On Writing: Alexander Chee and Tayari Jones

Alexander Chee, the author of Edinburgh, talks with Tayari Jones about her new novel Silver Sparrow.


I first met Tayari Jones at the MacDowell Colony in 2007. It was summer, and I was there for a fast two weeks. I pulled my car into the circular driveway in front of the main lodge and she was the first person I saw, smiling at me as I pulled up. “I know you,” she said. “How do I know you?” It was as if we were already friends and we just needed to work out the details.

And work out the details we did. On that residency, we clicked, and ever since, Tayari has been a close friend of mine. In the short time we’ve known each other, we’ve helped each other through some major transitions, in work and in love. She is easily one of my most trusted confidantes and favorite dinner companions. I’ve watched her over the years with a mix of love and admiration. She’s one of the hardest working writers I know, writing, blogging, teaching writing, mentoring, and she carries it off with panache and heart, and usually a fantastic hairdo and some amazing shoes to boot (see her blog). What I–and everyone else–love about her is that whether she is posting a photo of herself with readers at an event in Africa or tweeting about a speech at the National Book Awards or writing a novel, she’s got herself all in there, doing it with sincerity and a deep love for literature and the world. And few writers I know encourage other writers as much as she does, I’d add–whether it’s her students or her friends, she is there helping behind the scenes, reading for them, advocating for them, a champion.

And so it is great to see her rewarded for it–this, her third novel, has received a tremendous welcome, from readers and reviewers. Victor LaValle said of it, “Silver Sparrow brings to mind John Irving in the ways it makes an epic out of ordinary lives.” The Village Voice said, quite rightly, “Tayari Jones is fast defining black middle class Atlanta as Cheever once did for Westchester.” Anita Shreve, writing in the Washington Post, praised it and called the family at the center “one of literature’s most intriguing extended families.” But I’d also direct you to, for example, the Amazon reviews, especially the one in which a father describes picking up his daughter’s copy and being converted to a fan of hers and of the novel. You don’t just become a fan of Tayari’s, I think, but you become an evangelist for her also.

Tayari Jones has, in her third novel, Silver Sparrow, written a gripping, powerfully beautiful novel, by turns funny, heartbreaking and wise. It reads like two young women just talking to you, telling you stories about their lives as half sisters, from before each knows what they know now, of their families, their shared father, their respective mothers. But it is also moves elegantly across time, back and forth, to tell a story that is much larger than either of them, a story that emerges in the contrasts between what each knows and doesn’t know, about their mothers, their father, their families, their lives.

Dana and Chaurisse, the narrating sisters at the novel’s center, are the children of a bigamist, born to their different mothers with all of the varying gifts and privileges each mother can provide. Dana we meet first, the daughter of Gwendolyn, the second wife, a beautiful smart troublemaker who has lived her whole life restively in the shadow of Chaurisse and her mother, Laverne. “It matters what you call things,” she observes sharply near the beginning, and goes on to relate a life of always having to defer to the “legitimate” daughter, Chaurisse—anything Dana wants to do with her life, she has to see if Chaurisse might want to do it first, and if so, well, then she has to stand down, because Chaurisse, per her father’s orders, is never to know of her existence.

Chaurisse meanwhile wishes she was pretty enough to be a troublemaker. Dana is, as Chaurisse thinks of it, a “silver girl”, born to a kind of beauty she herself can only borrow from, she believes. Of her parents, Chaurisse observes that neither is particularly a looker: “If you saw them walking down the street, if you noticed them at all, you might think they’d produce invisible children.” She doesn’t really believe she has a shadow at all, much less one long enough to cover Dana.

Chaurisse has grown up at her mother Laverne’s beauty shop, and is a teenager armed with a collection of her mother’s beauty shop epigrams that she is trying out herself, to see if they work, and much of it is what I read out loud to Dustin: wisdom that lets often lets Laverne stand on either side of a situation, supportive but uncritical, allowing the customer to think whatever she needs to about her life: “You never know what means what,” or “Marriage is complicated,” but sometimes it is very pointed: “If you are a wife, act like a wife and not a two dollar whore.”

Chaurisse sees herself as “pretty from the jar”, the girl who needs a weave and some make-up to even walk in the same room as a silver girl, and it is make-up she’s shoplifting when Dana catches her eye. Their fateful meeting at the store gives birth to a friendship that will undo all of their parents attempts to keep their lives apart. Each sister envies the other, imagines the other to have a life free from the troubles that trouble them, and these envies, but also the very real love each develops for the other, and what this pushes each sister to do, brings the novel to its shattering conclusion.

We could go on comparing Tayari to Cheever, or to John Irving, or to her hero Toni Morrison, but the truth is Tayari Jones’ work has a way of setting you down in front of a truth that is all hers. I think of this novel as a tour de force, a page turner but also a wise sister, a thoughtful meditation on sexual inequality and the way it has made both men and women suffer. Dana and Chaurisse are women born to a generation that has more freedom, more respect than their mothers received, but are still subject to, prey to, the inherent viciousness of sexual inequality. They aren’t, that is to say, brought up to think all they should do is marry, but they still are expected to marry. And so this is a primer on unfairness, but also courage, and with that, love. It is a portrait of the bigamist, painted from the stories the daughters tell of their mothers and of themselves. It is written throughout with a diamond-cutter’s precision, for the way it plays a game with time you don’t quite notice, because you’re supposed to have your eyes on the story, and you can’t take your eyes off this story. There is someplace she is taking you, it is going to lead back to your life at a point you won’t expect, passing through a world you thought you knew and making you guess again. And your world will feel a little bigger for it.

When I met Tayari at MacDowell she was working on this novel. Reading it last month, it made me want to sneak back in time and surprise her with a little Hollywood star on her studio’s door. I remember, how often she struggled with it. And so when Algonquin Books asked me to sit down with her and ask her some questions for their blog, I said yes right away.




AC: You’re just coming off your time as a United States Artists Fellow, you just got a promotion and tenure at the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, you’re headed off now to the famous Bunting Fellowship at Harvard, you’re touring for what looks to be six months for this new novel, Silver Sparrow–can we call this a victory lap yet? What is it like to wake up to critical acclaim, fan love and awards for future work?

TJ: It’s really a breathtaking moment. As you know, the writing career is a long road. You can spend a lot of time just filling up a ten-gallon bucket with an eyedropper. And now, my bucket runneth over. As odd as this will sound, I had to teach myself how to enjoy this. I’ve had to learn how to just sit on my couch and just feel good about myself and about the book. I’ve even had to teach myself to be pleased with my publisher. To just say thank you to Algonquin. All writers sort of think of themselves as underdogs– it’s our collective identity. But in the last year, I am starting to understand that all my hard work is paying off, to know what it is to be truly supported my a publisher. It’s like living in zero gravity, marveling at being able to lift a boulder. But I can’t spend too much time patting myself on the back. It’s not my nature, and besides, there is always the next book to write and the blank page is the same for everyone, every time.

AC: We’ve talked before about our love for what is sometimes called “difficult” literature, the reading of it and then perhaps the writing of it. How would you explain the draw of the emotionally tough subject, as a reader and a writer?

TJ: My favorite novels are about difficult subjects. Beloved, anyone? I am drawn to these stories because I like to be emotionally challenged by a novel. I like to walk away with a new understanding of something that troubles me. I read to grow and I think I like to write for the same reason.

The most difficult literature really pokes at the seams of an accepted morality. There are a lot of books that seem to grapple with difficult topics like, say, racism. But you will notice that the racists are often extreme cartoon characters which don’t encourage the reader to see himself.

I like to write a novel with a conflict that leaves me stumped. I like to feel like I am trapped in a maze and I write to find my way out.

AC: “Bigamy” strikes me as just that kind of a maze. It is such a charged word, but it also has a fusty, old-fashioned quality to it. It’s “racy” and yet not. What I love about the novel is how it makes bigamy the floor, or the background, and moves off toward the very human stories of the people involved. What were some of the keys to understanding it this way for you as you wrote it? How did you, in other words, get past the cliches around this charged topic?

TJ: The thing is that I don’t really know of many cliches around the topic of secret families, because it is something that is spoken about so seldomly. The only cliche I can think of is that the man dies and everyone shows up at the funeral and pandemonium ensues! I had to just remember that everyone in the story loves everyone else in the story and it wasn’t my job to avenge anyone. That I just had to remember that every person in this love quadrilateral has a legitimate point and need. They all want a family. They want to be included and secure. And that’s not racy. It’s human.

