- Faith & Family
Black author Tayari Jones, 41, begins her third novel, Silver Sparrow, with these powerful words: “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother . . . The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.”
It is with this dramatic revelation that Jones places us squarely in the midst of the Black experience – one in which relationships are often based on things other than romance and where one’s hunger for the truth can both free and enslave an individual in the same instance.
The novel centers on James, a man with two families — one public and one hidden. He has daughters, Dana and Chaurisse, born less than one year apart — from the mothers of the two women of his life. But that’s where his story deviates from the conventional. James marries out of obligation and remains in the relationship for the same reason. But when he meets Gwen, ironically while shopping for his wife, he meets the woman of his dreams. This is far from a chick-on-the-side saga.
As time goes on and his daughters reach adulthood, it is inevitable that the two will somehow meet. And yet, as the two secret sisters learn that their father is not the man they thought, they both lose and gain as long-silent tales are told and unanswered questions become common knowledge.
Jones, born and raised in Atlanta, a Spelman graduate and the child of Haitian-born parents, as in her previous two books, sets her story in her hometown — this time in the 1980s. Those familiar with “Hotlanta” will recognize many of the venues: Greenbriar Mall, the King Center, West End and Lenox Mall. She says her imagination lives in Atlanta.
“When the story came to me, the characters were hanging out in all my old stomping grounds,” she said. “The ‘new’ and urban South is ever changing but we wear our history on our sleeves. That is what makes Southern literature so rich, so ultra-specific and universal at the same time.”
Two perspectives needed to complete the picture
The novel is divided into two sections: the first is the story of Dana, his first daughter and the child of his girlfriend; the second gives insight into the life of Chaurisse, the only surviving child of his wife — born four months after Dana.
“I began the book from Dana’s point of view but her view is limited,” Jones said. “I needed a voice from the other side of the wall. I was able to tap into my own inner girl and think of life before I understood my parents as people with layers and complications. I lived in the space where many girls find themselves – loved, but not celebrated in the same way as a brother [Jones has two brothers]. So I could understand Dana in her insider/outsider role.”
What does Jones hope readers will take away after completing her book?
“I hope readers gain a sort of tolerance for people who find themselves in complicated and messy situations,” she said. “When I first started writing this novel, I didn’t really have empathy for Gwen [the unwed mother] and I had nothing but sympathy for Laverne [the wife]. But by the time I was finished, I understood the way people get trapped and try to make the best out of bad situations. Both women love their daughters with a bottomless devotion.”
As for “silver sparrow” — children born out of wedlock that are kept as secrets — Jones says that after her book was published, she was “stunned at how many people from all over the country contacted her with “silver sparrow” stories to tell.”
Her story ends, just as it began, in prophetic fashion: “People say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. That’s all you get. Sometimes, you just have to hope that’s enough.”
By D. Kevin McNeir