Tag Archives: Tayari Jones

24: Leaving Atlanta

Leaving AtlantaLeaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Purchased from Amazon.

Read in September 2013.

View all my reviews

Leaving Atlanta is Tayari Jones’s debut novel. Previously, I read The Untelling (her second novel) and Silver Sparrow (her third). Now I’m officially out of Tayari Jones books and shall have to wait for her to finish writing her next one.

Leaving Atlanta is, obviously, set in Atlanta. It’s the late seventies/early eighties. Early in the book, it’s mentioned that the (1976) Olympics was two years past, so I initially thought the story began in the fall of 1978, but later I decided it was actually 1979. This fits with the events that the story is based on, the Atlanta child murders of 1979-81.

The story focuses on one fifth grade class and how the murders affect them. There are three parts, each with one of the classmates as the point-of-view character. Jones chooses to focus on three of the least popular children in the class (loved this). “Tayari Jones” is a minor character in the story—she’s one of the other classmates and gets mentioned now and then by the three protagonists. (This makes me want to read some Somerset Maugham ;))

Tasha is the main character in Part 1. Her part is told in third person. Tasha is unpopular but not the least popular. She’s caught in between her more popular frenemies and the really unpopular kids. Tasha’s parents separate at the beginning of the story but her dad comes back because of the murders. Both Tasha’s parents work and, at the beginning of the school year, Tasha was just starting to be allowed some freedom / responsibility (getting her own key to let herself and her little sister in after school). However, as the murders escalate, her parents decide they need to go a neighbor’s house after school instead of being home alone. All the other kids in her neighborhood do the same.

In the second part, Rodney is the protagonist. His part is told in second person. Rodney also lives with his parents and little sister, but his mom doesn’t work, which leads the other characters to think the family is well-off. In reality, his mom’s a bit nutty. She does her kids’ homework (including glitter art projects!) for them. Rodney unwittingly bolsters the image of the family being well-off by shoplifting candy; the other kids don’t know he steals it and think he must have lots of spending money. Rodney is very smart, but an underachiever. When his dad is angry with him, he beats him. Rodney’s even more unpopular than Tasha.
New Books

Octavia, who everyone in her outside-of-school life calls Sweet Pea, is the main character in Part 3. Her part is told in first person. Octavia lives with her mom, who works nights. Her dad lives with his wife and baby daughter in South Carolina. Octavia is the least popular in the class. Her classmates’ view of her and her family’s and neighbors’ view of her is completely different. Octavia seeks out Mrs. Grier, the second grade teacher, when she needs comfort. Mrs. Grier is the teacher with school supplies and snacks in her desk, the one that all the kids gravitate to even when they’re not in her class.

The child’s point-of-view throughout the book—what they know/understand and what they don’t—is so good. For example, as a reader, it’s clear Octavia’s dad is a university professor, but she doesn’t grasp this (she thinks he’s a teacher) or its significance. She wonders why people call him ‘Dr. Ray’. Because of the child’s pov, the story lacks the sentimentality (and judgment) that might be present if it was told from an adult’s point-of-view (e.g. by one of the parents or teachers or one of the children as an adult looking back). In a kid’s world, things just are. This leaves the reader to do the work of interpreting the events. Refreshing.

The choice to write the first part in third-person, the second in second-person, and the third in first-person might seem a bit gimmicky but it didn’t feel that way reading it. What it felt like was each part drew you in closer to the characters.

I think I’ve said this with all her books, but I don’t know if there’s anyone who’s quite as good at depicting the Gen-X child/teen/YA era—at least as I remember it—as Jones. All the little details are so perfect.

3: Silver Sparrow

Silver SparrowSilver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

This was one of the books I ordered from Amazon:

New Books

(You’ll see I also bought Leaving Atlanta, her first novel. I’ve been saving that one.)

