June 8 2011 12:00 AM

Tayari Jones’ new novel draws comparisons to Toni Morrison


Tayari Jones has written one of the most original coming
of age stories in modern times. Her newest book, “Silver Sparrow”, is
about two families and two sisters — one pretty, one plain — connected
but kept secret from one another by a bigamist father.

It has all the makings of a Greek tragedy, Jones explained
during the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Bookfest last weekend. Jones is
part of the Masters of Fine Arts faculty at Rutgers University and has
degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University and the
University of Iowa.

Her writing has been compared to Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison’s debut novel “The Bluest Eye.” 

Jones’ story is told first from the perspective of the
“silver sparrow,” Dana, who knows her father is a bigamist. Midway
through, the other sister, Chaurisse, who believes she lives in a normal
middle class family, takes center stage.

Unaware that they are sisters, Chaurisse becomes friends
with Dana. The book revolves around that friendship and the unusual
relationship between their families, which becomes more challenged as
the girls grow closer and Dana becomes more aggressive. 

Jones said it was a challenge to her craft to write with two voices.

Not to mention writing about bigamy, one of the last
taboos of American society. From the outset — and the book moves very
quickly — when the sisters are born only a few months apart in 1969, the
reader is pulled into the secret, always wondering which family is the
most damaged: the one that knows, or the one that has been kept in the

It is impossible not to feel the tension as the lives of
the African-American sisters (who live in the same city) become

Jones also wisely uses some humorous elements in her
writing, especially as the girls share stories about their fathers. Soon
after they first meet, dressed in identical jackets, Dana and Chaurisse
compare almost identical stories on how their fathers won the money to
buy the jackets in a poker game.

The two girls are as different as the families they come
from. Dana is less confident¸ often jealous of the real family;
Chaurisse is confident, funny and, at times, too spunky.

Jones said she interspersed humor into
the book to show the full range of human experience while drawing deeply
from her experiences growing up in Atlanta. Her first book, “Leaving
Atlanta,” published in 2002, is a fictionalized account of three
children at the time of Atlanta child murders.

The author is on a 40-city tour; she’ll be speaking June 16 at Schuler Books & Music’s Eastwood location.

Jones said she has been surprised that at some stops
someone in the audience will step forward to say “I am a silver
sparrow,” or “I am a daughter of a silver sparrow.”

Clearly, we don’t have to look far in popular culture to
find tales of a secret child, as the recent revelations from Arnold
Schwarzenegger and John Edwards demonstrate.

Jones said secret families are all around us, and we often refer to the children as illegitimate or a “love child,” she said.

Although she didn’t write the book for that purpose, she
wants her readers to understand that “there are so many adults (living)
with the pain of that.

“It’s important we realize that children shouldn’t bear a
stigma for something they didn’t do. Shame shouldn’t ever be your

In her appearances, Jones counsels the audience to watch
themselves on the words they use: “No person is illegitimate, or ’a
product of.’”

This message is intertwined with the
complex characters populating “Silver Sparrow,” and Jones has taken
great pains to be what she calls “open and compassionate to each

“I write to tell the story and not save any characters,” she says.

She has also filled the book with the right level of
Southern aphorisms and what Southern writers like to call bon mots.
These descriptions often tell us everything we need to know about a
character’s particular personality or physical attribute. So the
bigamist father, who is not the lothario you would imagine, is described
as a man “who wore glasses thick as a slice of Wonder bread.”

Jones has an extended family that includes two sisters by
two different mothers, and it is likely she drew on this experience in
writing her book. Growing up, Jones said, she would only see her one
sister once a year, but as adults they grew closer.

"After (her sister) read the book, she called me and said, ’This one is really good,’" Jones said.

Tayari Jones
7 p.m. Thursday,June 16
Schuler Books & Music
2820 Towne Center Blvd.,
(517) 316-7495