The Shelf: Tayari Jones

Teresa Weaver on Georgia writers
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Photograph by Amilcar

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” Tayari Jones begins her third novel, Silver Sparrow (Algonquin Books). That one line telegraphs all sorts of family dysfunction and tragedy, but the author reins in the melodrama nicely to produce a surprisingly subtle story about class, gender roles, and combustible secrets. The bigamist father does his best to ensure that his two wives and his two daughters—born four months apart—never meet. But of course, they do. The collision of the families is so clearly inevitable, the only mystery is when it will happen, not if.  Jones, who grew up in Atlanta and teaches now at Rutgers University, tells this story through the eyes of the teenage daughters: Chaurisse is the “legitimate” one, enjoying a fairly privileged life, while Dana, the “secret” one, watches from the shadows, strangely powerful in one sense: She and her mother at least know about the existence of the other family. “I feel like I live in both of their shoes,” Jones says of writing in the girls’ voices. “I was a daughter in a family of sons, so I know what it is not to be the chosen one, but at the same time feeling loved.” As with her previous novels, Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, Jones sets this one in 1980s Atlanta. “The expression is, ‘You can never go home again,’” she says. “But I think it should be, ‘You can never leave home.’”*

Q&A
What was the jumping-off point for this novel? Did you start with a character, a plotline, or just the general subject of bigamy?
The jumping-off point was a person, actually—my older sister, Maxine. My dad is not a bigamist. I have to say that every time! But he has two daughters from before he met my mother. When I was a girl, I was fascinated with Maxine. In my home, I was the only daughter, and I always dreamed of having a sister—an ally. I guess I fantasized that there was someone out there who understood me, and there was this sister ten years older who lived 500 miles away that I barely knew. This is crazy, but I believe I have been missing my sisters my whole life. In every one of my books, someone has a sister that is far away—geographically or emotionally. So that is always kicking around in my heart and mind. Then, one day, I was out with friends and someone mentioned a case of bigamy in the news. So my obsession found itself a new plotline. And boom! It was on.

What’s so fascinating about a double life? I wasn’t actually drawn to the idea of James’s double life, but to Gwen and Dana—the women who agree to live in darkness. I think so much of life comes down to people accepting their places, their roles. When someone steps out of line, the whole system collapses. Think about it. Whole societies are built on the understanding that people understand their place. As soon as Dana steps out of the shadows, the jig is up!

Are there any deep, dark secrets in your own family history? Not that I know of . . . yet. But as soon as I find out about one, you can bet I’ll write about it.

As you were writing this novel, did you find yourself empathizing with one daughter more than the other? Was one voice easier than the other? I found both girls easy to access. I think this is because I feel like I live in both of their shoes. I mean, to my sisters, I probably seem like Chaurisse. And in many ways I enjoy a lot of privilege that I sort of have taken for granted my whole life. But, like Chaurisse, I’ve got problems of my own. I never felt particularly special when I was coming up, and I remember being a lonely teenager, misunderstood and drama filled. But at the same time, I was like Dana—ambitious and knowing that there was something out there better. I was a daughter in a family of sons, so I know what it is not to be the chosen one, but at the same time feeling loved. All girls, I think, can understand that dynamic. So I kind of really tapped into that claustrophobic space of being a teen girl—this feeling that you want to be something marvelous, but you have no idea what that would look like. You know you want to be a woman, but at the same time, you want not to grow up to be your mother. You want to be something nobody has ever heard of. In this, I think the girls are more alike that they seem. They both want to be free, to be themselves, and not controlled by the expectations of family or society. They want to know what’s out there.

Did you know how the story would end when you started writing? No. I like to write to chase the ending. When I am writing the ending of a book, my heart is usually racing. I am short of breath. And sometimes, I will actually gasp when the story shows itself to me.

How wrapped up do you get in your characters’ lives? How real does it get for you? Oh, it gets plenty real. It gets so real that I gossip about the characters to my friends. “You will not believe what happened to this one character . . . ”—stuff like that. I was on a train once and I smelled James’s cologne. It was just another passenger, but for a quick second, I forgot what was real and what was only imagined.

You’ve said before that your imagination still “lives in Atlanta.” Why do you think that is? The expression is, “You can never go home again,” but I think it should be, “You can never leave home.” My imagination was formed in Atlanta. The place is like a mold, and my musing will also bear that shape. And, lucky for me, Atlanta is such a great place for fiction. The cultural rubber hits the road in the urban South.

Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer? Indeed, I do. I think people resist the label because they think it will hurt them commercially. But if you dig deep down in their hearts, they know they are Southern. My Southernness is in everything I do—how I cook, how I talk, how I drive! So, of course, it’s all up in my writing. My soul is in my writing.

Is there such a thing as Southern fiction? Sure. And it’s not just geography. It’s about history and about the way history informs our present. Southern writing is more than just Faulkner, and to be a Southern writer, you don’t have to write about grandmamas and mules—but if you want to, that’s fine. But Southern writing is anything that understands that the present of this place is built upon the base of our past. And it’s the writing that has to understand, even if the writer is oblivious. It’s a magical thing the way this place seeps onto the page.

You wrote on your blog about how upset you were when the publisher wanted to change the title of your book at the eleventh hour. Why was that so difficult? Changing the title of a book is like changing your name. What if someone woke you up in the middle of the night and told you that you needed a new name in the morning! But I did it. My friends helped. Everyone I know was brainstorming for new names. My favorite was supplied by my dad. He wanted to call it Hey! What Do You Mean That’s Your Daddy? But I love Silver Sparrow. It brings to mind my favorite gospel song, His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Every time I say the title of this book, it feels like a blessing.

Who are your heroes, literary or otherwise? I am such a Toni Morrison fanatic that it makes people uncomfortable. She is an American treasure. A genius.

What have you read lately that you love? Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr was so good I wanted to eat it.

What are you working on next? I have an idea, but it’s so crazy, I am afraid to tell you about it. All I can say is that I am setting it in Atlanta, but you know that already, don’t you?

*EXTENDED VERSION OF TERESA WEAVER’S COLUMN FROM OUR MAY 2011 ISSUE

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