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- Tayari Jones serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers University and is the author of two previous novels, "Leaving Atlanta” and “The Untelling.”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Tayari Jones begins her latest novel with this line, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist." She says secret families are so common that some churches keep smelling salts on hand for new widows confronted at the wake by other grieving widows.
MS. DIANE REHMHer book is about two sisters, one pretty, one plain. One knows she's a secret, the other is unaware of her existence. The title of Tayari Jones' new novel is, "Silver Sparrow." She joins me in the studio. We'll welcome your calls, your comments, 800-433-8850. Send your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, it's good to have you here.
MS. TAYARI JONESGood morning. I'm so delighted to be here.
REHMI'm interested that you say that after some of your readings people have been coming up to you and saying that they are silver sparrows. Has that actually happened?
JONESSometimes they come up to me privately and sometimes they say it on the microphone. I think the idea of silver sparrows, which is a term of my own making, which are children who are born to a father who is married to someone else who's not their mother.
JONESI think that it's far more common than we think and people use my title, silver sparrow, because there is no dignified language to describe yourself when this is your background and so people kind of jump on the title. Even a man wrote to me and said, I'm a silver sparrow. And it meant a lot to me because I feel like language is important. As Dana says in the novel, it matters what you call things.
REHMDana is one of the two girls?
JONESYes, Dana is the silver sparrow. She's the one who's known her whole life that she is her father's secret, that she can never say her father's name.
REHMYou know, before we went on the air I said to you, I've never known anybody in this situation. And you said…
JONESNot that you know of.
REHMNot that you know of. Have you ever known anyone in this situation or did it come strictly out of your own head?
JONESWell, I have known a young woman who was in this situation where her -- where she could never say her father's name where she grew up in secret, seeing her siblings across town. You know, knowing that she could never speak to them.
JONESBut since this book has come out, I've known a lot of people like this and that's the thing, this idea of what in the south we call, outside children, are a true cultural taboo. Like, we accept that adultery happens, we don't like it, it's frowned upon. But it's when children result from these relationships that it becomes a real secret and a true cultural taboo.
REHMI have found myself wondering about both Arnold Schwarzenegger's child out of wedlock and as well as John Edwards' child out of wedlock and wondering how they might feel because theirs is so public. You talk about the secrets but theirs is so public.
JONESTheirs is very public and if you look at, for example, Schwarzenegger's son, is so seldom called, his son, you know, without qualifying. He's called a love child, he's called all these things and I remember when Schwarzenegger said, I have discussed this with my wife and my family. I've apologized to my wife and my children.
JONESAnd my thought was, that other boy is your children. But they're in a whole separate category, and to grow up not having a secret but being a secret is like a unique sort of shame, I think.
REHMRead for us where Dana learns how her father really feels about her.
JONESOkay. This is from Chapter One. "I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher, Ms. Russell, asked us to draw pictures of our families. While all the other children scribbled with their crayons or soft-leaded pencils, I used a blue ink pen and drew James, Chaurisse and Laverne.
JONES"In the background was Raleigh, my father's best friend. This was years and years ago but I still remember. I hung a necklace around the wife's neck. I gave the girl a big smile stuffed with square teeth. Near the left margin, I drew my mother and me standing by ourselves.
JONES"The art teacher approached me from behind. 'Now, who are these people you've drawn so beautifully?' Charmed, I smiled up at her, 'My family. My Daddy has two wives and two girls.' Cocking her head, she said, 'I see.' I didn't think that much more about it. I was still enjoying the memory of the way she pronounced beautifully.
JONES"To this day, when I hear anyone say that word, I feel loved. At the end of the month I brought home all my drawings in a cardboard folder. James opened up his wallet, which he kept plump with $2 bills to reward me for my schoolwork. I saved the portrait, my masterpiece, for last, being as it was so beautifully drawn and everything.
JONES"My father picked the page up from the table and held it close to his face like he was looking for a coded message. My mother stood behind me, crossed her arms over my chest and bent to place a kiss at the top of my head. 'It's okay,' she said. 'Did you tell your teacher who was in the picture?'
JONES"I nodded slowly the whole time thinking I probably should lie, although I wasn't quite sure why. 'James,' mother said, 'let's not make a molehill into a mountain. She's just a child.' 'Gwen,' he said, 'this is important. Don't look so scared. I'm not going to take her out behind the woodshed.'