I was eager to read this (too eager to wait for it show up in my usual haunts) because I followed its entire progress from tentative first drafts to book tour on Tayari’s blog. I poked through her archives to see if I could find where she first mentions it. I think this is it:

Today, I sat down to work on my new novel after three weeks on the road. This novel feel alive within me. I think about it when I lie down at night. I have to force myself to sleep and the only way I can do that is to remind myself that I have to sleep to do any decent writing in the morning. So, this is good. I don’t quite know what to do with myself when I am not working on a project.

That was May 29, 2005. Silver Sparrow was published May 24, 2011.

Six years.

Let’s just pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Do you find it disheartening? I don’t. Everyone’s so impatient these days sometimes I think we’ve forgotten how long it can take to do good work.

Silver Sparrow was originally called The Bigamist’s Daughters. Later it was called The Silver Girl. I can’t remember why the first change was made, but the second one was a last-minute change because another book called Silver Girl was due to launch around the same time. So it was a marketing decision by her publisher. Initially, she was unhappy about this (who wouldn’t be?) but she ended up being happier with the final title. So you never know! It’s good to be flexible.

The premise is that one man marries two different women. He doesn’t do it for any sort of nefarious reason; it’s more like he feels it’s the right thing to do (vs. the usual alternatives). He has one daughter with each wife, and the girls are basically the same age—born a few months apart. His first wife and daughter (Chaurisse) know nothing about his second family. His second wife and daughter (Dana Lynn) do know about his first family. In the beginning, the sisters don’t know each other, but that changes as the story progresses.

Aside: I kept going Day-na? Dan-ah? throughout, but in this conversation she has with Judy Blume, I believe she says Day-na.

The first part of the book is told from Dana’s pov; the second part from Chaurisse’s pov. This switch really shakes you out of your comfort zone and is very effective in this particular story. Just when you’re really comfortable with Dana and her perspective on the situation, you’re asked to identify instead with Chaurisse, and think about how she feels about it.

The main thing about this book is that everyone is shown with empathy. Everyone is flawed, but no one is demonized, portrayed as the “bad guy.” It’s more about how people get caught up in circumstances and how they deal with it. I liked that she didn’t try to tie everything up neatly or make everything right at the end. She’s a real storyteller, I think.

On a more trivial note, I really love that the Dana/Chaurisse parts of the book are set in the eighties. It’s fun seeing what parts of that eighties high school experience were universal. I’ve been scooped on the appearance of electric blue liquid eyeliner (I had a friend I literally never saw without hers from 7th grade—when I first met her—until the morning after our grad party. I almost didn’t recognize her.) and feathered roach clips (but did they get them from the carnies at the fall fair?). Still going to use that detail, though. In my high school, the store chicks always wore them clipped to their store-chick purses. Classic.

I used to quote from Tayari’s blog all the time. She hasn’t been blogging as much recently, which I understand, she’s only doing like a million different things and something has to give, but I miss it. On the bright side, I still have Leaving Atlanta to read.

By the way, the book she was on the road publicizing when she started Silver Sparrow was The Untelling, which I wrote about here.

Hobby

[I]f you have a passion for a subject and you want to study it. Go for it. But if you’re going to graduate school just because you like the idea of having the letters Ph.D. after your name, or because you can’t figure out what else to do with your life, get a hobby instead.

Tayari Jones

Like saying someone is invisible, just because you didn’t notice them

I am sure the work that [Frank X. Walker and Irene McKinney] do would fall into the “giving voice to the voiceless” category. And frankly, that’s just condescending. The people that Frank and Irene write about are not voiceless. They may have been excluded from our so-called “history”, but it doesn’t mean that they are silent. It’s almost like saying someone is invisible, just because you didn’t notice them. When I introduced Frank, I said that rather than “giving voice to the voiceless, he offers aid to the hearing impaired.”

Writers don’t “give” anyone a voice, but ourselves. We may be able to amplify voice that has been ignored. And if we are lucky we can help that voice find a new audience, an new ear, a new heart.

Tayari Jones

Want to understand

I like to write journal entries in the voices of my characters. I sometimes even do it for people who have hurt me deeply in real life. The challenge is that you have to discover something new about the person or character. If your exercise reveals only what you came to the page with in the first place, then you have not tapped into the empathy you are going to need to write the story you want to write. You really to have to want to understand that person, which means you may have to let go of that anger.

