Jesmyn Ward

Generations of Jesmyn Ward's family have lived in DeLisle, a small rural town near the coast of Mississippi, the poorest state in the US. As a child, Ward spent her almost unbearably hot school holidays playing in the wooded forests and marshy streams that surrounded her home. More recently, she waded through flood waters when Hurricane Katrina raged through the town in 2005.

DeLisle is also where her younger brother, Joshua, is buried. He died when he was 19 after a drunk driver ploughed into the back of his car and fled the scene. The driver, a white man in his 40s, spent three years in jail and never paid the restitution he owed Ward's family. This month marks 17 years since Joshua died.

Home then is where the heart is for Ward, but also where the hauntings are. The ghosts of traumatic events flourish in her new novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, which is a finalist for the National Book Award, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the US. It is the first novel Ward has written while living in DeLisle, which has a high poverty rate and a population of about 1000.

"Both my father's family and my mother's family have lived in DeLisle as far back as we can remember," Ward, 40, says on the phone from DeLisle.

"It is a place where family and community are really tightly bound together. It is very poor and working class. It is still segregated in some respects but I think that is because in the past those generations were segregated. It is a place that feels weighted by a lot of history."

Ward wrote the draft of Sing, Unburied, Sing after returning to DeLisle to live about six years ago. It is the longest stretch of time she has spent in the town since she left for Stanford, when she became the first in her family to attend college.

"I think there is value living where I live because it keeps me honest," Ward says. "It keeps me passionate about the people that I write about. I have no choice but to be very present and to be very aware of the circumstances of their lives."

Ward's mother was a housekeeper and her father ran kung-fu classes. She grew up as the eldest of four siblings. A wealthy white family that employed Ward's mother paid her tuition so she could attend an Anglican private school. Ward says she was the only black girl at the school for most of her junior and high school years.

After gaining a bachelors degree in English and a masters in communication, it was the death of her brother that drove Ward's determination to write. She wanted to tell the stories that were unheard; to show the importance of the lives lost and ignored. There is a permanent reminder on the inside of her wrists where she has tattooed her brother's signature and the words "love brother", which is how he once ended a letter he wrote to her.

Ward's latest novel is set in Bois Sauvage, a fictional town on the Mississippi Gulf Coast based on DeLisle. The setting is the same as that of Ward's earlier novel, Salvage the Bones, which follows teenage girl Esch and her family as Hurricane Katrina looms. The novel largely flew under the radar, both critically and popularly, until it won the National Book Award in 2011.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, 13-year-old Jojo, his younger sister Michaela, their meth-addicted mother Leonie and her friend from work, embark on a road trip to collect the children's white father, Michael, from prison. The destructive legacy of slavery, racism and intergenerational poverty bares down on the family; past and present intertwine as ghosts accompany them on the journey.

"Because we don't walk no straight lines. It's all happening at once. All of it. We all here at once," Jojo's dying grandmother tells him.

In one striking scene, the novel teeters on a moment of inexplicable violence. It is a scene that Ward says many readers have felt drawn to and approached her to discuss.

A police officer pulls over the car in which Jojo and his family are travelling home. When Jojo puts his hand into his pocket to touch a good luck charm given to him by his grandfather, the officer draws his gun and points it at Jojo's head. Everyone holds their breath while Jojo is handcuffed. "It is like the cuffs cut all the way down to the bone," Jojo says.

Critics and readers have pointed out the relevance and importance of Ward's novel, drawing links to the Black Lives Matter movement and the political climate in the US post Donald Trump's election.

Ward says she was not attempting to directly respond to the "ugly turn" in American politics, but her interest in African American lives and the south have given her novel a particular pertinence.

DeLisle is a popular stop for Republican candidates on the campaign route, and it came as no surprise to Ward that white voters in Mississippi supported Trump (she says she knows no black voters who backed him).

"I think that a lot of Trump's worst ideas are not new to me because I have been hearing them from white people who live in this place my whole life," Ward says. "It didn't seem to change much here because his ugliest policies and his ugliest ideas have flourished in this area for a long time unfortunately."

Sing, Unburied, Sing is Ward's first novel since 2011. After the success of Salvage the Bones, Ward published the memoir Men We Reaped. It is a powerful account of five black men, including Joshua, who Ward knew and who all died violently between 2000 to 2004.

"To say this is difficult is understatement; telling this story is the hardest thing I've ever done. But my ghosts were once people, and I cannot forget that," Ward writes. "I wonder at my neighbourhood's silence. I wonder why silence is the sound of our subsumed rage, our accumulated grief. I decide this is not right, that I must give voice to this story."

Ward has also edited a collection of essays and poems about race in the US called TheFire This Time. She says she felt the lingering pressure of returning to fiction after the success of Salvage The Bones.

"I just had to push that all out of mind and really forget about it in order to be able to fall into Sing and give that story the attention and respect it deserves," Ward says.

While the themes and lyricism of Sing, Unburied, Sing flow across Ward's oeuvre, the element of the supernatural is new. Two ghosts haunt the novel - Leonie's younger brother Given who died when he was shot by a white man, and Richie, who was a black prisoner at the brutal Mississippi State Penitentiary known as Parchman Farm.

Ward says that writing the magical quotient proved a challenge but was something she had always wanted to do. Sing, Unburied, Sing has been compared to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's Beloved but surprisingly Ward says it did not cross her mind as she wrote her book.

"That's a pretty weighty comparison and I tend to shy away from it because she's a legend," Ward says. She was, however, thinking of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which is also set in a fictional Mississippi town (Yoknapatawpha County) and recounts a road trip through the deep south.

Ward, who joined Tulane University as an associate professor in 2014, is now working on her next novel, which is set in the 1800s at the height of the slave trade in New Orleans.

Having two young children has changed her writing routine and Sing, Unburied, Sing was the first novel Ward has written since becoming a mother. Previously a night owl, Ward now gets up early each morning to write while her son and daughter are asleep. She has not yet started reading chapter books with her children, but will begin with Charlotte's Web, which was the first chapter book she was read as a child.

"I end up reading children's literature on my own because I do need that release. I feel like I can read children's literature and I experience it just as a story. I do not assess it like a writer and I like that," Ward says.

While she sees the value of living and writing in DeLisle, Ward is not certain she will always feel the same way.

"I have two kids now and I often think about their wellbeing and their safety so that's why I don't know if I will stay here forever."

But, as she has previously written, "the pull home is an inexorable thing".

Sing, Unburied, Sing is published by Bloomsbury at $24.99.

This story Jesmyn Ward first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.