One of the moments I love best in my interview with Tayari Jones over at Algonquin Books’ blog is when I ask her about something she said in another interview about a year previous, right after she’d finished the novel: “It seems that an ordinary black life isn’t seen as remarkable or worthy of attention. This concerns me.”
And Tayari said something about this in our interview that took my own thinking in another direction:
It seems to me that African American lives are seen to illustrate an American problem, as though we are an “issue,” rather than human beings. So, the stories about us are expected to elucidate a series of social problems or to raise awareness of one thing or another. I have no quarrel with anyone’s subject matter, I am making the case for more inclusion of ordinary lives. When I taught an African-American literature class, one of my students, a woman in her 40s who was a returning ed student, said, “Can’t we read some about how regular people live their lives? I want to read a book about me.”
Tayari and I, for being friends, have spoken before on topics near this issue before. And what I thought of when she said this was how the year before, in the Asian American Literary Review’s forum, I wrote something addressing a phenomenon that disturbed me: how often I saw the American literary establishment promote the works of African writers over African American ones, Japanese writers over Japanese American ones, and so on. If we were immigrants, we had the chance to be treated as an international writer. If we were raised here, we were something less than minor regionalists. What I said then was something like what Tayari said, though coming at it from another angle.
For at least the last 20 years, I do think we’ve allowed ourselves, as Asian American writers, and as writers of color in general, to be made into the culture’s referees, performing our ethnicity in a literary Epcot center, and we’re given a voice usually when the white culture wants to know if they’ve been prejudiced in X matter or not. Yes, we say, as we appear on stage, or, No, depending. But that is what our role has become. And we adjudicate more than we write, we are seduced into performing that role, and…then we are tired of it, and so we need a different kind of liberation, an artistic one.
Tayari Jones’ novel is that, I think. It is having a tremendous reception, and I’d bet money the success of the novel is in part due how it speaks to a gap—it is, as that woman in her class said, “a book about me.” But I think we can all say that. Reading Tayari’s novel, I felt like afterward I knew more about my life, the people in it, and the women in it in particular, though, the men also. And I felt like I knew more about my country, too. I also laughed, and read portions of it out loud to Dustin, who learned to say “Tayari’s novel?” when I laughed while reading.
What I think is happening, as I see her Facebook wall covered in fan notes, is that her readers are reading her not to be “more aware” specifically, and not because the novel solemnly intones on a “social problem”—it doesn’t—they read because it is exciting. It is a moving novel, beautifully written and conceived. And it makes me happy also because an institution like Algonquin Books has published work that moves past the narrow ways other publishers and literary culture in general often treat writers of color. Silver Sparrow isn’t about the “problem” of bigamy, as it were, though that is obviously a part of the novel. It is about two sisters, who love each other in a way that is almost too difficult to bear, and the circumstances both bringing them together and pulling them apart.
I can’t recommend it enough. Get your copy of Silver Sparrow today.