Archive for the ‘Southern Literature’ Category


Interview: Tayari Jones, author of Silver Sparrow

May 19, 2011

Occasional contributor Brandon Wicks returns to Art & Literature this week to interview novelist Tayari Jones, who will be touring throughout the country with her new book Silver Sparrow, including a stop this weekend at the Gaithersburg Book Festival and in late May at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, a swing through the author’s native Georgia in early June, and an appearance later this year at the Fall for the Book festival, with which I’m associated. For the full list, see her schedule here. Thanks to both the interviewer and the interviewee for such a great discussion. — Art Taylor

Tayari Jones is the award-winning author of Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling. Her third novel, Silver Sparrow, is being published this month by Algonquin Books. 

Set in Atlanta in the 1980s, Silver Sparrow tells a story of urban bigamy through two sisters, Dana Yarboro and Chaurisse Witherspoon. One child, Chaurisse, is the product of James Witherspoon’s public marriage while Dana is part of his hidden world—a second family he supports on the side. What follows is a complicated negotiation of lies and family secrets which threaten to explode as the girls mature, potentially destroying both families if the truth should be revealed.

Brandon Wicks: With Silver Sparrow, I was immediately captivated by this notion of secret families and was reminded of Son’s Place, a famous and now sadly defunct Atlanta restaurant, whose proprietor struggled for his inheritance for being an “outside child.” All of this prompted my curiosity about the cultural history of this situation. Do you see “outside families” as an issue particular to an era or a region? to African American communities in particular? Or as something more universal?

Tayari Jones: The question of paternity and legitimacy has been a theme in literature since before the written word, I imagine. Think of all the “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children in the Bible, in Greek mythology, too. Zeus had dozens of outside children. Hercules, Perseus, even the Minotaur, all of them — outside kids. And even in African American literature, the slave narrative was not only about abolition of slavery but often about unacknowledged paternity. So this is nothing new, but it’s endlessly interesting.

The obvious question is the extent to which relationships can be institutionalized and what happens to people whose relationships are excluded from these institutions. And of course, there is the idea of rank and hierarchy in families. We don’t think of ourselves in the US as a caste culture, but the children born inside and outside of a man’s marriage offers a system of valuation that is readily accepted.

On the issue of whether is story is universal, I have to say that with everything I write, I am always asked whether I think my subject matter is universal. I believe that most art is universal. Of course different issues manifest with different nuances depending on cultural differences, but the emotional core of these human conflicts are applicable to all of us who are human. I know what I have to say next is not really the intent of what I am being asked, but when an author is asked whether her work is universal, the feeling is that you are being asked to argue on behalf of your own humanity, a position that no one should have to be in. As a black writer, a woman writer, a southern writer — this comes up a lot.

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Interview: Angela Davis-Gardner, author of Butterfly’s Child

April 26, 2011

After a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly several years ago, a friend turned to novelist Angela Davis-Gardner and asked, “What to you think happened next?” And so was planted the seed for Davis-Gardner’s next novel, the recently released Butterfly’s Child.

Davis-Gardner, a professor emerita at North Carolina State University and now the author of four novels, had already explored the intersection of U.S. and Japanese cultures in her previous book, Plum Wine, a BookSense pick and paperback bestseller. In Butterfly’s Child, she takes the elements of Puccini’s famous opera — a U.S. Navy lieutenant, a Japanese geisha, their young son, and the lieutenant’s betrayal with the American woman who becomes his bride — and crafts a multi-layered “what if?” More than speculative literary gamesmanship, the historical novel becomes a gripping domestic drama in its own right and the story of one young man trying to get back to his roots and to himself.

I had the great opportunity to interview Davis-Gardner for this month’s edition of The Writer’s Center podcast. Check it out for yourself! — Art Taylor


New Fiction: “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

February 14, 2011

My story “A Drowning at Snow’s Cut” appears in the May 2011 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In it, a father and son join one another for a boat trip down the North Carolina coast. Both men are struggling with grief after the death of their wife/mother, and the younger man, a journalist, is also coming to terms with having lost his job at the paper — and then they cross paths with other boaters and the whole weekend takes a deadly turn. The story was inspired by a cruise my own father and I took a couple of years back. Fortunately, my mom is very much still with us, and our own trip featured none of the father-son conflicts found in the story. Oh, and no corpse either. — Art Taylor


Recommendation: Oxford American’s 12th Annual Southern Music Issue

December 30, 2010

Apart from Metro itself, one of my favorite magazines is undoubtedly The Oxford American — and the highpoint of the year for The OA is undoubtedly its annual music issue. (I’m not alone in thinking this; previous music issues have won National Magazine Awards and other distinguished honors.) Since the late ’90s, the magazine has each year produced a CD exploring the South’s rich musical landscape and long and diverse heritage. Last year brought a double CD, the first sampling music from throughout the entire region and a second devoted to Arkansas musicians; this year continues that latter trend, with a single CD putting a new state — Alabama — on the turntable (so to speak).

