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Creative Tradition




When my students and I read Sing, Unburied, Sing, we were aware that author Jesmyn Ward had Toni Morrison’s Beloved (which one or two were familiar with) in mind, along with other texts such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Homer’s Odyssey, while she composed the novel. This was no great insight. Ward had revealed this fact in an interview excerpted in the paperback edition. Thus, the parallels among the characters/ghosts Beloved, Given, and Richie were readily evident. We were able to note, as I’m sure many have, additional Morrison-Ward textual connections. We assume these links have been constructed consciously by Ward both in tribute and as a way of affirming her own place in a literary tradition.

 

For example, two older-brother-younger-sister relationships exist in Sing, Given and Leonie’s and Jojo and Kayla’s. They are reminiscent of the roles of Frank and Cee in Home, who themselves are a recasting of Macon and Pilate from Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Moreover, the very idea of getting home, meaning to achieve resolution, obviously gave Morrison her title, but the idea also resonates explicitly throughout Sing. Richie speaks of “I’m going home” (126), “I’m going home” (131), “It’s how I get home” (182), and “I’m coming home” (191). Home isn’t quite what Richie thinks it will be; the reader will discover that. As for troubled Leonie’s part, she lives mostly in dream. She says, “I’m already home” (153).

 

As the novel concludes, young Kayla faces a tree of ghosts, including Richie, and urges the spirits to go home. But they do not obey her. So Kayla sings and gestures in ways only the ghosts comprehend and respond to. Afterward, as Jojo narrates,  

Kayla tugs my arm and I lift her up. Pop turns. I follow him as he looks for raccoon and possum and coyote, bends branch after branch as he leads us back to the house. Kayla hums over my shoulder, says “Shhh” like I am the baby and she is the big brother, says “Shhh” like she remembers the sound of the water in Leonie’s womb, the sound of all water, and now she sings it.

Home, they say. Home (284-5).

 

By the time we arrived at class, some students had already backtracked to the closing of Morrison’s novel,

            I stood there for a long time, staring at that tree.

            It looked so strong

            So beautiful.Hurt right down the middle

            But alive and well.

            Cee touched my shoulder

            Lightly.

Frank?

Yes?

Come on, brother. Let’s go home (147).

 

Earlier in Sing, we see the following exchange between Richie and Jojo, as Richie is addressing Jojo’s naivete,

            “What else don’t I know?”

            Richie laughs. It’s an old man’s laugh: a wheeze and a croak.

            “Too much.”

            “The biggest ones,” my lips form.

            “Home.”

            I roll my eyes.

            “Love.” (183)

Home and Love are the titles of Morrison’s ninth and tenth novels. Seems like Ward is having just too much fun. A Mercy is Morrison’s eighth novel. We’re not surprised when Richie speaks a few pages later of “a small mercy” (187).

 

We also read Ward’s Let Us Descend---both Ward novels were read after Morrison’s Home and God Help the Child. Ward has more literary influences in mind, most notably Dante and Alice Walker, but the Morrison imprint remains unmistakable. In a reversal of Beloved, the daughter, Annis, is left behind to deal with everyday struggles and express desire for the past,    

I want to see my mama walking the path between the shacks, hand at my neck, the V of her thumb and pointer finger steering and saying: She is mine, here is mine, I am hers and she is mine (234).

 

At that point, I had to xerox pages from the four chapters in Beloved in which a similar longing is emphasized, two of which begin, “I am Beloved and she is mine.” A third begins, “Beloved, she my daughter. She mine.” My students start asking questions about how creative Ward really is. (I hadn’t yet discussed the pregnancies of Annis and the Thirty-Mile Woman.)

 

Extremely creative, I say, and extremely capable in terms of craft to make it all work, which it does. This is art speaking back to art, as my late friend and mentor Steve Cannon always said and as we have talked about all semester. To me, these allusions enhance Ward’s writing. As T. S. Eliot suggested, great writers steal. And they help to build a great tradition.

 

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