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.

Courtesy of Online Athens
Courtesy of Online Athens

With the publication of her third novel, Silver Sparrow, things are happening to author Tayari Jones that rarely happen to writers, especially writers who are women. And these things that are happening to Tayari Jones almost never happen to writers who are African-American women.

Even before Silver Sparrow was bound and ready to be bought, her publishing company, Algonquin Books, hosted a series of luncheons, filled the room with booksellers and brought in just one author — Jones — to meet the people who decide which books to place on prominent display, recommend to readers and sell. Also unheard of in publishing: Algonquin then sent Jones on a tour of not three, not 10, not 20 — but 40 cities around the country.

Silver Sparrow will be submitted for consideration for the two most prestigious literary awards in the country, both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, according to her publisher. And Jones has already won one of the most prestigious fellowships, the Bunting, at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, an award that helped launch the careers of writers like Zadie Smith. With that prize, Jones will work on her fourth novel, a book she’s already sold even though it hasn’t been written yet — another anomaly in fiction, where only finished manuscripts are selected for possible publication.

This is most certainly the year that Jones takes her rightful place as one of our most gifted Gen X writers — indeed, one of our most gifted American writers. Silver Sparrow is rich, substantive, meaningful. It is also, at turns, funny and sharp, haunting and heartbreaking.

That her work examines the interior lives of two black female characters places Jones in a literary tradition that includes Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker as well as Toni Morrison. Silver Sparrow manages to be both a contemporary page-turner and a literary triumph as it examines the lives of two daughters fathered by the same man but raised by different mothers.

The Root: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Tayari Jones: I am not a writer who has a sort of lightning-bolt moment when a book just comes to me. I often write a hundred or so pages as I figure out where the story is. People often think of this as a novel about bigamy, and it is, but I wrote it thinking about sisterhood and separated sisters.

Like many people, I have sisters with whom I share a father, but we have different mothers. So all my life I grew up knowing I had sisters that lived far away. Since I grew up in a house of boys, I always longed for that female companionship. That longing is at the heart of this book.

TR: Your novel features a short stutterer with Coke-bottle glasses who gets two women to marry him. How do so many flawed men manage to be baby daddies?