May 2011

Roxane Gay

features

An Interview with Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where she spent most of her childhood, with the exception of the one year she and her family spent in Nigeria. Although she has not lived in her hometown for over a decade, much of her writing centers on the urban south. ďAlthough I now live in the Northeast,Ē she explains, ďmy imagination lives in Atlanta.Ē Tayari Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, The University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is an Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. Jones will spend the 2011-12 academic year at Harvard University as a Radcliffe Institute Fellow where she plans to research her fourth novel.

Jones is the author of the acclaimed novels Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling. Silver Sparrow, her third novel, has just been published by Algonquin Books. Upon its publication, the Village Voice wrote that ďTayari Jones is fast defining black middle class Atlanta the way that Cheever did for Westchester.Ē The American Booksellers chose Silver Sparrow and the #1 Indie Next pick for June 2011.


I kept thinking about hair as I read Silver Sparrow. I got my first relaxer when I was five years old because my mother has a white father and always had what we so perniciously refer to as "good hair." When she realized I didn't have "good hair," she was at a real loss for what to do with the naps on my head so she began taking me to the black beauty salon in North Omaha where there were people better equipped to handle my wild and unruly and thick head of hair. I was introduced to the culture of the beauty salon at a very early age. We lived all the way over in West Omaha with the white people, and my parents are both Haitian, so going to the beauty salon each week was one of my few exposures to black American culture. In Silver Sparrow, The Pink Fox speaks to so many of my memories of sitting in the chair with that vinyl cape and the thin band of paper around my neck as my scalp burned and I listened to the grown women talk. What memories do you have from going to the beauty shop and how did those memories inform how you created The Pink Fox?

My experience is pretty much the opposite of yours. My parents did not allow me to straighten my hair when I was a kid. ďYou are an African girl and you have African hair.Ē They mean African as in African-descended. I always saw the beauty shop as this luxurious place where fancy girls went to get even fancier. A woman across the street from my grandma had a beauty shop connected to her house. I would go there early in the morning -- like 7 am -- and sit all day and watch her do hair. Her name was Mrs. Niece and she was so very kind to me. Once she straightened my hair and let me wear Shirley Temples all day, but then washed it all out and sent me home again.

Although I wear my hair natural, and have for almost twenty years, I donít have that angry feeling toward hair salons and hairdressers. I know the history, and Lord knows I know all about the pressure to have LPR -- long pretty hair. And yes, many hairdressers are dedicated to the eradication of the North American nap. But still, I have a soft spot for these ladies, who spend so much time in woman-space giving advice, offering congratulations, and making a sort of emotional safe space.

I too have a soft spot for the beauty salon as a safe emotional space for women. I recently read an article about a young woman who recently became an esthetician and she talked, in part, about the emotional connection between her and her clients. Itís very interesting to me where women, where people really, try to find emotional spaces and emotional connections. As a writer, I often seek emotional connections and emotional safe space in writing and your book was very much that kind of space for me, a book that was not only telling a fascinating and beautiful and heartbreaking story but also one where I could see some of my experiences reflected. What are some of the books where you have been able to find emotional safe spaces?

I may have mentioned that I am teaching a Toni Morrison class this semester and, it has been a tremendous experience for me. We read Song of Solomon this week and it was like being wrapped in a blanket -- a really smart blanket. Although the text is really male, it wasn't what I like to call ďDudes Talking to Dudes about Dudes.Ē I felt like I was looking in the mirror at all the women -- from the outlaw, Pilate, to poor desperate Hagar. And the dutiful daughter Ruth, and the resentful sisters with the funny names. For all of them, I thought -- been there. When I read Morrison I feel seen, and I feel loved. Sometimes, I feel tough-loved, but there is love there. In Song of Solomon, at Hagar's funeral, Pilate calls out, SHE WAS LOVED. It kills me every time.

As a writer, I sometimes find that it is difficult to be sympathetic toward unlikable characters. In Silver Sparrow though, I sensed a real evenness in how you characterized James Witherspoon. He is clearly a man who has done all kinds of wrong but in Part II, in particular, we come to understand how a boy's mistake became a man's problem and it is easier to try and understand instead of simply revile the man. Do you have a similar struggle to creating balanced portrayals of flawed characters?

Itís important that I never come to a novel trying to avenge anyone. I always tell my students that every character has to have a legitimate point in every argument, in every conversation. If I canít be even with a character, then I wonít write that character. There are a lot of experiences in my life that people say, ďYou should write about that!Ē But I canít write it unless I can understand, or at least empathize with, all the characters. I donít write from life before I can first forgive. I know some writers forgive as a result of the writing, but for me -- if I am writing about you, I have forgiven you.