JONES"Then he chuckled but my mother didn't laugh. 'All she did was draw a picture. Kids draw pictures.' 'Go on in the kitchen, Gwen,' James said. 'Let me talk to my daughter.' My mother said, 'Why can't I stay here? She's my daughter too.'
JONES"'You're with her all the time. You tell me I don't spend enough time talking to her. So now let me talk.' Mother hesitated then released me. 'She's just a little kid, James. She doesn't even know the ins and outs yet.' 'Trust me,' James said. She left the room but I don't know that she trusted him not to say something that would leave me wounded and broken winged for life.
JONES"I could see it in her face. When she was upset, she moved her jaw around invisible gum. At night, I could hear her in her room grinding her teeth in her sleep. The car, the sound was like gravel under car wheels. 'Dana, come here.' I hesitated, looking to the space in the doorway where mother had disappeared.
JONES"'Dana,' he said, 'you're not afraid of me, are you? You're not sacred of your own father, are you?' His voice sounded mournful but I took it as a dare. 'No, sir,' I said, taking a bold step forward. 'Don't call me sir, Dana. I'm not your boss. When you say that it makes me feel like an overseer.' I shrugged. Mother told me that I should always call him sir.
JONES"With a sudden motion he reached out for me and lifted me up on his lap. He spoke to me with both our faces looking outward so I couldn't see his expression. 'Dana, I can't have you making drawings like the one you made for your art class. I can't have you doing things like that. What goes on in the house between your mother and me is grown people's business. I love you. You're my baby girl and I love you and I love your mama. But what we do in this house has to be secret, okay?'
JONES"'But I didn't even draw this house.' James sighed and bounced me on his lap a little bit. 'What happens in my life, in my world, doesn't have anything to do with you. You can't tell your teacher that your Daddy has another wife. You can't tell your teacher that my name is James Witherspoon. Atlanta ain't nothing but a country town and everybody knows everybody.'
JONES"'Your other wife and your other girl is a secret?' I asked him. He put me down from his lap so we could look each other in the face. 'No,' he said. 'You've got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that's the secret.'
REHM"Silver Sparrow," is the title of Tayari Jones' new novel. You just heard her read the defining motion of this book. It's really powerful.
REHMReally powerful. Where did the idea of this story come from?
JONESYou know, I find writing to be a little bit mysterious. I think I write toward the idea. I will say that I have a personal interest in the idea of sisters and the idea of sisters that have both sets of the same parents. I have two sisters and we have different mothers.
JONESI used to say I have a half-sister until my nephew told me, Don't say half. He said, there are no half people. Am I your half-nephew? I felt so -- I felt really embarrassed by that because I realize that making these boundaries, these distinctions, make for distance between people.
JONESMy sisters and I did not grow up in the same home. They are about 10 years older than me and they're my father's daughters and they grew up in the small town in Louisiana where my father's from, while I grew up in Atlanta with my father and my mother.
JONESAnd all my life I felt that I had sisters that I could not reach, who were living lives so different than my own. Although, I mean, we often think of parents having custody of children but I also realized that children have custody of the parents and in the case of me and my sisters, I had custody of the Daddy and I really had to think about what does that mean?
REHMEven now, those sisters are separate from you?
JONESWell, you know, we're adults now and so I guess the thing about adult siblings is that everyone is separate from everyone. I knew them coming up but I didn't see them often. I saw them maybe once a year and we're adults and we have much more of a relationship because as adults we decided that we wanted to be sisters.
REHMThe book is titled "Silver Sparrow." Tayari Jones serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers Newark. She's the author of two previous novels.
REHMWe're talking with Tayari Jones. She's a novelist who also serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers Newark. Her prior books "Leaving Atlanta" and "The Untelling." But this title "Silver Sparrow" is all about two families, one made up of mother and daughter, the other made up of father, mother and daughter. And one daughter knows that she is a secret. What a powerful theme.
JONESWell, thank you. It really -- it really came to me in some ways in a way that was kind of beyond me. I didn't start writing about secrets. I started writing about estrangement. And it was almost like this was a story I was meant to write. I do believe that stories -- we -- like -- I always say I call myself writing just about sisters but I realize that now that I was called to write about this bigger issue.
