Alex-Peake Tomkinson interviews Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage and Silver Sparrow.
When I arrive at her publishers in Bloomsbury, Tayari Jones is in the middle of signing 5000 book plates which will be bound into the UK edition of her novel Silver Sparrow. Such are the demands on her since her novel An American Marriage won the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction.
She is resolutely professional but also clearly somewhat up against it on this short UK visit. She actually wrote Silver Sparrow before An American Marriage but she has deep affection for the earlier novel its characters are my favourite people, she says which was published in the UK in March 2020.
The novel is about a bigamist called James Witherspoon who has two teenage daughters, Dana and Chaurisse, with different mothers. James lives with Chaurisse and her mother but visits Dana and her mother on a weekly basis Dana knows about Chaurisse but Chaurisse initially has no idea Dana exists.
Can Jones explain what silver sparrow' means? It's a term I invented to describe children that are born outside of a man's marriage. There is no polite term for such people. When I titled the book Silver Sparrow I took the sparrow from the hymn His Eye is on the Sparrow, you know, the idea of smallest of us? And then silver' is a term Chaurisse uses to describe girls that are prettier than her. You know, as a teenager, everyone feels that they are on the bottom of the heap. She calls them silver girls' from that song Bridge Over Troubled Water: Sail on silver girl /All your dreams are on their way' and I combined those two to make the term silver sparrow'.
I did not anticipate that it would be used as a term to describe people in Dana's situation but at book signings in the US, people would say to me
I'm a silver sparrow daughter' or I'm a sliver sparrow son'. It became a way to speak about that relationship which isn't demeaning.
Why was that something Jones was interested in exploring? In my real life, my father is not a bigamist, but I also say to people we can all say: My father is not a bigamist, that I know of.' There's a mystery about men's lives, we just don't know. But I have a sister, we have the same father, she's about 12 years older than me. We're quite close now as adults but when I was growing up, our lives did not intersect. I felt simultaneously that I had a sister and that I didn't have sister. I was really drawn to this idea of siblings that, because of their parents' choices, are not connected. The situation with my sister, there's no real scandal there, there's no story but there's a story to me.
This book is really about the ways in which children from different parts of a man's life have a different experience with him. A reader told me the other day that when her father got remarried, she got demoted from daughter to niece. It's not uncommon, for when men remarry, for the children from the men's current marriage to become the focus. It cuts across class, nationality, race I see it over and over again. And this is a book about how we, as the next generation, can perhaps repair the damage of our parents' choices.
I ask her about the status battle between the two families it's interesting that the secret family' (Dana and her mother Gwendolyn) are markedly more beautiful than the official family' (Chaurisse and her mother Laverne). I mention that when the four of them encounter each other, Laverne is rather humiliatingly struggling to fit into her dress. Jones counters I feel like Dana and her mother are the beautiful ones and being beautiful is the only thing that matters in fairy tales but in real life, beauty will only get you so far. The other woman is trying to fit into her dress but she's a wife and she's respected and beloved in her community. She has her own beauty shop, she's an entrepreneur. They all have areas of their lives where they feel they have more respect. It was really important for me not to say these are the lucky ones, these are the unlucky ones or these are the bad ones, these are the good ones. I think that's the hallmark of all my plots, that I really like to muddy the waters, I like to blur the lines.
I really did not want this to be about women fighting over a man, I wanted it to be about the daughters more than the wives. But if you have any sibling at all if you have one mother, one father and five siblings we're all in love triangles, love pentagrams or love octagons with our parents.
Silver Sparrow, like all of Jones' novels, is set in Atlanta, her hometown and also Martin Luther King's. I asked if she could explain its significance in her work. When I was starting out, I wrote about Atlanta because it was what I knew, it was my hometown. But I've lived in 15 different cities since university. I call it the pogo stick life of the emerging writer', you are just going from position to position, trying to establish yourself. I noticed there were so many misconceptions about the American South. It's so associated with African American misery. When I lived in New York and people found out I was from Georgia, people acted like I had got to New York via the Underground Railroad [the network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved African-Americans during the 19th century to escape into free states.] But Atlanta is a big vibrant city and it's also a hub of African American middle class life. When I was growing up, all my teachers, my doctor, my dentist were black. I never felt being black was limiting in any way. Anything I could imagine doing, I assumed that black people were doing it. That's what Atlanta gave me the sense of not being a minority. That is the world I know and write about and it has turned out to be unique in the States and also, in European countries it has become kind of a niche, but when I was writing about it, it just felt like the world.
It feels important that the characters in Jones' novels are not coincidentally black. In An American Marriage, Roy ends up in prison precisely because he is black. Laverne's beauty shop is also a distinctly black and it's important to me to think about experiences that are uniquely black but not tragically black, Jones explains.
We talk about the fathers in her novels. It's a coincidence that these fathers who are sometimes loveable, sometimes stern, sometimes unreasonable and sometimes indulgent undermine the stereotype of black fatherhood. I don't write to undermine the stereotype, I write to tell the truth and that necessarily undermines the stereotypes. I was interested in the way masculinity is handed down the generations. I feel that the men in both of these novels are scrambling around to figure out what is their role in a changing world. But they all sometimes get frustrated and just want their power back!
In An American Marriage, I was astonished that Roy feels he deserves a medal for not forcing himself on his wife Celestial, when he is released from prison. But people feel like that when they come to the readings! It's like feminism is seen as something that should happen in the good times. And Roy has suffered so much due to his incarceration that people feel he is entitled to the spoils of patriarchy and that's where feminism gets very tricky intersectionally because there is a sense in which racism has deprived black men of their rightful patriarchy and the least you could do is to restore it to him.
There's one last thing I want to ask Jones about: the dynamic between women in her work, which the men in her books don't really seem to understand.
I just think that's the truth. I think that men think we are mysterious and perhaps we are. I think women have an interior life and a life between them that men are not privy to, she says, smiling.
Words by Alex-Peake Tomkinson