In this book, itís different. My father is NOT a bigamist. I feel like I cannot say that enough. But I do have two older sisters who do not have the same mother as me. I grew up in the same house with my dad and we have an amazing relationship. But they did not have this relationship with him. Knowing this does not make me love my father any less, but it makes for a more complicated way of understanding him. I grew up with what I call ďDaddy blingĒ -- this is a real life Cliff Huxtable, but my sisters wouldnít say the same. I canít say what they would say. Thatís their story. Or, thatís their stories. But I know that people are complicated and they change. I try and keep that in mind whenever I write, but with this book in particular.

When I read a book, I always want to know more about the characters, the story. One of the most interesting characters, for me, was Raleigh, always on the edges of everyone's lives, practically an invisible man. I just have to know. Why doesn't Raleigh ever reach for more for himself? Why is he content, or if not content, at least willing to live in the shadow of James Witherspoon's life? Surely there are limits to gratitude.

Poor Raleigh. Yes, there are limits to gratitude, but are there limits to the desire to belong? The need to be part of a family? Is he living in the shadow of Jamesís life, or is he living IN Jamesís life. With Jamesí two families, he gets four women who love and value him. He gets to be a brother, and uncle, a friend. Thatís a lot of relationships. This of how many people go through life without that kind of belonging. I am not saying Raleighís life is ideal, but itís not half bad -- until it is.

Why did you decide to tell this novel in two parts, and from two different perspectives?

I hadnít planned to tell the story in two parts. I wanted Dana from beginning to end. Then I decided to tell it in four parts -- each of the daughters and their mothers. (Part of this was due to a silly desire I have had for almost ten years to write a book called The Atlanta Quartet, like The Alexandria Quartet.) At some point I decided that the two voices were enough, especially when I realized that the girls should be the one to tell their motherís stories. That was my favorite part -- this idea that we can tell stories that happened before we were born. I believe that our parentís courtship stories are our first exposure to propaganda.

Both of James Witherspoon's daughters in Silver Sparrow are beloved by their mothers. What interested me, though, was how you showed so many different kinds of mothers -- mothers like those of Raleigh and Laverne who couldn't do right by their children and mothers like Miss Bunny who did do right by her child and another woman's child. Even though this is a story about a man with two lives I also think it's a story about mothers and children and how much power that relationship has over the course of someone's life. Are you close with your mother? Where do you draw these relationships from?

You may not know this about me, but I am completely obsessed with Toni Morrison. I am teaching a class of advanced reading in Morrison and itís not going so well because I have absolutely NO distance from the subject matter. I love her so much. Itís unreasonable.

But Morrison writes so much about mothers and daughters and the way that love can strangle or at least warp. My own mother is not anything like the mothers I write about, but I think I write about my fantasy mothers. I love how Laverne and Gwen both cross boundaries with their daughters and tell them personal things and give them all this real-world advice. And the neglectful mothers in the book (all my books really) are sort of like me because I donít have children, which sort of makes me the worst mother of all. I do the things the bad mothers do, itís just not problematic because I donít have kids.

My own mother is a very responsible even handed woman. She has a PhD in Economics. She doesnít believe in indulging children. She believes in hard work and modesty. I love her very much and weíre close, yet we are very different in the way we move in the world. I too believe in hard work, but I am not terribly self-sacrificing, but maybe thatís because I donít have children.

Atlanta, I read on your website, is where your imagination lives. What is it about Atlanta that has such a hold on your imagination?

The urban south is where the rubber hits the road when it comes to American culture. History is everywhere and people inhabit history in a conscious way in the south. In Atlanta, MLK is just under the surface. In my second novel, The Untelling when the mother is annoyed with the kids she says, ďThis is not what Dr. King died for!Ē I feel like that question in the moral litmus test of my life. Itís a sort of national question, but it is also an ATLien question, too.

You mentioned that people inhabit history in a conscious way in the South. What do you mean by that?

What I mean is that Southerners are constantly aware of themselves as being In The South-- which means the civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights, post civil rights. All of America sees the South this way. It's just that southerners are the ones who live there. †The only place I have been that is more conscious of its racialized past was Recife, Brazil.†When I was there, I was eating lunch in a mall and my guide said, "This used to be a slave market." I was impressed, Americans donít just talk about slavery. But it also reminded me of a line in a poem by my friend, Natasha Trethewey. Of Vicksburg, she writes, "This whole city is a grave." She's talking about the Civil War and it makes sense to causally mention it. Still, we manage to talk about the Civil War without talking about slavery.

That's how I feel about Port au Prince, where my parents are from and where they live part time, the idea that the whole city is a grave and then, last year, it literally became a grave.

Every time I am reminded of the history of race in this country and the history of women in this country, I start to twitch. History makes me angry. One of the things you did so nicely in Silver Sparrow is speak to the Deep South during the mid-20th century and the difficult circumstances black people faced and (black) women faced. I was particularly righteous about Laverne's lack of options. How do you approach writing about difficult histories?

