National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow Tayari Jones was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where her third novel, Silver Sparrow, is set during the 1980s. It tells the story of two teenage girls who are sisters but only one knows it, as their father has kept one family public, the other a secret. The girls have separate lives and different last names, but when they happen to meet and form a friendship, it’s just a matter of time before the tension breaks and hard discoveries are made. The novel is a “layered and evocative tale,” writes the Star Tribune. “Jones explores the rivalry and connection of siblings, the meaning of beauty, the perils of young womanhood, the complexities of romantic relationships and the contemporary African-American experience.” It is “impossible to put down until you find out how these sisters will discover their own versions of family” (Los Angeles Times). Jones is the recipient of a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
"I think of it [writing] as a sort of meditation, a way that we can connect simultaneously to ourselves and to something larger than ourselves." —from the blog post "Writing Rituals: Green Leaves - A Daily Writing Prayer"
"My father, James Witherspoon is a bigamist," is the opening line of Silver Sparrow, a novel written by Tayari Jones that unveils a breathtaking story about a man's deception, a family's complicity, and the two teenage girls caught in the middle.
Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta during the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon's families—the public one and the secret one. When Witherspoon's daughters from each family meet, they form a friendship, but only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other's lives.
At the heart of it all are two girls whose lives are at stake, and like the best writers, Jones portrays the fragility of her characters with raw authenticity as they seek love, demand attention, and try to imagine themselves as women.
A Conversation with Tayari Jones is used with permission from Algonquin Books.
The Big Read: Tayari Jones on Silver Sparrow, with James Hannaham (Brooklyn Public Library video)
- As Dana says, bigamy "happens all the time, and not just between religious fanatics, traveling salesmen, handsome sociopaths, and desperate women" (page 4). Do you know personally of a situation involving a secret wife or secret children? How did the situation come to light, and how was it resolved?
- In the case of Silver Sparrow, what do you think was more harmful, the bigamy itself, or the deception? If James had been honest, would he have been able to integrate Dana into his life in a healthy way? Once the truth is out, does Laverne have any moral obligation to be a stepmother to Dana?
- When we think of custody, we think about parents gaining custody of children. But children also have custody of parents. In Silver Sparrow, Chaurisse has custody of her father, James. Would it be possible for him to be an equal father to two daughters since they do not live in the same house? Is it inevitable that one daughter would be favored over the other?
- When Gwen discovers that James is expecting a child with his wife Laverne, she prays that the child be a healthy daughter. Would this story have been different if Chaurisse or Dana had been a son?
- In her own life, author Tayari Jones stopped using the term half sister to talk about her own sisters after her nephew objected to the term. "There are no half people," he said. Do you think sibling relationships should depend on whether they have the same parents on both sides? Is the family obligation the same?
- Marriage and children are closely linked in Silver Sparrow. At the age of fourteen, Laverne marries James because she is pregnant. A decade later, Gwen marries James because she, too, is pregnant. Are these types of marriages based on love or obligation? Were James's and Laverne's mothers right to force the teenagers to marry? Was James honorable in some way to offer to marry Gwen?
- Tayari Jones often writes about the way real people interact with history; for example, Gwen's feelings about the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. How have you interacted with history? How did it affect your personal story?
- Much of the book is set in Laverne's salon, the Pink Fox. How do hair and beauty figure into this story? Do you think your own hair has impacted your life? If so, for better or for worse?
- Silver Sparrow opens with Dana's statement, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist," and then Dana goes on to narrate the first half of the story. How did you feel when the story switched to Chaurisse's point of view? Did you feel more sympathy for one sister than the other? How do you think you would have felt had you heard Chaurisse's story first?
- Near the end of the story, Gwen tells Laverne the truth. Was it her place to tell her? Why do you think she chose such a public setting—Laverne's salon—to break the news?
- When talking about the book, Tayari Jones often jokes, "Every bigamist needs a wing man." When she says this, she is, of course, talking about Raleigh, James's best friend. Why do you think that Raleigh is so loyal to James, not only keeping his secret but performing a lot of the legwork to keep the two families afloat?
- Raleigh harbors a secret love for Gwen and even proposes marriage to her. When did you first notice that his feelings were more than just that of a brother-in-law? Do you think she should have married him? Was she right to let her daughter Dana make the decision?
- Who do you think sends the mysterious postcard at the end of the novel?
- Some readers have said that James seems like two different men when he is with his two families. On the one hand, he is a loving father to Chaurisse, offering unconditional love. With Dana, he is present, but his love is always in jeopardy and requires her secrecy. How do we judge such a man? Do we judge him by his best deeds or his worst? Or do we try and find some middle ground? Is James a good father? Is he a good man?
- Who was better off in the book—Dana or Chaurisse? Chaurisse had a happier life, but she and her mother were living a lie. Dana was hurt, but she was living with the truth. Is it better to be sheltered and deceived but happy, or to be informed but damaged? Why?
- At the end of the book, Dana says, "You only lie to people you love." Is this true? Does James lie to Laverne because he loves her too much to tell her the truth? Does Dana lie about her identity because of her love for Chaurisse?
Silver Sparrow Wins Over Reluctant Readers and Inspires Bakers in Chattanooga, Tennessee
“The novel Silver Sparrow was the first time I actually sat on my couch and read until I was finished,” wrote one participant. “I even called my parents and told them. Analyzing works is one of my most dreaded parts of any English class, but I actually wanted to talk about the book and find out what other people took from it. I enjoyed the two sides in the story, the book taught me that putting things in a different perspective is so important when it comes to difficult situations.”
“Normally, I don't like to read,” wrote another. “Writing is a weakness for me. As I read Silver Sparrow, I was hooked. At first, I thought it would be a terrible book … but as I learned more about Dana, I wanted to read more and more. I actually finished reading the book in a few days. It made me really think about the world.”
– from a final report by Chattanooga State Community College, an NEA Big Read recipient in FY 2016-17.
Silver Sparrow Author Brings Joy to a Community in Peoria, Illinois
“In Peoria, an author visit always has a positive effect on our community’s perception of the public library. Bringing a speaker in from out of town or especially out of state interests our newspaper staff and the published article based on their interview with the speaker increases our audiences. After these programs, it never fails that people ask what kinds of similar programs we are planning, either because they would like to attend or because they want to work with us.
“As for high school students, each year we typically get one high school that really digs into our featured book with students. This year it was Peoria High School, a school with 70% low income and 59% graduation rate. It was terrific to see these students waiting in line to have Tayari Jones sign this book that they had read and talked about and then see some of them stay longer and have their photo taken with her.”
– from a final report by Peoria Public Library, an NEA Big Read grant recipient in FY 2016-17.
Silver Sparrow Inspires Creative Programming in Montgomery, Alabama
“Over 7,000 members of the public viewed ‘Her Word as Witness: Women Writers of the African Diaspora,’ a month-long photography exhibit in the Rosa Parks Museum. Over ninety people left comments in the guest book. Two of the most memorable comments came from children. One commented, ‘As a young girl, these photographs of inspiring women are very empowering and they give me confidence that I will achieve amazing things.’ One ten-year-old girl wrote, ‘To think we went from segregation to this! in less than 1 century. It is beautiful.’”
– from a final report by the Troy University Rosa Parks Library, an NEA Big Read recipient in FY 2016-17.