mysterious to me. When I hear a recording or read a transcript of myself talking I'm horrified at how disjointed I sound compared to the way I thought I sounded. Similarly, my internal dialogue sounds coherent to me, but who knows how it would look transcribed. So for me, the contrast between internal and spoken language feels natural.


message 16: by Ella (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 219 comments I agree Ace. Leonie seems a bit inconsistent now that I think about it. It didn't bother me while I read. This is happens a lot in fiction - where the narrator's voice "overtakes" the characters. Ward does an excellent job carving out the characters here... most of the time, but it seemed like Leonie was smarter than her words made her out to be. Perhaps she actually is? Maybe that's what she wants us to take from this? I'm not sure I believe that, but this book is so perfect, I can't imagine we'd be the only ones to notice this?

I love Jojo. I can see him perfectly. He's that kid we all know, pissed off face, taking on the adult world long before he's ready, fretting over the younger child. I don't think he said it, but I'm guessing later in his life, he'll say "I'm going to do XYZ differently from Leonie and Michael." Even when he confronts the ghost, he's so grown!


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Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I think that Leonie is a lot smarter than her external actions would indicate. She's trapped by grief and the drugs that she uses to dull the grief.


message 18: by Ella (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 219 comments That's where I was headed, Wilhelmina. (I think aloud, and it takes me a while)

A lot of smart people who are addicted or heavy users put on a less bright front -- to fool others and perhaps themselves too. Smart people who get caught in the drug pit often find it easier to let go/ fall into it (and Leonie's actions sort of point that way) before they have to put the energy into pulling themselves out.


Karen Michele Burns (klibrary) | 220 comments I read this one a couple of months ago and I have read all of her books but Men We Reaped and Where the Line Bleeds. I thought they were all excellent. I'm looking forward to revisiting the book with you and need to review the links before I jump in.


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
Columbus wrote: "I’m one of those who love a first line, the first couple of lines or the first paragraph in a book. The first two lines in this book is no exception:

I like to think I know what death is. I like ..."


I too love when a book has a great first line/paragraph that hooks me into the book.

I thought that first line told me who Jojo is and set the tone of the book.
I felt everything Jojo said and also what he didn't say.


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
Wilhelmina wrote: "I think that Leonie is a lot smarter than her external actions would indicate. She's trapped by grief and the drugs that she uses to dull the grief."

I too thought that Leonie is much smarter than her actions.
She did not make the best life choices but her desire to be with the boyfriend and the drugs became her priority concern to get through her life.


message 22: by Wilhelmina (new) - added it

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Given's story in chapter 2 just breaks my heart. Given thinks that he lives in a better world than he does, and it costs him his life.


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Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments This essay isn't about the book, but it is background.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/...


Izetta Autumn (izettaautumn) | 36 comments Columbus wrote: "I’m one of those who love a first line, the first couple of lines or the first paragraph in a book. The first two lines in this book is no exception:

I like to think I know what death is. I like ..."


I agree Columbus. I loved the relationship between Jojo and his grandfather and between Jojo and Kayla. And I think Ward did a fantastic job is drawing those relationships out.


William (be2lieve) | 1261 comments Mod
So you release a people from bondage and share with them none of the wealth they created. Make it nearly impossible for them to create their own wealth and criminalize being poor. Generations spend time in prison work farms or more correctly put: neo slavery, "why can'y those lazy people make something of themselves"? Pops story makes me both sad and angry in that its the precursor to today's mass incarceration and the current regimes renewed efforts to make being poor in America a crime. Yes, the past is prologue.


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Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments As Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

This family is like so many families where one generation is wiped out by drugs and violence, leaving aging grandparents to raise grandchildren. In this book, the grandparents seem almost desperate to pass on to Jojo the things that he needs to know before they die. They were older parents when their children were born - hence Given 's name - and they don't have much time left.


William (be2lieve) | 1261 comments Mod
I've read "Where the Line Bleeds" and have no memory of it. Read "Salvage the Bones" and thought it a nice story but not deserving of all the hype at the time. About half way through this one and it just keeps getting better. I think Ms. Ward is at the top of her game. (the ghost not withstanding)...Like Mina I'm not a fan. Can't we retire the ghost trope from Black lit fiction going forward? Soooo overused!


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
The first couple of chapters reveals quite a bit about this family. What i found striking early on was Jojo referring to his mother and father as Leonie and Michael, respectively. Reading further on, I realized what I initially thought was a case of a son disrespecting his parents was actually him responding to how he was treated. Although I have heard some kids call their parents by their first name, I’ve always been bemused by it.

This book is troubling from the very beginning. Ward clearly has no intention to gradually weave racism into this story. The details of Given’s death is really painful to hear and the reason behind it even more so. It just reminds me of some slave narratives that are often so difficult to read at times. Ward never intends to make this easy or comfortable for us and makes that perfectly clear.


