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Tayari Jones talks about Silver Sparrow

In Silver Sparrow, the latest book by novelist Tayari Jones, the story follows two girls growing up in Atlanta -- but there's a twist: Dana, who narrates the first half of the book, is the secret half-sister of Chaurisse, who narrates the second half of the book. The two girls share a father, James; Chaurisse's mother, Laverne, has no idea that Dana's mother, Gwendolyn, exists. When James "works late" on Wednesdays, he's really having dinner and bonding with his second family, Gwendolyn and Dana. Throughout Dana's childhood and adolescence, she makes sacrifices to Chaurisse, whether it's attending a different school so she won't be faced with her sister in the hallways or getting shipped off to a different summer camp each year. Things come to a head when Chaurisse and Dana become friends -- and eventually, Chaurisse and Laverne discover the reality of Dana and Gwendolyn.

We caught up with Jones -- who will read from and sign Silver Sparrow at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue -- to talk about the significance of the title, the center of power in the book and her advice for writers.

Westword: You use "silver" as a motif in this book -- Chaurisse calls Dana a "silver girl" because of her beauty -- but can you talk about why you chose the title Silver Sparrow?

Tayari Jones: It comes from the hymn, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," suggesting that God is watching over the smallest among us. If you notice -- that song actually is pretty subtle -- but it's in the novel three times, and I like it because the hymn is so deeply Southern, as am I, but that's really who Dana is. She's the person with the least power in this equation, so she is the Silver Sparrow. And what I really am most delighted about the title, I've found it that people are appropriating it to describe someone born outside a man's marriage, and the reason they use it is there is no dignified language that exists for these children. It's funny -- I think that when you write a book, you think you know why you're writing a book, and there's something out there that does know why you're really writing a book.

You use the episode of Al Green getting hot grits thrown on him in the book, which was a historic event that really happened, and Laverne has an encounter with the woman who threw those grits. Can you talk about your choice to use that story?

When I was a girl, whenever there was a story about a man misbehaving, the shorthand for wild feminine revenge was, "You should boil some grits." It was such an apocryphal story, and when I looked up and found that the woman had killed herself, I realized how we were all alluding to a story that we didn't know. We thought we knew the story -- it was a slightly humorous thing, almost like a perverse girl power -- but really it was about obsession and destruction, and so tragic. I just felt that in this story about a man that had two wives, it only made sense to integrate the revenge fantasy.

There are some questions left hanging at the end of the book -- does Dana get to attend Mount Holyoke, for example. Can you talk about why you chose to resolve the novel as you did?

I don't outline when I write; I write to find the ending. I like to have the experience as a writer that's very similar to the experience I have as a reader, like, "What's going to happen?" I write so many endings before I pick an ending, and I know when it's done. I knew that I wanted to end with the young women, and I wasn't sure which of them would be allowed to have the lens to tell the story, but I decided on Dana. I feel she deserved the voice; it's a gift to the character to give them the voice. I owed her that moment of voice. There are questions unanswered, but I feel like the primary emotional question is answered. Some of the details might be unknown, but what happens to them emotionally is clear.

Can you talk a little bit about James -- who's the character in the book who's making all of these decisions that, in turn, affect everybody else in the novel -- and how gender dynamics play into the storyline?

I would argue that there's a center of power at this book -- rather than a villain, there's a center of power at this book. I think there is a power, and in a family, most families are patriarchal, and the father has the power. But I do think that men are seen as choosing what relationships to be in, and that women hope to be chosen. The question is "Who will he choose?" The question is never, "What will the women choose?" Everyone wants to be James's chosen one; he's the prize. It's a tricky thing, because these women willfully decide to compete for him, to do what they have to do to win him. It's not that they're powerless. The women -- everyone chooses to compete for him. This is a competition into which everyone willingly goes. They have agency. I feel like people in this book make a lot of bad decisions for really good reasons. This is a book about how far you will go to keep your family, and everyone in this story is willing to go to the wall. The stakes are so high that you can't compromise.

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How does this book fit into the rest of your body of work?

My three novels seem to be very different, but critics and people who do literature studies, they've shown me some connections between my own work. Everyone notices that the novels are all set in Atlanta, that's pretty obvious. I've also noticed all my stories question the idea of family and formal declarations of family versus informal families. I always write about people trying to figure out how they can find peace and belonging, how to belong and be an individual at the same time. And I think a lot about mothers and daughters. I realize that's something that I write a lot about, and missing sisters. All my novels have had an estranged sister, a dead sister, a lost sister, and I think it's because I grew up away from my sisters. Your obsessions really are your obsessions, and you write about them until you work this out. I think I've put the sister obsession to bed.

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