Lit's New 'It Girl': Tayari Jones

With her third novel, Silver Sparrow, the writer is kicking off a 40-city publicity tour -- unheard of for most novelists these days. The Root caught up with her to talk about bigamy and baby daddies and why it's an exciting time for black literary writers.

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TJ: Flawed people become parents all the time. Being a parent is just part of the human condition -- it's not a merit prize. It's funny, I never think of James as a "baby daddy." I think of him as the father of these two girls. He isn't a great dad, but he is their father.

I remember when the term "baby daddy" first came into vogue. I think there was a song where the singer says, "That ain't nobody; he just my baby daddy" [B-Rock and the Bizz, "My Baby Daddy"]. It's such a dismissive way to talk about a very serious relationship.

As Dana says in Silver Sparrow, "It matters what you call things." James may be short with glasses, but he is a human being, and he makes a human connection with Gwen. I think there are many people who are flawed, who are not right for us, but with whom we make a human connection. That's why life is complicated.

TR: Even before your novel was published, women were sending you email that read, "I'm a Silver Sparrow." Now that you're on tour, how have readers been responding to your work?

TJ: I meet Silver Sparrows at every stop. I also meet the people who grew up as the accepted child and struggle with the guilt that comes along with privilege. It's a hard conversation to have, but I am glad that we are talking about it. This is a pain that must be healed. Every child is legitimate.

TR: Any responses from men?

TJ: I have received responses from men who are Silver Sparrow sons. Most people who read this book think about their own position in their families. They think of themselves in relation to their own fathers, their own siblings. There are so many Silver Sparrow kids out there -- not just daughters. That stigma of "illegitimacy" is pain that men feel, too.

TR: All three of your novels are set in Atlanta and explore the lives of middle-class African Americans coming of age in the 1980s. Why is this place and time so central to your work?

TJ: A lot of writers mine the experiences of their generation for subject matter. I am very interested in the lives of those of us who came of age post civil rights. And Atlanta is my hometown.

I really feel like the cultural rubber hits the road in the urban South. History is right there on the surface, but all the changes that happen in the country are layered right over that history. My first novel, Leaving Atlanta, is about growing up during the child murders. That's history that impacted ordinary lives. And even in Silver Sparrow, Gwen and James fall in love the day MLK was buried. That's how history intertwined with people's real lives.

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