REHMAnd the bigger issue is truly identifying oneself.
JONESIt's about identifying oneself and it's also about the choices we make about family. I feel that all the characters in this novel are willing to do anything to have a family. So Gwen, Dana's mother, in order to have a family she's willing to live this life of secrecy to have a family. I feel the stakes for all the characters are so high that no one can compromise, but as a result everyone is compromised.
REHMYou know, in your book you mention that ushers in churches keep smelling salts handy for grieving widows who discover there's another wife.
JONESYes. I mean, usually these stories come to light when the man dies. When the man is dead, when the husband is dead then there's -- either neither wife is aware or the one who has lived quietly, she comes to the funeral. Her children deserve to come to their father's funeral. And that's where it -- that's usually where this revelation take place.
REHMWhen your father divorced and you found yourself in his new family with the sisters left behind, how did you feel about knowing that there were these two separate families?
JONESWell, I have to say, my father was never married to their mother so -- and I was -- my father -- my parents met at a NAACP meeting in 1963 and I was their second child and their -- I was their youngest daughter. I never had a moment when I found out that I had sisters. I always knew they were there but I didn't understand as a little kid what it meant to have a sister that doesn't live with you or -- I think I just didn't get it.
JONESI was actually a young teenager when I just started thinking about the fact that my sisters were not here with me and they were my sisters. And I didn't know how to go about really forging a relationship with them until I got my first car. When I was about 18 I got a car and my family -- my parents had moved to Houston and my sister lived in Houston. I drove my car to her house, I would just visit her. She wasn't that into me but I was into her. (laugh). Like I thought she was the most amazing person I'd ever seen and I would just be at her house all the time.
REHMShe was ten years older.
JONESYes. And I have to say, I think I grew on her. I did. And now we're very close.
JONESBut I think I was just this kind of annoying young person that would not leave.
REHMHow did your parents feel about your pursuing your sister?
JONESI think they were very delighted. I mean, my parents are very warm and open people and I think the idea of bringing more people into the fold, I think that was something that was welcomed. And my other sister, she has like the most -- she is a wonderful person herself but she has the most amazing children. And I think those children also serve as an important bridge for the family.
JONESJust delightful young people.
REHMOf course in the novel James is actually a bigamist.
JONESHe is actually a bigamist. He is being a husband to two women. And it was kind of tricky to get into his mind because I believe that to write a character effectively you have to not only understand their point of view, but it has to make a kind of sense.
JONESSo I was thinking, how does James explain to himself how he has two wives. And I said, okay, what is he thinking? I thought, this is what he thinks. He thinks something like this. He thinks, I am a good man. In my whole life any woman that has come to me and said she is having my baby I have married her. I have left no woman unmarried that needs to be married. And so that's what he thinks. He thinks, I did the right thing twice. That's what he thinks.
REHMBut the second time -- I mean these two children are born so close together.
JONESHe was having a good week I guess.
REHMIt was shocking.
JONESWell, I think that he has these two women who are having these two babies, so now he's equally invested in the two women. And he decides that, you know, rather than choose one he's gonna do both. He's gonna work really hard and try to keep both families afloat. His real crime is the simultaneous nature of these relationships. If he was a father to just one of these women he'd be fine. I mean, he wouldn't be world's greatest dad but he'd be fine.
REHMWhat about Raleigh? He is sort of James's brother.
JONESHe's James's -- I think of him as James's wingman.
JONESRaleigh is James -- they grew up together in the same house because James's mother was a maid and she had to live with the family that she kept house for. So she adopts Raleigh so her son will not be in the home alone. So they -- these boys grew up together. They are brothers for all practical purposes. They are brothers and James cannot keep this bigamy, all the balls in the air without the help of Raleigh. And Raleigh too is someone who will do anything to be part of a family.
REHMAnd at one point Raleigh proposes to Gwen and says, you know, I really love you. I really want to marry you and I want to be your family.
JONESAnd Gwen is like, are you crazy? I mean, that's the thing. Like, sometimes people -- when I go to book clubs they want to know, should Gwen have married Raleigh. (laugh) And I said, I think Gwen should look into an option B. The choices in life are not your bigamist husband or his brother. Like, she might -- I think if she could do anything she would need to look outside. But these people are so insular the whole world is in their homes. That's really how they feel.