AC: It does seem as if your novel has touched people–beyond the coincidence, as Michele Norris of NPR pointed out, of it coming out during the secret family scandal of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In some ways, I think, it is precisely for the ordinariness of your two narrators, the half-sisters. Dana, for example, reminds me of several friends of mine, though not, I’d say, you–in fact, neither of them suggests you to me. I wondered if you could talk about how you found these two sister characters? Did they arrive together in your mind, or was one of them first? And do you have any techniques or principles you might describe that guide you in terms of characterization?

TJ: It’s funny, many people think the story is about bigamy. Many interviewers start with “Why bigamy.” And that’s when I usually know they haven’t read the book. People who have read the book say, “Why sisters.” This is a story about the way that we can choose the way we are in a family. Dana and Chaurisse are like the girls I grew up with, but they are sisters. They probably don’t remind you of me because you didn’t know me when I was a girl! There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. To write them, I had to think about being a teenage girl, and what I would have said or written if I thought that there was anyone in the world who cared what I thought. I had to be really honest with my memory and not airbrush it with what I know now.

AC: How did you find these two sister characters? Did they arrive together in your mind, or was one of them first? And do you have any techniques or principles you might describe for the student writers out there, techniques that guide you in terms of characterization?

TJ: I can’t say how I found the girls. I find them as I go in a way that isn’t very conscious. What I had to work on, craft-wise, was making the voices distinct. I mean, these girls have a lot in common–they are the same age, same race, live in the same city. Their voices are going to really overlap a lot. I had to make sure that when the reader reads the first sentence of Part 2, she knows that she is reading a different narrator. I had to think of point of view in a literary way–from what vantage point is each character seeing the situation.

AC: I am looking back a bit here now, at an interview you did with the site African Writing just as you finished writing this novel. Back then you said, “It seems that an ordinary black life isn’t seen as remarkable or worthy of attention. This concerns me.” Can you talk about that a little more? Because it seems to me precisely what you’d just written with this novel, something that speaks to the lives of ordinary African Americans.

TJ: It seems to me that African American lives are seen to illustrate an American problem, as though we are an “issue,” rather than human beings. So, the stories about us are expected to elucidate a series of social problems or to raise awareness of one thing or another. I have no quarrel with anyone’s subject matter, I am making the case for more inclusion of ordinary lives. When I taught an African-American literature class, one of my students, a woman in her 40s who was a returning ed student, said, “Can’t we read some about how regular people live their lives? I want to read a book about me.”

AC: Do you think this is part of what young writers of color complain of when they say they don’t want to write about “their ethnicity”? That they want to be free to tell stories, but feel obliged to illustrate American problems around their ethnic communities instead? How did you work this difference out for yourself?

TJ: I think this happens when the writer herself starts to make critics’ problems into her own problems. I work it out by not thinking about it. I tell the stories I want to tell. I don’t like to worry about what people will say when they read my work. I worry whether or not it seems true to my heart. When you write a book you write the book you want to write.

AC: We all have hometowns we might feel for but it seems you’ve looked past that in Atlanta, to the city beneath, and found, well, more than you knew as a girl growing up. What moves you about Atlanta, do you think, beyond it being the place you grew up?

TJ: It’s hard to say. It’s like asking why you love someone. You can list that person’s attributes but the thing that gets you going is so visceral. Atlanta is like my setting soul mate. I “get” it. When something happens to me there (I am typing this from Atlanta) I understand it on a deeper level than anything that happens in New York. I understand what people mean there. Just today, someone lied to me and I knew that he was lying just as clearly as if he had given me a notarized statement saying I AM LYING TO YOU. There is something empowering about a choosing a setting that makes you feel psychic.

AC: From your work at the Rutgers-Newark MFA program, with Girls Write Now and She Writes, it’s clear how important mentoring is to you, and your work with supporting young writers. What advice would you give to writers starting out now, who might be looking at your success and wondering how they can get there?

TJ: I think the main thing I would tell a young writer–and by young I mean young in career experience not in age–is that you actually can do this. It takes a lot of practice but you can tell your story. I meet so many people who feel they are too old, too poor, too busy, too ordinary to be a writer. They think because they don’t have a room of their own they cannot write. They think that because they have kids, they will not be able to write. But I would like them to know that they can finish a novel. If you have a lot of responsibilities, it will take you longer, but you can get there. I know it sounds corny, but you just have to trust and believe.


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6 comments on “On Writing: Alexander Chee and Tayari Jones

  1. There is so much support and depth in this post and interview. I’ve never read a book by Ms. Jones, but this has convinced me that I must. Thank you for this thoughtful introduction to the both of you.

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