‘In the black culture here in the US, we have a crisis of masculinity’

 Tayari Jones speaks onstage at the 10th Anniversary Women In The World Summit at Lincoln Center in New York last year. Photograph: Getty Images

Silver Sparrow author Tayari Jones on the questions of class and privilege

When Tayari Jones’s novel An American Marriage won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2019, she declared “I believe that I represent the future. I represent an inclusive America, an America that is critical of itself, and that is interested in a more equitable future.”

That novel, which examined the lives of a newlywed couple whose marriage is thrown into crisis when the husband is wrongfully imprisoned, was an intimate look at love, race and feminism in a country where African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans.

This month, Tayari Jones will be releasing her novel Silver Sparrow in Ireland for the first time. Silver Sparrow is actually Jones’ third novel, An American Marriage was her fourth, but while it may not have been her breakout book, Silver Sparrow is closest to her heart.

It is a tale of one man with two families: one public, one secret. “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist,” is the opening line of a story which is, for the first half, narrated by his secret daughter, Dana, painfully aware of the truth of her life. In the second half, we hear from James’s “public” daughter, Chaurisse, who is happily ignorant of her father’s secret family. Then Dana begins to haunt Chaurisse’s charmed life.

The unravelling of this deception is devastating; it is the children who suffer. Jones presents a vivid portrayal of life and sexual awakening in Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1980s as experienced by the teenage sisters – and in the 1950s, when the shame of being unmarried and pregnant shaped their own mothers’ lives.

“I wrote Silver Sparrow as a gift to my older sister,” Jones says now, speaking on the phone from Atlanta. “I’ve a sister who’s about ten years older and we were not raised together. We have different mothers. I was raised in a house with my mother and father in Atlanta, a very simple ordinary middle class life. But my sister lived some 500 miles away.”

The pair are close now but growing up, they seldom met. “I always felt like I had a sister, but I didn’t have a sister. And I wrote this book as a way to connect with her.”

Jones’s own father was not a bigamist, she clarifies. “I think the things in your own family that trouble your heart, they don’t make for good stories because lots of people have siblings where they have only one parent in common.” In fictionalising, she made the stakes higher, “I made the girls the same age, I put them in the same town. I made the secret. But emotionally, it feels the same to me.”

The title of the book has two parts; one from the gospel hymn, His Eye is on the Sparrow, meaning God watches over the smallest thing. Dana, the secret child feels herself to be the sparrow, the lesser one. But her sister Chaurisse sees Dana as a “silver girl”, a natural beauty, “who also smoothed on a layer of pretty from a jar”.

'Moral ambiguity is what makes a novel interesting and what makes it challenging'

In Silver Sparrow, James’s wives and daughters organise their lives around James, struggling to bend their will to his. “Everyone wants to be in his favour. I mean if you think about the term patriarchy, it comes from father. That’s always interesting to me, sometimes you see men say, oh I can’t be sexist, I have a daughter. I say to them, patriarchy starts at home actually.”

Gender-based expectations preoccupy Jones’s writing – and where those expectations meet race and class. “I think people often say that African- American culture is matriarchal, because the women take on so much responsibility. But the thing I noticed is that the women take on responsibility in the absence of men. In the black culture here in the US, we have a crisis of masculinity. So many men have been in prison. So many die young. So the women in many ways step up to keep things going. But if there is a man involved, he is the head of that household.”

Jones works very hard against the idea of heroes and villains. “James believes himself to be halfway between moral and immoral. He feels like, yes, I have two wives and I’m living a secret life but he feels that, ‘I did the right thing twice’.

“Moral ambiguity is what makes a novel interesting and what makes it challenging for me. In Silver Sparrow, would it have been better had Dana had no father? Could it have ever been fair? Do you measure a man by his best deed or by his worst deed?”

In trying to answer these questions, Jones’ considerations extend beyond her characters. “I like to imagine a way forward that provides both comfort and possibility for people who may be living through the situation themselves.”

Touring Silver Sparrow in the US, she met many people who were their father’s secret children. “We all believe that men have affairs, we’re not shocked by that. For some reason, we’re shocked when they have children.” She receives letters from people who say they too are “silver sparrows”. One woman bought a stack of the novels to give to newly-discovered secret siblings. “It gave them a way to talk. I felt like, oh I’ve done my work.”

All Jones’s novels to date have been set in Atlanta, Georgia, and Jones has described her childhood there as “segregated and bourgeois”. Silver Sparrow is more concerned with questions of class and privilege than race.

“I think it is unique to Atlanta that there are these enclaves that are all black. When I grew up, all my teachers were black, my doctor was black, my dentist was black. I intellectually understood that there was a world in America where black people suffered for being black, but I had never experienced it. It was almost like racism was the bogeyman – when I looked under my bed it wasn’t under there. And I thought, is this real? Is this a myth? So I write about that world.