JONESBut Raleigh, he's such an interesting chap but I think that -- I think that it takes -- you know how they say it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to get your bigamist relationship going. You need assistance. James cannot do it alone.
REHMAnd of course James has his own limousine business that he operates with Raleigh. So that puts him into a place where I guess he can afford these two families.
JONESAnd also Gwen -- both his wives work -- Gwen works as a nurse and Laverne is an entrepreneur. She has her own business. She runs a beauty salon. So everyone -- all the people in this book are doing the best they can to keep afloat and to keep a family. But I do think the fact that he's a limousine driver makes it where he can be gone a lot. You know, he's always away (laugh) so he doesn't have to account for where he's been. And now, because I'm on book tour, I ride in these, you know, chauffeured Town Cars all the time.
REHMSure. Of course.
JONESAnd I'm always looking at the driver thinking, are you a bigamist? I always wonder.
REHMDo you really?
JONESI do. I always say, so do you have a wife? They think I'm hitting on them but I really want to know how many wives.
REHMAnd of course Dana is obsessed with her sister...
REHM...because she fears that her sister will make choices that she, Dana, really wants to make. For example, which high school to go to, which college to go to.
JONESDana has lived her whole life understanding that she must never share the same room with Chaurisse. So often Atlanta -- I'm from Atlanta and this is where the novel is set, and there were kind of opportunities where a whole generation of children in Atlanta kind of did the same thing. So Dana wants to go to the Saturday Science Academy but then Chaurisse is going. So Dana must defer and she cannot go.
JONESIt happens to her over and over again so she feels like Chaurisse lives her life at Dana's expense. And Chaurisse, she just thinks of herself as an ordinary awkward girl. Her privilege is invisible. She doesn't know that everything she has she has basically on someone else's ticket.
REHMShe -- Chaurisse is, she doesn't have a great deal of self esteem.
JONESNo. She's what they call a teenager.
REHMExcept that she doesn't think she's pretty, where Dana thinks she is pretty. She knows she's pretty. Chaurisse doesn't think she's pretty.
REHMMakes a big difference in a child's life and yet Dana is pursuing Chaurisse.
JONESChaurisse is not pretty and she and her mother work in the beauty parlor so they work in the beauty business. She's kind of more practical. Dana believes herself to be pretty but Dana does not have the luxury of thinking all you need is pretty. You know, she knows that because of her life in the shadows. And I think that -- but Chaurisse believing herself to live an ordinary life, Chaurisse who has everything but doesn't know it, she spends a lot of time saying, I wish I was pretty. I wish I had better hair. She doesn't know that being -- living out in the open is a privilege.
JONESAnd I thought that was kind of fun to mess with as a story line, this idea of the beauty business and the way that, what Chaurisse calls, pretty in a jar which is when you can make yourself pretty, as opposed to what Dana has, which is natural beauty, that these things are kind of currency for women but...
JONES...but it's not the only thing. So often when people talk about increasing girls' self esteem they talk about convincing girls that they're pretty. Like that's all you need is to think that you're pretty and then you'll feel good about yourself. So I wanted to in the book kind of interrogate this idea about believing yourself to be worthy is more about liking what you see in the mirror. It has to be about feeling confident of who you are inside but also being affirmed by the world around you.
REHMDid you grow up feeling good about yourself?
JONESI never thought I -- I have to say I was not a great beauty as a child. I was the most plain girl, like no one ever noticed me. But I did believe myself to be -- when I was a little girl I believed myself to be a little bit smart. I knew that I was a good reader and a very fast reader. This was my claim to fame. I could read so quickly. But I also wrote stories that people found interesting. And this was the thing that I had to be valuable to my peers.
JONESBut I was never singled out or thought to be important. And I think it was because I was not a sparkly pretty girl. I think when I was coming up, girls who were thought to be pretty were thought to be important. And I wasn't that person.
REHMBut you knew you had your writing.
JONESI knew I had my writing. I did not know that it would be my life or could be my life but I knew that it was something. It was what I had and I've always been the kind of person to make the most of what I had. And that was what I had at the time.
REHMAnd your mother and your father both supported you in what you were doing?