BernieMck | 97 comments Columbus wrote: "The first couple of chapters reveals quite a bit about this family. What i found striking early on was Jojo referring to his mother and father as Leonie and , respectively. Reading further o..."

My sister and I grew up calling our parents by their first names because that is how they referred to one another when they spoke to us. My parents did not say give this to mommy or daddy they said give this to James or Anna. In our case we were not being disrespectful we repeated what we were taught. When our parents realized their mistake, it was too late.


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
I agree that Ward is not the "top of her game" with this book and definitely is not making it easy (and can I say hopeful for us). There is just so much here to unravel - the past that continues to haunt and the evolving forms of oppression and discrimination that when recognized is so ingrained that is not only commonplace while figuring out how to avoid/confront/eliminate this form of oppression, while a newer form is emerging.

I liked how we see this through the multi-generation of the characters how this evolves and functions through each of the characters.

There have been a couple of things that have been influencing what I have been reading and how I am influenced by what I am reading.

One is allowing the author to tell their story the way they want to tell their story. So this came to mind when the mentioning of "ghosts" and the use in AA literature, which I happened to read while I was also listening to a panel from the National Black Writers Conference on how literature can provide guidance during challenging political and cultural times.

So I starting thinking who sees "ghosts" in this story and why each of these characters see ghosts as I heard the panelists say that what literature can do is take a "trauma" make the move from trauma to empathy in the readers minds so that they can see past the storyline as just the authors.

One of the things that I really appreciate about Ward's storytelling is that it puts me in the place and time and I can see that could be me if I lived there!

There other thing that has been influencing my reading is the concept Intergenerational Trauma (Transgenerational Transmissions).


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Currently discussing thru chapter 6>


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Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I agree with Beverly that you have to let the author tell their own story in the way that they have to tell it. Even though I am weary of ghosts, I don't think that Ward could have told this story without them. Ward is haunted by the Black men that she has lost in her own life. She had to go back to Mississippi and live in her own haunted place with her children to keep writing.

In this book, Leonie is haunted by her brother just as Ward is. In addition, the whole community - maybe the whole state - is haunted by the horror of Parchman Penitentiary. I think that ghosts might have been necessary to tell this story. But I really hope that authors ask themselves whether the ghosts in their stories are really essential. If I had just read about this book with its ghosts and had not fallen in love with Ward's writing in her earlier books, I might not have read this one at all. I'm very glad that I did.

We haven't talked about Michael. Michael is trapped between his horrible racist family of birth and the biracial family that he has created with Leonie. It seems to me that Leonie and Michael are desperately seeking more from each other than they can possibly get. They are both wrecked people - Michael by his family's racism and Leonie by her brother's murder. Leonie wants Michael to heal her - as she says, he "saw the walking wound I was, and came to be my balm." Michael needs Leonie to redeem him from his family's crimes. This is all hopeless need and, when they can't heal each other, they do what people in their part of the world, many parts of the world, do to dull their pain. They turn to drugs.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
That’s well said, Mina and Beverly. Jesmyn Ward did an amazing job with these characters all through this entire book. All that being said, the ghost aspect is what reduced this book from an unquestionable 5 star read for me to a 3. The ghost figure here is used almost as its own character and not a device used to advance the story along as done in a book like The Turner House for example.. It’s really just a personal thing for me; ghosts, magical realism, speculative, fantasy, sci-fi, just not for me. Reading this book so early before the publishing date I didn’t have the reviews available to warn me of it. I still would have read it though because I love Ward’s writing, but with a bit of caution.


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
Columbus wrote: "That’s well said, Mina and Beverly. Jesmyn Ward did an amazing job with these characters all through this entire book. All that being said, the ghost aspect is what reduced this book from an unques..."

I certainly understand about not liking ghosts/certain tropes.
As readers I think we all have certain story features that just do not appeal/work for us.
I know I have my fair share of them.


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Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Was anyone else terrified when Leonie, Misty, and the children started out on their road trip to pick up Michael? I had so much sympathy for Pop. That's the trick about grandparenting - all love, no control. All Pop could do was to give Jojo some protective items in a bag and hope for the best. He had to trust a 13-year-old boy to be the adult of the group.


William (be2lieve) | 1261 comments Mod
Nothing good can come of children riding in cars with drug (including alcohol) abusing adults. A lesson revealed to me at a very young age. Yeah, Pop and Jojo were the stalwarts, if not s/hero's of the book.


