With the release of her third novel, Tayari Jones continues her ascendency up the literary latter. Silver Sparrow “chronicles the not-quite-parallel lives of Dana Lynn Yarboro and Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon in 1980s Atlanta. Both girls-born four months apart-are the daughters of James Witherspoon, a secret bigamist, but only Dana and her mother, Gwen, are aware of his double life.”
In 2007, Nicole Sealey interviewed Ms. Jones for Mosaic.
Make no mistake, Tayari Jones is—as Essence magazine described her—a “writer to watch.” Jones has made the south, particularly Atlanta, very proud. Most importantly, she has done literature a great service with her celebrated contributions. Her 2002 debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, was named “Novel of the Year” by Atlanta magazine and the “Best Southern Novel of the Year” by Creative Loafing Atlanta. The Untelling, her second novel, earned her the Lillian C. Smith Book Award for New Voices in 2005.
Not only a “writer to watch” but also a writer to admire—a writer committed to craft—Jones takes her work very seriously. In fact, to conduct this interview, I interrupted her residency at The MacDowell Colony, the oldest artists’ colony in the United States (US). She didn’t seem to mind though, and found time to engage in an exchange with me about labels, specificity, and the future.
Nicole Sealey: The Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) described you as “one of the best writers of [your] generation.” How would you characterize yourself?
Tayari Jones: Characterizing one’s self is such an uncomfortable undertaking. I have written two novels so far, and am about halfway finished with my third. I feel like I am still developing as a writer and am not quite ready to be classified just yet.
The closest I can come to answering would be to think of the ways in which I fit into various literary traditions. I see myself as a black writer, a southern writer, and a woman writer; I don’t mean these in any particular order. The ways that I fit into these traditions are really clear to me.
One of my most significant moments was reading Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s a slim novel without much of a plot, but this impressed me because Brooks set out with the intention to say that African-American literature does not have to be man against “The Man.” No one can question Brooks’ commitment to racial justice. But for her novel, she wanted to write about an ordinary woman, living an ordinary life. Putting that life into print was in itself a revolutionary act.
NS: And, your body of work?
TJ: When the AJC said I was one of the “best writers of my generation,” I was really flattered by it, as I am part of an extremely diverse generation of writers. Though I was flattered, I can’t take that sort of thing to heart when I try to write my next book. I have to keep my eyes on the page. I can’t write with one eye toward making history and another eye toward seeing where I measure up to my peers.
NS: In your personal essay, “My Double Life,” you wrote briefly about your experience at the South Eastern Booksellers Association.
TJ: The essay was about me being on book tour and labeled “southern” as opposed to being labeled “black.” It is rare to be able to wear both labels at once. Although I am both southern and black, I was far more welcomed at the “black” writers’ events. It seems that “southern” is usually coded to mean white southern, and when black writers are considered “southern,” they are usually writing in a more rural or small town tradition. My books are set in the urban south, which is a very different experience.
NS: How does being a “black writer” differ from being a “southern writer” or a “black southern writer?”
TJ: I must say that I don’t get terribly ruffled about labels. There are a lot of writers—usually those from marginalized groups who say that they don’t want to be a “black,” “gay,” “southern,” or (fill in the blank) writer. They say they just want to be writers. I actually find power in the labels. I like being linked to a tradition. I think the real issue is how labels are used. When acknowledging that a writer is, say, a “black” writer means that this person will be denied publishing, marketing, distribution opportunities, then that is the crime. The sin is not being a “black” writer or being acknowledged as such.
In my second novel, The Untelling, I really play around with southern iconography. In that novel, a family is devastated by a car accident. Their car crashed against a 100-year-old magnolia tree. I mean, what’s a southern novel without a magnolia? Just in my work, it’s a deadly magnolia! Aria, the main character, is holding a red velvet cake, a staple of southern nostalgia. The cake is ruined in the crash. Later in the novel, Aria meets a white man who has a thick TV-southern accent. She mentions that it made her feel like only white people are real southerners and the rest of us are just squatters.
NS: Though your writing is clearly southern, it is also specifically Atlanta. Aria, the main character, attended Spelman College, your alma mater, in Atlanta. Do you think that your debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, would have been as potent if it were set in Anytown, USA?
TJ: First, I don’t think there is such a place as “Anytown.” Every town is different. I think the idea of a generic “Anytown” is kind of like the concept of “the girl next door.” It is just short hand for dominant cultural values. I think that literature is strengthened by specificity.
My work is definitely grounded in place. I love the urban south as a setting because there is just so much to mine there. There is the always looming backdrop of the Civil War—the mementos are everywhere, including the Gone With the Wind house smack in the center of downtown. But it is also open to more urban issues like “gentrification.” Atlanta is not “Anytown,” but it may be “every town” as it combines many issues occurring in many regions in the country.
NS: Leaving Atlanta is set in the early ‘80s at the time of the Atlanta child murders in which black children vanished and were later found murdered. Is the title a metaphor for a larger movement in a figurative sense?
TJ: As for the title of Leaving Atlanta, I meant it literally—as many of the characters actually left the city. But I also meant it in terms of leaving the post-civil rights movement dream of Atlanta as the black promised land. If you recall, at the time of the child murders, Atlanta was the only US city that could boast of having a black mayor, a black police chief, a black school board president and so on. So when these murders happened against this backdrop—and lets keep in mind how much these murders of black boys reminded folks of lynchings—that really signaled the end of an era.
NS: In The Untelling there is a reoccurring thought, “This is not what Dr. King died for.” The main characters questioned their own behavior and ways of thinking based on this ideology. Is the Dr. King reference also a marker for the “end of an era” theme to which you refer?
TJ: I do think of myself, and those of us born after 1968, as the generation that is “living the Dream”—and this means something different for everyone. Since my work is set in Atlanta, the hometown of Dr. King, this legacy is everywhere. There is always the matter of whether or not we are living our lives in such a way that justifies the sacrifices made by the generation before.
NS: Leaving Atlanta is a novel in three parts with three very different points of view. The Untelling is more traditional in terms of being, essentially, one story with one point of view. How did you negotiate the composition of each?
TJ: I tend to let the story find its own form. Leaving Atlanta turned out to be a three-part novel because I realized that Tasha’s story (“Magic Words”) was over at around 75 pages, Rodney’s story (“The Direction Opposite of Home”) was only 50 pages long, and Octavia’s story (“Sweet Pea”) was a little over 100 pages. The challenge is to plan less and trust more. With The Untelling, Aria’s story was so complicated that she needed the whole book to sort it out. I would hate to have a shape in mind and jam the story in to fit it.
NS: Was one approach more or less difficult than the other?
TJ: An analogy is…buying clothes. You have to choose the clothes that fit your body—you can’t change your shape to fit the whim of a designer, even if that designer is yourself.
NS: What can your readers expect? Will you leave Atlanta in your next project?
TJ: My next novel is definitely set in Atlanta. I won’t call it by name since the title keeps changing as I get more invested in the themes of the story. I think what my readers can expect will be another novel that explores the nuances of contemporary African-American life and, as always, it will be another Janus novel—with one eye on the past and the other to the future.