JONESYes. Well, I won't say -- yes, I would say they supported me. They were not huge champions. I don't think that they thought that it was possible for a person to make a life from writing. For one thing, I am the spawn of social scientists. My father is a political scientist and my mother is an economist. So this life in the arts, it just kinda wasn't on the menu. But I think that they, I want to say more than encouraged me, they indulged me in it. I think it was seen as a kind of quirky thing that I did and they hoped that I would come to my sense and do something reasonable before it was too late.
REHMTayari Jones. Her new novel is titled "Silver Sparrow" and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Hamburg, N.J. Good morning, Caroline, you're on the air.
CAROLINEGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
CAROLINEMy question -- it's not really a question, it's...
REHMOh, dear. What happened? We lost you. Oh, I hope you'll call back. Let's go to Lincolnton, N.C. Good morning, James.
JAMESGood morning. I have a story which parallels what you all have been talking about.
JAMESMy wife grew up in a small town here in North Carolina, had two female cousins. They were all within two years age and so they grew up more or less close like sisters. One of those girls married straight out of college to a fella who was the son of an Air Force officer. And that officer died a few years later. We were all in our 20's. He had retired after 30 years.
JAMESWe had a full military funeral and everyone was amazed to find a second family coming to that funeral. He'd maintained a second family in Ohio. His home base had been in Greensboro, N.C., Seymour Johnson Air Force Base but he spent a lot of time at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. And he actually was married to two women.
JAMESAfter he'd started his North Carolina family he met a woman overseas, married, they settled in Dayton. He had three children with her, three here in North Carolina. So everyone at this funeral was stunned that this man who was an officer, a gentleman so to speak, was actually a bigamist.
REHMHow did they react?
JAMESWe needed smelling salts. The first wife had no idea. Neither did any of the children in North Carolina. It was a complete, total surprise. We didn't know who they were at the services. After the graveside service, they made themselves known, introduced themselves. And there was a lot of sitting down.
REHMTo keep from fainting.
JAMESThe children talked to each other but in a stunned kind of way. And then the North Carolina children were adults at that point and this is, again, 40 years ago, just about. They decided that they would not stay in touch with their other two brothers and a sister as I recall from Ohio because they could not, and to this day, cannot handle the idea that the father was a bigamist.
REHMWell, I can certainly understand that. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, Tayari, I want you to comment on James' story. Stay with us.
REHMTayari Jones' new novel "Silver Sparrow" is fiction. However, you have just heard from a caller who witnessed exactly the kind of situation that she writes about in her novel. That is a man who was a bigamist who had two families who learned at least one of them had to know. Don't you think, Tayari?
JONESI think that the family that came to the funeral from far away knew and that's how they were able to introduce themselves. They were not in shock. They had lived their whole life in the shadows. But what I think, this funeral thing is often a portion of the narrative. I once met a woman who had told me that she and her siblings every Sunday read the obituaries to see if their father had died, that there was their fear, that their father would die and they would not be told. So it's this real site of anxiety. And it's often where the revelation is because the agreement to stay in the shadows is an agreement they have with the father. And once he's gone, they come out of the shadows.
REHMLet's go to Salt Lake City, Utah. Good morning, John.
JOHNGood morning. Thank you for taking my call.
JOHNI've really resonated to this story line. I've never really followed it in mainstream literature and I resonated to it because I've never heard of the term silver sparrow. And based on the description, I would identify myself as a silver sparrow.
JOHNI was born secretively of a former politician and throughout my entire life I had a separate life from this gentleman. I had my mother. And then I was shifted between homes, but I always had the shame and I had to keep so many layers of my life secret. Now I'm 47. It's all, you know, behind me. However, I still maintain the secret. I've not even told my children about the complexities that I technically have three fathers. I've got my biological father. I got the man who is on my birth certificate, so I call him my birth certificate father. And I have my stepfather who is really my father for all intents and purposes who raised me.
JOHNBut there's so many layers of secrets, so many layers of shame that I don't think that I necessarily brought on to myself, but I still perpetuate because it's easier. And even little situations. You brought out the situation in grade school where the little girl was drawing a picture. I can't tell you how many similar instances I have experienced throughout my life where someone asks about who are you, like where are you from or where is your family from, and not knowing exactly how to answer and it's almost like death by a thousand paper cuts.
JONESThis situation is not uncommon. And one thing that I've been thinking a lot about is this idea that every child is legitimate, every person is legitimate. And this question of the birth certificate, in "Silver Sparrow" James' brother, Raleigh, signs the birth certificate so that Dana will not have the indignity of not having a birth certificate that is signed.
JONESSo they know that there is shame associated with this, but the adults will not -- are not willing to sacrifice their own comfort in order to alleviate this shame for the child. And these layers of secrecy, it's like the shame is passed down from the mother, from the father to the child. And the child shoulders this blame for his or her entire life. And I think also, a big part of it is that we as a society must change the way we perceive these children. It's much like say in the '50s if a woman was unmarried and had a baby, it was the biggest shame ever. Think of...
JONES...the complicated schemes...
JONES...people came up with. The layers, as you said, layers of shame and secrecy. They would send the girl away, come back or say the child was really the child of the grandmother. All of this because of this shame. If we could just let go of the shame like we have with single mothers, you could say now, oh, my mother was a single mother and she's my hero, and there's no shame. We as a society have to allow these children to let go of the shame.
REHMBut at the same time when celebrity is involved, for example, John in Salt Lake says his father is a former politician, ditto John Edwards, ditto Arnold Schwarzenegger, how are these children gonna manage?
JONESI think they can manage if we as a culture make our own decision not to treat them as objects of shame. I mean, I think that's the thing. But you notice with these cases of celebrity and even with John from Salt Lake, these children when discovered are always discovered. They do not come forward.
JONESThe shame is so crippling that people do not come forward.
REHMThanks for calling and sharing, John. Let's go to Lebeth in Utopia, Texas. Good morning.
LEBETHGood morning. Thanks for taking my call, Diane.
LEBETHI have a story that is my own that maybe slightly different than what y'all have been sharing this morning. I'm 57 and my mother called me about three years ago one morning and told me she had something to tell me. And I sat back and listened to about an hour of her telling me that my father had another family when I was a young child, and that there was one abortion and one live birth. I have a brother who was born in 1961. And I knew nothing about this until I was 54. And it's illuminating to learn this kind of thing. I now have a much better perspective on why I felt the way I did as a child.
REHMHow was that?
LEBETHWell, I always felt that I should've been a boy. I also felt very insignificant in the household, in the family. My mother and father of course were not happy with one another. My mother couldn't -- I mean, as she told me three or four years ago, she couldn't leave him. She had two young girls. She had no job. My father was a working father and she was just terrified that she would be destitute with two young girls to raise, so...
REHMI understand, Lebeth. I wonder why you think your mother told you all this three or four years ago.
LEBETHWell, I asked my therapist that question. And he said she's getting ready to let go. And indeed she died a year ago last May.
LEBETHSo she was, as he said, cleaning house. And I'm not sure that I am glad she told me or not. I haven't figured it out.
REHMYeah, that's something you're gonna have to work on for yourself. Tayari.
JONESI do think the important -- the real question is, yes, is it better to know or not know? Dana and her mother say that they enjoy a peculiar advantage because they know the truth. But I wonder if people like Chaurisse when looking back at her life and discovering that her father kept secrets from her, does that mean she didn't have a happy childhood? She thought she had a happy childhood.
REHMYes, she did.
JONESIt's like how revelations cause you to revise everything you once thought you knew. And I think that that's kind of a tricky question for all of us.
REHMBut in Dana's case because she did know she was constantly yearning for the other.
JONESYeah, she grew up in pain because she knew the truth. But she never had -- she was never disillusioned because she never had an illusion. So the real -- is ignorance bliss?
REHMWhat about Dana's relationship to boys when she became a teenager? What about Chaurisse's relationship with boys?
JONESWell, I think they both had difficult relationships with boys. And Dana, of course, having spent her whole life longing for the attention of her father, you know, connects with a bad boy. He's older than she is and, you know, he's not a very good guy. But Chaurisse kind of is in a similar situation. I was really -- it was hard for me to parse how much of their teenage experiences came from just the peril that teenage girls are in all the time and when you add that with the peculiar situation of their father. So I wanted to -- it was very tricky because I wanted to examine the reality of modern teenagers...
JONES...while at the same time looking at these specific teenagers with this specific problem or situation of their unusual family.
REHMThe characters in the book we assume are African American, all of them.
JONESAll of them, yes.
REHMNow, is -- certainly not from what we've heard this morning, the problem isn't that much more ordinary in the African American population than the white or is it?
JONESI think this is a universal problem. I was just telling someone that the question of unacknowledged paternity is actually the foundation of western literature.
JONESThe Greek myths are all about Zeus and all his outside children, Hercules, Perseus, all those, Prometheus. Zeus had all these extra children. But it does have a kind of interesting resonance in an African American context, particularly in a literary context, and that the slave narrative is about this very thing.
JONESFrederick Douglas says, I am the son of this plantation owner. Yet I am not the heir. I don't have freedom. And the question of these secret children is that these children do not receive the benefits of their lineage, whatever they may be. And I think that it's something that happens though completely across the board. But in every story, the more -- every story the specific situation of the story impacts the characters in a different way.
JONESLike Gwen has this yearning for respectability, which I do think comes from being -- you know, being an African American in Atlanta. She wants to be a wife. You know, she says, I'm a wife. So it has kind of a special twist on it. But I think this yearning for legitimacy, respectability, to have a family, I think it's universal.
REHMDana does get into Chaurisse's home. She wants to see everything.
JONESShe wants to see the placemats, everything.
REHMShe wants to know how similar or different her life is from her own.
JONESNo doubt. I mean, Atlanta -- like the father says, Atlanta ain't nothing but a country town and everybody knows everybody. I can go to the grocery store in Atlanta and see anyone I've met in my entire life. I can run into my second grade teacher in the produce. Like, you can see anyone. So Dana is constantly seeing Chaurisse all the time. And Chaurisse and her mother own a hair salon. And Dana has a lovely head of hair. You see how could she not make an appointment one day.
REHMWe're talking about the book "Silver Sparrow" by Tayari Jones. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Now to Roanoke, Va. Nicole, you're on the air.
NICOLEHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
NICOLEI'm calling -- I had an interesting revelation about my father in my thirties. We found out that my father also had been a bigamist. It all came to light when my mother received a call from a young gentleman searching out his birth mother. And, you know, he said Nicole and my last name and my mother said, yes, I have a daughter. We have a very unique last name. And I have a daughter by that name. And, you know, obviously she did not give a child up as a teenager, so we kind of laughed it off and felt sorry for this poor boy looking for his mother.
NICOLEA few weeks later I in passing mention it to my dad's mother about this phone call and her face dropped. And she just turned away from me and ever so quietly said, you need to talk to your father. And at this point in time my parents had been divorced a few years. So I meet with my father and explain the situation. And he breaks down and starts crying that he has, in fact, another wife or had another wife when he was married to my mother as well. And they had a daughter together with the same name. He intentionally named, this girl was a few months younger than me, Nicole as well.
NICOLEAnd like your last caller talking about, you know, reflections on your childhood, I was a very good athlete in high school and had been mentioned a lot in the paper. And, like, there were times I think that's why people would come up and we'd start talking and they kinda scratched their head, you know, some older people like, you're really Nicole? And in hindsight now I realize that they probably knew my father's other family.
JONESI think one really interesting dynamic is that the grandmother knew.
JONESLike, when someone decides to have a secret family, there are often other people in the extended family that know and it makes everyone a bigamist in a way. Then the grandmother is almost like a bigamist grandmother in some way because her question is, will I embrace all my grandchildren or just the public grandchildren? And if she embraces all the grandchildren, then is she complicit?
REHMComplicit is the word.
JONESAnd so is the answer for her to shun her grandchildren? I mean, it puts everybody -- it makes a moment of truth for everyone involved. One man's ethical choice, you know, doubtful ethical choice makes everyone else have to decide the kinda person they want to be.
REHMAnd a number of listeners have written in reminding us that the nation discovered that Charles Kuralt had a second family outside the country -- or, no, had a second family out west. It shocked us thinking about that avuncular traveler across the country. And then someone else mentioned the case of Charles Lindbergh who had two secret families in Europe. Really extraordinary.
JONESAnd not uncommon. It's simultaneously extraordinary and mundane.
REHMExactly. Well, clearly you've written a book that has touched a lot of soft places in people. Tayari Jones, her first name is spelled T-A-Y-A-R-I, last name Jones. The book is titled "Silver Sparrow." Congratulations.
JONESThank you, Diane. And thank you for having me.
REHMThanks for being here. And to all of you, thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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