Rebellious characters unite Philly

One Book, One Philadelphia presents Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing’

3 minute read

The crowd had already filled the auditorium at the Parkway Central Library, and seats were set up in the Grand Hall with a screen so the overflow crowd could see the event. Jesmyn Ward, author of One Book, One Philadelphia’s 2019 pick Sing, Unburied, Sing, spoke to the audience in the clear, well-projected voice of a woman used to giving lectures.

When she began to read from her book, her inflection, tone, accent, and even vocal modulation suddenly became that of Jojo, a boy from Mississippi — with the flip, staccato tones of a teenager. Then she slipped into the character’s eight-year-old voice, remembering the time he realized his mother would never be his protector. Even with the large crowd, you could have heard a pin drop.

No outline

Ward has the uncanny ability to introduce her characters and make them so vivid that you know how they look, sound, even smell. Her three narrators take the reader so far inside their thoughts that they become familiar companions.

She confessed that she could not follow an outline for her novels: her characters rebelled, taking shape on their own, sometimes in spite of their author. Ward confessed that Leonie, a young mother, was difficult. “Because I judged her, it was hard for me to follow her.”

One Book music

The One Book kickoff event at the library included a performance of “Litany,” a piece composed for double bass and viola by Elizabeth Younan, a Jimmy Brent Fellow at the Curtis Institute. Younan was inspired by a chapter of the book. Williams Karns, on double bass, played incredibly high and beautiful harmonics against the resonant double stops of Kathryn Epperson’s viola — evoking the whirring of life and death, superstition and realism, and the strangeness of people in all their incarnations.

Communing with students

Author Jesmyn Ward's characters demand their own paths. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan,)
Author Jesmyn Ward's characters demand their own paths. (Photo by Beowulf Sheehan,)

The next day, an event for high-school students was held at the Community College of Philadelphia, which has been partnering with the Free Library in its One Book programs. The room was packed there, too, with many CCP teachers and students also in attendance, since the book is on the winter English syllabus.

Ward chose to read another passage where Jojo is the narrator, but this time she did not go as far in imitating his voice. She answered questions and took special care to treat each comment from students with great respect, showing her talent as a teacher. It was quite striking to hear how patiently and warmly this two-time National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow interacts with the public.

She confessed that she loves her characters and she hears their voices. She talked more about Leonie: “Leonie breaks my heart in a way,” she said, as if she were speaking of a close acquaintance.

Voices living and dead

Ward’s characters tell the stories of the gross injustices of racism and poverty in the South, while imbuing them with many endearing qualities and idiosyncrasies. Some of the voices come from ghosts, still writhing and moaning in the throes of their traumas. Some of her characters become strong, stand straight, and finally put the ghosts to rest.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and I can only hope that Ward is working on her next one. In the meantime, One Book, One Philadelphia will hold more than 120 events throughout the city through March 13, including book talks and programs for teens and young children.

What, When, Where

Sing, Unburied, Sing. By Jesmyn Ward. The Free Library of Philadelphia’s One Book, One Philadelphia program, opening on January 16 at the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia, and at the Community College of Philadelphia on January 17, 2019. Find details on upcoming events, running through March 13, 2019, here.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation