Although I am sure that I am not unique in saying that the NEA grant will allow me to take time away from my job in order to dedicate myself fully to my writing, this does not make this gift any less significant to me and my work. Although I am working on my fourth novel, my efforts to carve out time to create have not become less intense than when I wrote my first novel hunched over a small desk wedged into my closet. When I wrote my second novel, I was desperately trying to find a full time teaching position. I spent all my time working on applications, and cobbling together enough classroom experience. As I wrote my third novel, I was working toward tenure -- attending faculty meetings, writing syllabi, etc. Now, as I work on my fourth, I shoulder the responsibilities of being a senior faculty member.
This NEA grant is the gift of time and the gift of quiet. While I have always been good about "stealing" time, stolen time is not really quality time. The grant will allow me to take formal leave from the university, dedicating myself to my writing without stress. In addition, the NEA offers a gift than cannot be quantified. There is a certain affirmation that comes from having one’s work selected by a jury of other writers. When I read the list of judges, I was honored, humbled and emboldened to do my very best work.
Excerpt from the novel Silver Sparrow
I was about five years old, in kindergarten, when the art teacher, Miss 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, his daughter, and his other wife. In the background was Raleigh, my father's best friend, the only person we knew from his other life. I drew him with the crayon labeled "Flesh" because he is really light-skinned. This was years and years ago, but I can still remember my drawing. 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. With a marker, I blacked in my mother's long hair and curving lashes. On my own face, I drew only a pair of wide eyes. In the background, a friendly sun winked at all six of us.
"Now, who are these people you have drawn so beautifully?" Miss Russell was a white lady; it was like she had jumped out of the television set just to praise my drawing.
Miss Russell cocked her head to the left. "I see."
I didn't think much more about it. I was still enjoying the memory of the way she pronounced beautifully. To this day, when I hear anyone say that word, I feel loved. At the end of the month, we kids brought all of our drawings home in cardboard folders. James opened up his wallet, which he kept plump with two-dollar bills to reward me for my schoolwork. (It's a shame that they don't make two-dollar bills anymore. A five-dollar bill is too much money to give a child, and a single is too mundane.) I saved the portrait for last, as it was my masterpiece, being as it was so beautifully drawn and everything.
My father picked the page up from the table and held it close to his face like he was looking for a coded message. Mother stood behind me, crossed her arms over my chest and bent to place a kiss on the top of my head. "It's okay," she said.
"Did you tell your teacher who was in the picture?" James said.
I nodded slowly, the whole time thinking that 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. I'm not going to take her out behind the woodshed." Then he chuckled, but my mother didn't laugh.
"All she did was draw a picture. Kids draw pictures."
"I just want to talk to her," James said. "Go on in the kitchen, Gwen. Let me talk to my daughter."
My mother said, "Why can't I stay in here? She's my daughter too."
"You are with her all the time. You tell me I don't spend enough time talking to her. So now let me talk."
Mother hesitated and 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. 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 sound was like gravel under car wheels.
"Dana, come here," James said. I walked closer to him. He was wearing a navy chauffeur's uniform. His hat must have been in the car, but I could see the ridged mark across his forehead where the hatband usually rested. "Come closer," he said.
I hesitated, looking to the space in the doorway where Mother had disappeared.
"Dana," he said. "You're not afraid of me, are you? You're not scared 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. With a sudden motion, he reached for me and lifted me up on his lap. He spoke to me with both of 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 this house between your mother and me, is grown people's business. I love you. You are my baby girl, and I love you, and I love your mama. But what we do in this house has to be a secret, okay?"
"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 everyone knows everybody."
"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. You've got it the wrong way around. Dana, you are the one that's a secret."
Then he patted me on the head and pulled one of my braids. With a wink he pulled out his billfold and separated three two-dollar bills from the stack. He handed them over to me and I clamped them in my palm.
"Aren't you going to put them in your pocket?"
And for once, he didn't tell me not to call him that.
James took me by the hand and we walked down the hallway to the kitchen for dinner. I closed my eyes on the short walk because I didn't like the wallpaper in the hallway. It was beige with a burgundy pattern. When it had started peeling at the edges, I was accused of picking at the seams. I denied it over and over again, but Mother reported me to James on his weekly visit. He took off his belt and swatted me around the legs and up on my backside, which seemed to satisfy something in my mother.
In the kitchen my mother placed the bowls and plates on the glass table in silence. She wore her favorite apron that James brought back from New Orleans. On the front was a drawing of a crawfish holding a spatula aloft and a caption: "Don't make me poison your food!" James took his place at the head of the table and polished the water spots from his fork with his napkin. "I didn't lay a hand on her; I didn't even raise my voice. Did I?"
"No, sir." And this was entirely the truth, but I felt different than I had just a few minutes before when I'd pulled my drawing out of its sleeve. My skin stayed the same while this difference snuck in through a pore and attached itself to whatever brittle part forms my center. You are the secret. He'd said it with a smile, touching the tip of my nose with the pad of his finger.
(Silver Sparrow was published by Algonquin Books)
Tayari Jones is the author of three novels: Silver Sparrow (Algonquin, 2011), which was named one of the year’s best by O Magazine, Library Journal, Slate and Salon; The Untelling (Grand Central, 2006); and Leaving Atlanta (Warner Books, 2002). The recipient of fellowships from the United States Artist Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and The Hurston/Wright Foundation, Jones is an associate professor of English at Rutgers-Newark University. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Believer, and New Stories From The South.
Photo by Rayon Richards