Tiffany | 19 comments Yes I was thinking the entire time that the road trip was a bad idea. I will be honest at this moment that I loathe Leonie and in my past field of work this is the reality for a lot of children. This novel is very sad and is full of disappointment. It is kind of weighing on me right now with all of the blows that life has dealt Mum and Pop. Son victim to a heinous hate crime, daughter loving the perps cousin, fighting with cancer, a drug dependent daughter and a grandson trying to find his way. Leonie said something on page 95, “I look at him and see a hungry girl”. That took me aback but earlier on I just assumed the writer (female) was having a hard time with relating to a brown boy. It was missing the masculinity I was looking for and what the grandfather was trying to instill. So now I am thinking that Jojo being parentified and all may actual have identity issues.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Currently discussing thru chapter 9


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
Wilhelmina wrote: "Was anyone else terrified when Leonie, Misty, and the children started out on their road trip to pick up Michael? I had so much sympathy for Pop. That's the trick about grandparenting - all love, n..."

Yes, you know this was definitely going to be an experience and not in a good way.

Of course, I did not like Leonie exerting her rights as a parent to take the children because it suited her needs at the moment to be a "parent" with no understanding of what that really means.


message 40: by Ace (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ace (aceonroam) Tiffany wrote: "I will be honest at this moment that I loathe Leonie ...."

I read this a while back and I still loathe Leonie but many readers have empathised with her.
Re the car trip, I think she should have left the kids at home.


message 41: by Lata (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lata | 293 comments I had a lot of uncomfortable and angry feelings about Leonie while going through this book. I listened to this book, and found that the wonderful voice work of the actor playing Leonie definitely had me also empathizing with this character.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Ok, guess I’ll come off looking like the bad guy.

You know, I believe in second chances, giving the benefit of the doubt, understanding difficult and trying situations and being empathetic and/or sympathetic to ones plight for various circumstances. I do. But, the way she treated Jojo and Kayla throughout their young lives just made me sick. It was painful to read at times. This from someone who has never had children themselves but the first one volunteering to watch kids belonging to family and friends. It was both the verbal and physical abuse that was difficult to read for me. No, I’m pretty unwavering on that.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Are farm penitentiaries common? Anyone know. I found Parchment so weird, strange, scary even. Something about it. I wouldn't at all be surprised though if this was something common to Mississippi (MS circa pre-70’s for those about to rip me for that statement).


message 44: by Wilhelmina (new) - added it

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments I didn't have empathy for Leonie either. Pity, maybe - the pity that you would have for a totally broken person. But I have no real hope for her. She's lost. The hope in this family lies with her children If Pop can hang on until Jojo is grown up enough to take care of Kayla, they will be okay. There are so many families like this, with the middle generation lost to drugs and the grandparents holding on and trying to teach the children what they will need to be functional adults.


message 45: by Wilhelmina (new) - added it

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Here's a good article, Columbus.

https://www.motherjones.com/media/201...


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Wilhelmina wrote: "Here's a good article, Columbus.

https://www.motherjones.com/media/201..."


What an interesting article, Mina. I’m actually dumbfounded at the number of farm penitentiaries still operating. And many were converted slave plantations. I additionally read about Louisiana State Prison (Angola) where inmates pick cotton in the fields, still. 2018. And then this...

Angola is still operated as a working farm; former Warden Burl Cain once said that the key to running a peaceful maximum security prison was that "you've got to keep the inmates working all day so they're tired at night.

Incredible! Thanks for sharing that!


Tiffany | 19 comments I’ve just finished this novel and I need to find my happy place. I would have loved to know more about Pop and Mum. It was clear that their love ran deep but what happened that Leonie turned so deep into the drugs? Was it the death of her brother? And her infatuation with Michael was so unhealthy. She was raised with both parents who gave her attention but she lost all senses with him. And where was her motherly instinct? It’s like she was born to different parents.


Beverly | 2873 comments Mod
Columbus wrote: "Wilhelmina wrote: "Here's a good article, Columbus.

https://www.motherjones.com/media/201..."

What an interesting article, Mina. I’m actually dumbfounded at t..."


And the sad part is the proposing of more prisons to be built/proposed. For many rural communities, it is seen as an economic plus as factory jobs (or any other industry/jobs) no longer exist.


ColumbusReads (coltrane01) | 3727 comments Mod
Discussion thru chapter 12 now. Entire book open April 22nd


message 50: by Davo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Davo (davowankenobi) | 3 comments The audiobook made it hard for me to completely hate Leonie, I just pity her. The narrators in the audiobook were amazing.

I need to read her interviews. Maybe it’s because I’m Latin American, but I didn’t see those characters as Ghosts in the traditional sense, especially given how Leonie and when Leonie saw Given. I thought this novel was more Magical Realism than just a ghost story as some others are trying to dismiss it. I loved the use of these elements . It heightened the absurdity and horrible nature of the context they lived in.

I constantly asked myself “how is this fantasy? This is too real to be about ‘ghosts’ ”.


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