Tayari Jones

Some of the Glow

[W]hen I finished my MFA, it never occurred to me order invitations or to ask anyone to come to the ceremony. After all, it wasn’t a big deal. I never even picked up the forms to order a cap and gown. It just wasn’t a big deal. What I didn’t admit even to myself that it wasn’t just the ceremony I was blowing off, it was my entire experience and accomplishment. I had my degree in basketball. Whatever.

Then, I started thinking about my students and how proud I was of them and how hard they worked. It occurred to me that I had worked just as hard. Finally, I was able to let some of the glow I saw in their faces, reflect back on me.

Tayari Jones

On authenticity and confusion

Tayari Jones is in the midst of revising her novel, Silver Girl, after receiving comments from her editor. Earlier this week, she wrote:

The use of freak in the Rick James sense of the word is perfectly in tune with the voice of my character—she’s a black girl growing up in Atlanta in the late-eighties. But at the same time, I don’t want to use a word in a context that will confuse a reader who isn’t from that place. If I change it, I will alter the voice, albeit in a minor way…

[T]he matter of regional or cultural English vernacular is that the reader sees my words and assumes that she knows what it is supposed to mean. If I see a Spanish word, I know it’s in another language, I either use context or I’ll google it. If it’s an English word, the reader may just be confused.

Ah, this is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.

When I was a kid, I sometimes read British novels (like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series). The thing about being Canadian is when we got British books like that, they generally were the British versions, which made for interesting reading…

As I’ve mentioned before, it took me forever to figure out that the kids in these stories weren’t running around with flaming sticks, i.e. that their “torches” were just flashlights. I never looked words like this up, because—as Tayari points out—I figured I already knew what they meant.

(When I finally figured it out, I was so disappointed! Flashlights! How boring! Now I think this story is hilarious; I’ve told it so many times that probably I’m the one being boring.)

But here’s the thing: if the language had been North-Americanized, those stories wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. Using the language the characters would use is part of the authenticity and flavor of the story. And even if readers misunderstand the occasional word, they’ll still get the gist of the story. My enjoyment of the stories wasn’t ruined because I pictured kids running around with flaming sticks or was perplexed by why boys would be wearing jumpers.

When I started copyediting Toasted Cheese, I made a deliberate decision not to North-Americanize British and Indian and Australian writing. To me, the words used and the way they are spelled is a part of the author’s voice. Stripping those characteristics away would lessen the work’s uniqueness, make it blander and more generic.

This is not to say I don’t make any style choices. Of course I do. Ellipses get three dots. Not four. Not fourteen. Em-dashes are flush to the words on either side (and they’re not one or two hyphens or an en-dash). I use single asterisk to indicate a break, not three or five or a line or a string of hyphens. I make an effort to ensure trademarked names are spelled correctly and capitalized. Etcetera.

And, obviously, actual spelling mistakes and typos and other usage errors are corrected. (Where the error is unintentional, rather than deliberately used for effect, of course.) You don’t get to spell “the” as “teh” unless your character is making an interwebs joke.

Anyhow…

Perhaps coincidentally, later that same day, I ran across this post by Mark Liberman at Language Log, in which he wrote:

I’m not entirely sure why organizations and publications want to impose a house style, which imposes a consistent set of choices in cases where overall orthographic standards are open to various alternative outcomes.  I’m not saying that having a house style is a bad thing, or arguing against it,  I’m just sightly puzzled about why people care that all the articles in notable publication X should hyphenate and abbreviate according to one set of rules, while all the articles in esteemed publication Y consistently do it a different way.

In the comments, David L said:

It would be odd, to take an extreme example, for one story in a magazine to use British spelling and punctuation standards, and another to use American spelling and punctuation. … [Readers] would take the inconsistencies to imply a general carelessness about the way the magazine was put together. Which would imply a sloppiness, perhaps, about the content of the magazine, not just its appearance.