History makes me curious. I think, though, that when I wrote those historical moments, I had to look at Laverne as one girl, not as all girls at that time. Getting real specific keeps me from getting too outraged to be open to the idiosyncrasies of the story. I actually cobbled that story from a couple of stories I had heard from women in life. One was a woman who married at 14 and I overheard someone say, ďShe picked the right boy to get pregnant byÖĒ That opened me up to the possibility that a girl could be forced into a marriage and it not be a living hell. Just being open to that possibility gave me the wiggle room to be imaginative. And the other story was a friend of my momís who told me that when she got pregnant, she didnít know how to baby was going to get out of her body. This lady is living a fine life -- married 40-some years, three kids, youngest daughter is a doctor. This made me see that the story didnít necessarily have to be tragic, just challenging.

You had to change the title of Silver Sparrow. I get very attached to my titles. I often start a given story with the title and work from there so I cannot really imagine being forced to make that kind of change well into a book's lifecycle. What was that experience like? Are you happy with the new title?

Changing the title damn near killed me. I cried and cried. I cried like Charlie Brown -- with the tears shooting out from the sides of my head. Projectile weeping. But I had everyone in my life brainstorming new titles. That was fun. And it felt good to have a group project. I didnít feel so alone and there was a lot of laughing. (Some of the titles were INSANE.) But my friend, Mitchell, helped me come up with Silver Sparrow. And I love it now. I like how southern it is -- His Eye Is On The Sparrow, and all of that.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the VIDA statistics about women in publishing. The numbers are not necessarily surprising but they are a stark reminder of who is being published where and why. No one, as far as I know, has compiled similar statistics about writers of color but I also know the numbers would be even more disheartening. Do you see value in this statistical approach as a means of starting difficult conversations about underrepresentation and publishing?

I think these stats are vital to an important conversation. But as a writer, I canít think about that. I can only think of putting one word next to the other. This is not to say that I donít think these stats are important; nor do I mean to say that racism and sexism are not in full effect in publishing. But I wonder if this is a fight for readers, scholars, and librarians and not for writers. Readers must advocate for what they want to read. As a writer, getting too much in the weeds with publishing only hangs me up when I try to write. I mean who wants to write being aware of how unlikely it is that you will be published just because of who you are?

I love your blog and have particularly enjoyed your advice and some of the behind-the-scenes information you share about the publishing process. Most working writers today seem to have online presences. How important is it for a writer, today, to have an online presence? Why?

I started my blog at the insistence of my publicist, Lauren Cerand, who said I needed an online presence. But then she asked me what I wanted to accomplish with a blog. I told her that I wanted to use the blog to get information out there to people who want to write and to publish, but may not know much about the industry. When I first started publishing, I didnít know about the opportunities available to writers and I believed this delayed my success. I wasnít part of that world. I worry that people who are ďin the loopĒ only talk to other loopers. How can anyone else get a chance? So I decided that I was going to try and be like Prometheus, stealing fire and all of that. Or maybe thatís too grandiose. Robin Hood maybe?

I think that itís helpful for an author to have an online presence, but itís not for everyone. Some writers live in a cave, and that works for them.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about MFA programs, what they can or cannot do or a writer. You currently teach in an MFA program so I am curious as to how you would design an MFA program if you ruled the world.

I donít know how I would design a program -- Iím not a program designing type. But I have to say that our MFA at Rutgers-Newark is a great program. We specialize in diversity and non-traditional students. Itís a shame that pretty much everyone that publishes what is considered an important book has an MFA. We canít change that, but we can change who gets an MFA.

What's next for you?

Another novel! I donít want to talk about it right now, but I received a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute to go to Harvard next year to research and write. Itís set in the 1930s and itís a hard one. I worry that my ambition may exceed my ability, but I felt like that when I started Silver Sparrow. When I was in high school, there was a huge sign in the lobby that said, NOT FAILURE, BUT LOW AIM, IS SIN. Well, we can say this project is righteous, indeed.

I too worry that my ambition exceeds my ability, especially as I try to finish my first novel. How can we, as writers, work through those kinds of doubts about ability when we undertake ambitious projects?

I have never quite realized my vision for my novels. I just try. You know how they tell athletes to play through the pain? I write through the fear. The hardest part is getting started once I've come up with the Big Idea.

I have learned not to start at the beginning. I just start wherever I can get a little bit of a handle -- any part that I think I can write with some confidence. It's like jumping in a lake or something and you can't swim so well. I just paddle furiously for dear life!

What do you love most about your writing?

What I love best is writing about my hometown. And I like the idea that my characters feel like they live in the world and not on the page.