• Published 13.10.17
In September, marchers walked 189km from Charlottesville to Washington DC denouncing White supremacy. (AFP)

Around the time news of the White supremacist rhetoric and the ensuing race-related violence started coming in from Charlottesville in the US, I started reading a deeply contextual book — Jesmyn Ward’s latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing (Bloomsbury, Rs 319).

Intertwining themes of racial injustice and drug abuse with bleak depictions of poverty in the poor American state of Mississippi, the book is not just a work of art in its own right but has an uncomfortable relevance in the current social and political context.

A microcosm of the author’s love-and-hate relationship with her home state of Mississippi, Ward expertly utilises the motif of water, and the concept of home, to portray the deep, unsettled feeling of belonging with regards to African-Americans in the South.

Part road novel, part ghost story, the book acts as a powerful reminder of the still lingering pathology of racial division, with the ghosts of brutally murdered African-Americans continuing to haunt the region, desperate to return home, but with no home to return to.

The book’s heroes — 13-year-old Jojo and his grandfather Pop — are  harrowing characters. They symbolise the selflessness, but ultimately hopelessness, that ordinary folk often display in their attempts to protect loved ones from the, at times, cruel reality that surrounds them. In this case it is Jojo protecting his younger sister Kayla from their mother, the drug-addicted and troubled Leonie. And Pop is protecting young Richie, a fellow inmate from his time at Parchman Farm — a prison in Mississippi — as well as his grandson, Jojo.

While fictional, the characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing and the lives they lead act as metaphors — from the drug-addicted mother trying but failing to keep her head above water, to the child forced into early maturity to care for a younger sibling. Poetically narrated, from the point of view of the characters themselves, the effect is chilling.

Elliot Keck

Sing, Unburied, Sing has been longlisted for the National Book Award, the most prestigious literary prize in the US. The prize will be announced on November 15


If you’re familiar with American actor Fred Astaire, it’s him you’ll think of, tap-dancing with Ginger Rogers across a black-and-white scene, when you hear “swing time”. More recently though, Swing Time is the latest from British writer Zadie Smith, which made it to the Man Booker Prize 2017 longlist but not the shortlist.

In this novel (published by Penguin Random House India, Rs 599) what begins as a tale of female friendship quickly spirals into a commentary on race, power and wealth. The former is infinitely more engrossing, since the latter tends to become a convoluted labyrinth. Still, with mysterious Italian writer Elena Ferrante putting female friendship under the spotlight with her Neapolitan novels, Smith has her work cut out for her.

Like most friendships, the narrator’s relationship with Tracey, who she is drawn to at first sight, for “Our shade of brown was exactly the same — as if one piece of tan material had been cut to make us both”, is not smooth sailing.

There’s always one person who’s going to have the upper hand, have more personality, be the leader, carve out the path. And of course, life likes to beat her down a little, just to give the other one a fighting chance. All the while we have a sneaky feeling that there’s more to Tracey than what’s being let on. Of course, we do only have half the story because Tracey’s friend, the narrator, is as in the dark as we are.

Tracey may not be likeable but she holds everyone’s attention. Unfortunately for the reader, though, there just isn’t enough detail. Oh Ferrante, mistress of minutiae!

Enter Aimee, a pop sensation — one can’t help but imagine her as the love child of Angelina Jolie and Taylor Swift. Wrung dry with fame and fortune, she now wants to make a difference where it really matters. She’s off to Africa to build a girls’ school. While the narrator’s purposeful mother finally begins to realise her own ambitions as the harbinger of social change from within the British government, Aimee dismisses governments as useless.

When the narrator herself gets to Africa (the reader turns the pages, expecting a trajectory of self-discovery and roots-exploration but it’s really not that simplistic, which makes it all the more enjoyable), she admits that the “greatest dancer (she) ever saw was the kankurang.”

We wonder if African dance forms will find their way into Aimee’s music videos. They do. And we realise with sorrow that dear old Fred Astaire, with his adroit swing time, could just as easily be accused of blackfacing; a very smooth commentary on cultural appropriation by Zadie Smith.

The thing that Swing Time does do is have you YouTube all the dance videos that make an appearance. Watching these alongside the text greatly enhances the reading experience. There’s an unceasing melody through the book to the beat of an uneven rhythm, but what it lacks is the ability to really strike a chord.

Ramona Sen