Class and privilege are so important in black life but people don’t talk about it. The idea that the central conflict of our lives is understood to be racism, the nuances in the way that we interact with one another are lost. So a novel set in Atlanta really is the perfect place to look at those differences.” Often these issues within African American culture move to the background “because in the face of incredible segregation, or violence, it’s hard to really turn your eye to the issue of class difference between cousins when your father’s being murdered.

“One of the things that I struggle with is that I don’t want to say that questions of class, gender, sexuality, are things we only talk about when we don’t have this other thing to talk about. These conversations are not a luxury only to be talked about among people with privilege. This is something that we need to learn – how to talk about a lot of things at once.”

“What are you doing as a teacher if you’re reducing the number of stories in the world?”
“What are you doing as a teacher if you’re reducing the number of stories in the world?”

Much like the wives in the book who seek a respectable life, even at some cost, Jones sees “that women, particularly black women, are very much rewarded for having refined manners. With men, people judge them as having a kind of masculine authenticity if they seem to be less refined, less educated. There’s no incentive for black women to present that way. They want their daughters to be ladies. Because it’s much more important that your daughter be a lady than your son be a gentleman, I think.”

Growing up with two brothers, Jones always felt that her parents had greater expectations of them. “As anyone who’s ever had a brother knows, boys are in many ways the centre of the familial universe.”

It was only when Jones went to Spelman College, Atlanta’s historically black liberal arts college that she “felt that great things were expected of me. When I was growing up, people were really primarily interested in if you are a nice girl, or a not nice girl. That was really the question. And so I loved to read and I loved to write, but no one said to me, what are you reading? What are you writing? Because the reading and writing was deemed to be evidence of my niceness, not evidence of my intellect.”

She speaks of the influence Toni Morrison whose novel, Song of Solomon, helped Jones to structure An American Marriage, shaping a feminist narrative around the oppression of black men in the US.

“One thing I think she gave us was a gift of rigor. You can’t read Morrison quickly. She wrote about everyday black people, often working class, sometimes not. But she elevated them, without rendering them unrecognisable.”

With four novels behind her now, Jones has learned that “every book is a little bit harder. Your first book is your obvious story. It’s the low-hanging fruit. By the time you’re writing your fourth or fifth novel, you’re writing things you don’t really want to talk about. So you challenge yourself more, emotionally, to write them.”

But there are other challenges . Silver Sparrow almost did not get published.

Jones’s career was looking uncertain after she published her first two novels in the early 2000s. An app was developed, Book Scan, which holds details of the book sales/profits of any given author. Publishers have it on their phones, “so you can meet someone at a cocktail party and they can come up with a number on you. My numbers weren’t good.”

She works as a professor of creative writing and she tells her students that it’s easier to sell your first book when “you are merely an abstraction to publishers, whatever they think you might be. By your third book, they know exactly who you are”.

There was a lot of crying, but she finished Silver Sparrow anyway. “I tell my students that you write the book that you feel needs to be written. You don’t write for an agent or publisher or market.”

Then Jones experienced a sort of literary fairy godmother moment. “I went to a book festival and a stranger said to me, I think I can help you.” The woman put her hand into the hand of a publisher and walked away. Then the publisher said, how do you know Judy? Jones replied that she didn’t know anyone called Judy. The publisher explained that Judy Blume had just introduced them. “The rest is history, “ she says.

'I want to be paid for my writing, obviously, but I don’t want to have to write for money'

That history includes the huge bestseller An American Marriage. Jones resisted the title initially. “I didn’t want to call it An American Marriage, because I felt that I have never been called an American without another word in front of it. I felt like they were making my book something that wasn’t mine.”

A friend said to her “This story is American, not just because America incarcerates more of its citizens than any other western country, but also, it is American because you are American. If you want to reject this title, don’t reject it because you don’t feel you have a right to it, because you do. And that’s how I came to it.”

Her teaching work, paradoxically, gives her more freedom as a writer. “I want to be paid for my writing, obviously, but I don’t want to have to write for money.” She recalls a disagreement with editors over the ending of An American Marriage. “I was prepared not to publish it at all because I had a job so it wasn’t like I needed to eat. And that freedom gave me a certain leverage to put my foot down. I think if I was looking to pay my bills, I would not have been so bold.”

Once a student of creative writing herself, she says she was “never the one to watch. I was kind of ignored, neglected, and it hurt my feelings because the students follow the model of teacher. I don’t allow any meanness in my class. My goal is to make the student eager to do another draft. If you hurt the person and they throw the paper away, there’s one less story in the world.

“What are you doing as a teacher if you’re reducing the number of stories in the world?”

Silver Sparrow is published by Oneworld, at £16.99