Tayari Jones is the author of four novels, An American Marriage (2018), an Oprah Book Club pick and New York Times best seller; Silver Sparrow (2011), chosen for the NEA’s Big Read Library; The Untelling (2015); and Leaving Atlanta (2002). Jones holds degrees from Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She has received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute For Advanced Studies, United States Artist Foundation, and Black Mountain Institute. She lives in Atlanta, where she is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.
From Silver Sparrow
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. He was already married ten years when he first clamped eyes on my mother. In 1968, she was working at the gift-wrap counter at Davison’s downtown when my father asked her to wrap the carving knife he had bought his wife for their wedding anniversary. Mother said she knew that something wasn’t right between a man and a woman when the gift was a blade. I said that maybe it means there was a kind of trust between them. I love my mother, but we tend to see things a little bit differently. The point is that James’s marriage was never hidden from us. James is what I call him. His other daughter, Chaurisse, the one who grew up in the house with him, she calls him Daddy, even now.
When most people think of bigamy, if they think of it at all, they imagine some primitive practice taking place on the pages of National Geographic. In Atlanta, we remember one sect of the back-to-Africa movement that used to run bakeries in the West End. Some people said it was a cult, others called it a cultural movement. Whatever it was, it involved four wives for each husband. The bakeries have since closed down, but sometimes we still see the women, resplendent in white, trailing six humble paces behind their mutual husband. Even in Baptist churches, ushers keep smelling salts on the ready for the new widow confronted at the wake by the other grieving widow and her stair-step kids. Undertakers and judges know that it happens all the time, and not just between religious fanatics, traveling salesmen, handsome sociopaths, and desperate women.
It’s a shame that there isn’t a true name for a woman like my mother, Gwendolyn. My father, James, is a bigamist. That is what he is. Laverne is his wife. She found him first and my mother has always respected the other woman’s squatter’s rights. But was my mother his wife, too? She has legal documents and even a single Polaroid proving that she stood with James Alexander Witherspoon Junior in front of a judge just over the state line in Alabama. However, to call her only his “wife” doesn’t really explain the full complexity of her position.
There are other terms, I know, and when she is tipsy, angry, or sad, Mother uses them to describe herself: concubine, whore, mistress, consort. There are just so many, and none are fair. And there are nasty words, too, for a person like me, the child of a person like her, but these words were not allowed in the air of our home. “You are his daughter. End of story.” If this was ever true it was in the first four months of my life, before Chaurisse, his legitimate daughter, was born. My mother would curse at hearing me use that word, legitimate, but if she could hear the other word that formed in my head, she would close herself in her bedroom and cry. In my mind, Chaurisse is his real daughter. With wives, it only matters who gets there first. With daughters, the situation is a bit more complicated.
It matters what you called things. Surveil was my mother’s word. If he knew, James would probably say spy, but that is too sinister. We didn’t do damage to anyone but ourselves as we trailed Chaurisse and Laverne while they wound their way through their easy lives. I had always imagined that we would eventually be asked to explain ourselves, to press words forward in our own defense. On that day, my mother would be called upon to do the talking. She is gifted with language and is able to layer difficult details in such a way that the result is smooth as water. She is a magician who can make the whole world feel like a dizzy illusion. The truth is a coin she pulls from behind your ear.
Maybe mine was not a blissful girlhood. But is anyone’s? Even people whose parents are happily married to each other and no one else, even these people have their share of unhappiness. They spend plenty of time nursing old slights, rehashing squabbles. So you see, I have something in common with the whole world.
- “Tayari Jones Takes Home Aspen Words Literary Prize for ‘An American Marriage.'” NPR. 11 April 2019.
- “Tayari Jones Became a Writer After a Trip to Mars and a Year in Africa.” Wall Street Journal. 19 February 2019.
- “The Epistolary Heart of ‘An American Marriage.'” The Atlantic. 7 March 2018.