In the midst of being bludgeoned by holiday music over the last month or two, I couldn’t wait to slide in this year’s disc — and I was amply rewarded. The beauty of each of these CDs is how suddenly and effortlessly it jumps from one genre to another or one era to the next. The K-Pers’ “The Red Invasion” (1968), for example, is followed by a song from twenty years earlier — eons away stylistically: the folksy “New Mule Skinner Blues” by The Maddox Brothers and Rose. Elsewhere, Jim Bob & the Leisure Suits capture the early-’80s punk-rock vibe with “Gangland Wars” before giving way to some country blues from Dan Pickett in “99 1/2 Won’t Do.”

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Review: Doubles by Nic Brown

November 14, 2010

Agatha Donkar, who last reviewed Nani Powers’ Ginger and Ganesh here at Art & Literature, now turns her eye toward Nic Brown’s first novel, Doubles. Brown, a long-time resident of North Carolina’s Triangle region (he’s recently relocated to Colorado), debuted last year with the highly praised short story collection Floodmarkers, and his novel, released earlier this summer, has already won equally distinguished kudos. — Art Taylor


By Nic Brown

Reviewed by Agatha Donkar

To say that Slow Smith — tennis player, husband, and the unlikely protagonist of Nic Brown’s  Doubles — is falling apart is to miss the correct verb tense. By the time we meet Slow, playing tennis against himself with a child’s small pink racket, he has already fallen apart; he himself says, “I had let myself slide into indulgence,” a nicer phrase for “gone crazy”, and it isn’t until the reappearance of Manny, Slow’s eccentric (and not a little crazy himself) old manager, that Slow starts to shake himself out of it. Slow’s wife Anne is in a coma (and he thinks it’s his fault); Slow’s doubles partner since high school, Kaz, is playing with other people (actually his fault); and Slow is simply coasting along, speaking to no one, in a life that’s ground down to a single daily activity: taking a Polaroid of Anne in her hospital bed, every day, without fail.

Taking the reader along for the ride as Slow tries to crawl out from this bottom that he’s hit, Doubles explores tennis, friendship, and love, and the truly strange lengths human beings go to in pursuit of those things — the idea that we’re all just muddling along, and there’s only so much indulgence you can take before you have to do something else. Slow’s attempts to re-start his life are haphazard, without much plan or much focus, and he moves through the days surrounding a tournament at Forest Hills (once the site of Slow and Kaz’s greatest triumphs) and Anne’s sudden waking up as aimlessly as he has moved through the last frozen months of his life.

At its heart, Doubles is a study in the duality of human natures; its characters are neither particularly good nor particularly nice, except when they are. Nothing really appears happens to anyone, but everything happens to Slow, seemingly in his namesake slow-motion, and he finds that none of it matters, except for when it does. And no one gets a happy ending, except when it’s happy enough. Brown has written a book about love, and all the complicated interactions that surround love. It’s an everyday feeling, everyone feels it, but the ways in which humans love, and the ways in which they hurt they people they love immeasurably and unintentionally, are all unique. Doubles is about the innumerable ways in which Slow has hurt the people he loves, and they’ve hurt him, and how anyone moves on from that.

Doubles is full of the mundanity of daily life, with one exception. Anne, a photographer, had been detailing her pregnancy with a daily Polaroid self-portrait. After the accident happens, even with the baby lost, Slow picks up her camera and starts her project again, with a twist: Anne, in her hospital bed. For a book in which nothing much happens — because even Slow’s late-game tennis matches do not rate lovingly detailed recounting — the overaching image of daily Polaroid photography, the documentation of the day-to-day, is what moves Doubles through its paces. Nothing happens. Everyone ends up where they were before. But buried in the nothing of day-to-day holding patterns, art happens. Pain happens. And love, in its own strange ways, happens.

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