Lit's New 'It Girl': Tayari Jones

Photo courtesy of Online Athens from the RootPhoto courtesy of Online Athens from the Root
The Root
July 3, 2011
By Eisa Nefertari Ulen

With the publication of her third novel, Silver Sparrow, things are happening to author Tayari Jones that rarely happen to writers, especially writers who are women. And these things that are happening to Tayari Jones almost never happen to writers who are African-American women.

Even before Silver Sparrow was bound and ready to be bought, her publishing company, Algonquin Books, hosted a series of luncheons, filled the room with booksellers and brought in just one author -- Jones -- to meet the people who decide which books to place on prominent display, recommend to readers and sell. Also unheard of in publishing: Algonquin then sent Jones on a tour of not three, not 10, not 20 -- but 40 cities around the country.

Silver Sparrow will be submitted for consideration for the two most prestigious literary awards in the country, both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, according to her publisher. And Jones has already won one of the most prestigious fellowships, the Bunting, at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, an award that helped launch the careers of writers like Zadie Smith. With that prize, Jones will work on her fourth novel, a book she's already sold even though it hasn't been written yet -- another anomaly in fiction, where only finished manuscripts are selected for possible publication.

This is most certainly the year that Jones takes her rightful place as one of our most gifted Gen X writers -- indeed, one of our most gifted American writers. Silver Sparrow is rich, substantive, meaningful. It is also, at turns, funny and sharp, haunting and heartbreaking.

That her work examines the interior lives of two black female characters places Jones in a literary tradition that includes Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker as well as Toni Morrison. Silver Sparrow manages to be both a contemporary page-turner and a literary triumph as it examines the lives of two daughters fathered by the same man but raised by different mothers.

The Root: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Tayari Jones: I am not a writer who has a sort of lightning-bolt moment when a book just comes to me. I often write a hundred or so pages as I figure out where the story is. People often think of this as a novel about bigamy, and it is, but I wrote it thinking about sisterhood and separated sisters.

Like many people, I have sisters with whom I share a father, but we have different mothers. So all my life I grew up knowing I had sisters that lived far away. Since I grew up in a house of boys, I always longed for that female companionship. That longing is at the heart of this book.

TR: Your novel features a short stutterer with Coke-bottle glasses who gets two women to marry him. How do so many flawed men manage to be baby daddies? 

TJ: Flawed people become parents all the time. Being a parent is just part of the human condition -- it's not a merit prize. It's funny, I never think of James as a "baby daddy." I think of him as the father of these two girls. He isn't a great dad, but he is their father.

I remember when the term "baby daddy" first came into vogue. I think there was a song where the singer says, "That ain't nobody; he just my baby daddy" [B-Rock and the Bizz, "My Baby Daddy"]. It's such a dismissive way to talk about a very serious relationship.

As Dana says in Silver Sparrow, "It matters what you call things." James may be short with glasses, but he is a human being, and he makes a human connection with Gwen. I think there are many people who are flawed, who are not right for us, but with whom we make a human connection. That's why life is complicated.

TR: Even before your novel was published, women were sending you email that read, "I'm a Silver Sparrow." Now that you're on tour, how have readers been responding to your work?

TJ: I meet Silver Sparrows at every stop. I also meet the people who grew up as the accepted child and struggle with the guilt that comes along with privilege. It's a hard conversation to have, but I am glad that we are talking about it. This is a pain that must be healed. Every child is legitimate.

TR: Any responses from men?

TJ: I have received responses from men who are Silver Sparrow sons. Most people who read this book think about their own position in their families. They think of themselves in relation to their own fathers, their own siblings. There are so many Silver Sparrow kids out there -- not just daughters. That stigma of "illegitimacy" is pain that men feel, too.

TR: All three of your novels are set in Atlanta and explore the lives of middle-class African Americans coming of age in the 1980s. Why is this place and time so central to your work? 

TJ: A lot of writers mine the experiences of their generation for subject matter. I am very interested in the lives of those of us who came of age post civil rights. And Atlanta is my hometown.

I really feel like the cultural rubber hits the road in the urban South. History is right there on the surface, but all the changes that happen in the country are layered right over that history. My first novel, Leaving Atlanta, is about growing up during the child murders. That's history that impacted ordinary lives. And even in Silver Sparrow, Gwen and James fall in love the day MLK was buried. That's how history intertwined with people's real lives.

TR: Does the promotion of black Gen X women writers like Edwidge Danticat, ZZ Packer and yourself signal a new era of inclusion in the book-publishing industry?

TJ: Honestly, I don't like to spend too much time scrutinizing the careers of other writers. When I am writing, I really need to keep my head down and my eyes on my own pages. I have books to write, and it doesn't really matter what's going out there in publishing.

Of course, I am delighted to see Gen X black writers getting attention. Delighted. But is it a new era? Maybe. And how new? Toni Morrison won the Nobel 20 years ago. I mean, she really opened doors. Are younger writers walking through those doors? Absolutely.

TR: What, exactly, do you see happening in black books and the relationship between African-American writers and mainstream publishing?

TJ: This question is hard for me to get my arms around. There are many black writers with many different projects with different relationships to publishing. I am not even sure anymore where the lines are between mainstream publishing and some other stream of publishing. Things are fluid these days. We are going to have to get some new language to talk about it.

There are some really great books out there. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts' Harlem Is Nowhere blew me away. Mat Johnson's Pym is really exciting. And when I go to book festivals, I often pick up a couple of books by self-published authors. It's a really exciting time in literature for black writers -- all of us.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

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