I’m not sure what’s so “extreme” about this. Presumably a piece written with American spelling would be written by an American and one using British spelling by a Brit. Presumably readers are smart enough to make the connection. They’re also presumably smart enough to distinguish a preference for one legitimate (i.e. in the dictionary) variation of a word over another from typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, factual errors (where pertinent), random font changes, etc.—in other words, the kinds of things that would actually imply sloppiness.

Helen DeWitt’s comment expands on what I was trying to get at above:

@David L, American publishers do like to eliminate British spelling. In a work of fiction, though, this is not necessarily a good thing. British usage differs from American in all kinds of ways; if a story uses British idiom, British spelling, punctuation and so on help to make the details of the text consistent with the setting. If the ‘surface’ is cleaned up to follow other conventions, this draws attention (for me, at least) to aspects of the text that were not meant to be foregrounded. An American story, similarly, which is dutifully conformed to British usage – ‘honour’ for ‘honor’, ‘licence’ for ‘license’ and so on, looks odd. It’s taken for granted, I believe, that proper names retain their original spelling: American newspapers refer to the Labour Party, British papers to the Department of Defense. It’s not clear to me why everything else is automatically up for grabs.

I won’t go as far as Stephen Jones who suggested that “it doesn’t matter a monkey’s toss if you have a word spelt the American way in one paragraph and the British in the next.” I do think there should be consistency within a piece as a general rule. But, as the comment above points out, there are exceptions, for example, where the difference in spelling is due to a direct quotation or proper name. So, the New York Times might speak of “labor” and the “Labour Party” in the same story.

Thinking about that, it’s interesting that when direct quoting from a printed source, we will maintain the spelling of the original. But when direct quoting from something someone said verbally, we’ll impose our own spelling on their words. Of course, there’s a certain amount of, well, you can’t expect to ask a person how they spell each any every word, but presumably, if a British person is speaking, it would seem likely that their vision of the words is more likely to match up with British conventions than American.

blahedo suggested that the imposition of a style was appropriate when precision was necessary, as “in academic publication, journalistic writing, and program documentation, and undoubtedly to others in legal writing and other precision endeavours” but not in others, such as fiction. S/he also notes, as somewhat of an aside, that

I picked up a variety of British spellings and usages for fairly arbitrary reasons when I was in college, and still use many of them—some just to be contrary and some because I find them more aesthetic, obviously a totally subjective judgement.

I’m going to suggest that what blahedo’s personal anecdote illustrates is that imposing an arbitrary style unnecessarily on writing actually makes it less precise, rather than more. The anecdote clearly illustrates that people don’t blindly follow American spelling conventions just because they’re American. They have personal preferences, quirks if you will. That’s part of their writing style. Maybe they like aesthetic rather than esthetic. Maybe they like aesthetic for one meaning of the word and esthetic for another. That’s precision. Maybe they think grey and gray are two different colors (or colours). That’s precision.

Near the end of the thread, Allan Edmands wrote:

Content, not form, is the point of communication (at least nonfiction communication). Therefore, form (typeface, margins, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and all the other details ruled upon in style guidelines), though necessary for the infrastructure of the communication, should remain in the background in a predictable blandness; what should stand out for the intended audience is content … My experience has taught me that inconsistencies in these details can distract an audience from the content.

But for anyone who takes writing seriously, many of these choices are an integral part of the content, not mere “infrastructure.” Even people who are less invested in writing have firm preferences when it comes to certain words.

Here’s an example I think most people can relate to—and which goes back to Helen DeWitt’s comment about proper names being sacrosanct, while other words are not. Think about what you call your mother. Whether it’s mother or mom or mama or mum or momma or ma, I’m sure you have feelings about it that go deeper than considering it a mere spelling preference. It’s what you’ve called her your whole life. Now imagine writing something in which you reference your mother and having an editor change your spelling to their house style. This wouldn’t make things clearer or foreground the content. Rather, it would misrepresent the content—and your voice.