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Tayari Jones, author of "Silver Sparrow," will be in town Thursday night for the kickoff of Chattanooga Big Read at The Camp House. "Silver Sparrow" is narrated by the two daughters of a bigamist. One is publicly acknowledged and unaware that her dad has another wife and daughter; the other is a secret and acutely aware that she doesn't lead the same life as her half-sister."Silver Sparrow" is Tayari Jones' third novel; all three are set in her hometown of Atlanta.

If you go

› What: Chattanooga Big Read Kickoff

› Where: The Camp House, 149 E. M.L. King Blvd.

› When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19

› Admission: Free, but reservations are requested from book clubs planning to attend. Register online at www.chattbigread.org

› Information: www.chattbig read.org

Chattanooga Big Read Events

* Jan. 19: Chattanooga Big Read kickoff, 6:30-8:30 p.m. The Camp House, 149 E. M.L. King Blvd.; music, cash bar, book reading and book signing by Tayari Jones.

* Feb. 28: Paint the Town “Read”: An artistic exploration of “Silver Sparrow,” 6-8 p.m. Townsend Atelier, Arts Building, 301 E. 11th St.; Chattanooga State Community College art professor Joe Helseth leads an exploration of “Silver Sparrow” themes with participants creating their own artwork. Open to adults and youth ages 14-17 if they’re accompanied by an adult. Free, but registration is required due to class limit of 35. To register, go to: http://townsendatelier.com/product/paint-town-read-artistic-exploration-silver-sparrow.

* March 23: So Much Drama: Theatrical Interpretations of “Silver Sparrow,” 7-8:30 p.m. Chattanooga State, 4501 Amnicola Highway, 7-8:30 p.m.; Chattanooga State theater professor Evans Jarnefeldt and English professor Rachael Falu lead actors and audience in an interactive theater production of selected scenes from the book. Family therapist Laura Huddleston will run a discussion of the novel’s themes.

* April 11: Behind the Writer Interview with Tayari Jones, 7-8:30 p.m. The Camp House, 149 E. M.L. King Blvd.; the author will be interviewed by Chattanooga State English professor Lori Barton, followed by an audience Q&A and book signing.

* April 12: A Night At the Museum: Readings from “Silver Sparrow,” 6-8:30 p.m. Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View; the author talks and does a reading, followed by a book signing and refreshments.

* April 13: Book Signing, 10-11:30 a.m. Star Line Books, 1467 Market St., Suite 106; final chance to get “Silver Sparrow” signed by the author before she leaves town.

For more information on any event, check the website at www.chattbigread.com.

About Tayari Jones

* Born in Atlanta in 1970, Jones has drawn from her roots in the city for three novels: “Leaving Atlanta,” “The Untelling” and “Silver Sparrow.” She has just finished her fourth novel, set in Atlanta and Louisiana, about a newlywed arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. It is scheduled for release in February 2018.

* She received a bachelor’s degree from Spelman College and master’s degrees from the University of Iowa and Arizona State University.

* Her first job in 2003 was writer-in-residence at East Tennessee State University. She has taught at the University of Illinois and George Washington University. She is currently an associate professor of creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark.

* In addition to being a National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read author, she has won the Martindale Foundation Award for Fiction, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Award for black authors and the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation scholarship for writers of color.

 

Tayari Jones was at a girls night out when the girl talk turned to the scandal of a man who died and his "other grieving widow" showed up at the funeral with her children.

That conversation inspired the attention-grabbing opening line of Jones' third novel: "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist."

From there, she spins the poignant tale of two families, told through the voices of Witherspoon's two daughters, in "Silver Sparrow" (Algonquin Books, $15.95.)

Chaurisse Witherspoon and her mother, Laverne, are Witherspoon's publicly acknowledged family and unaware there is a second one. Dana Yarboro and her mother, Gwen, James Witherspoon's secret family, are acutely aware that Laverne has "squatter's rights Because with wives, it only matters who gets there first," explains Dana.

Jones, who jokes that her first name "rhymes with Ferrari and Atari," will be in town Thursday for the kickoff of Chattanooga Big Read, a local program of the National Endowment for the Art's Big Read program. It's a citywide initiative that will feature "Silver Sparrow" with coordinating events scheduled through the first half of April. The local literacy effort is sponsored by Writers@Work, an annual program of Chattanooga State Community College's Humanities Department.

"Writers@Work is designed primarily for college-age students, but we offer free programming for any interested members of the Chattanooga community," says Dr. Joel Henderson, Chattanooga State Humanities Department chairman. "The Big Read is an excuse to get Chattanoogans of all ages reading a common text."

The Big Read

NEA's Big Read began in 2006 and has spread to all 50 states. The NEA names several novels as Big Read Selections — quite an honor for the author — and any city or organization may choose one for its Big Read.

"I felt seen and included," Jones says of the seletion of "Silver Sparrow." "I was happy to be a living Southern author on the list. To represent the South was important to me."

NEA grant money is available through an application process to fund local programs. This year, 76 groups received grants for Big Read in their communities. Chattanooga State and the city of Germantown, Tenn., are the only two locations in this state.

With its grant money, Chattanooga State purchased "thousands of copies of 'Silver Sparrow,'" says Henderson. The NEA grant was supplemented by one from the Tennessee Arts Commission and funding from Unum and Chattanooga State's Humanities Department.

The free books were distributed to 11 area high schools, he says, as well as to the Bradley County Jail, where a book club is run in partnership with the Southern Lit Alliance.

High schools receiving copies of "Silver Sparrow" were Lookout Valley, Baylor, East Hamilton, Sequoyah, Brainerd, Soddy-Daisy, Howard, Red Bank, Tyner, Chattanooga Christian School and Washington Alternative School.

"This doesn't even include the additional schools with which Chattanooga State has dual-enrollment classes: Rhea County, Notre Dame, Signal Mountain, Ooltewah and more," adds Henderson.

Tyner Academy received 600 books in order to put copies in the hands of all students and teachers in ninth through 12th grades, says Elizabeth Renneisen, Tyner's curriculum coach and English Department chair. She adds there are even parents joining the school's Big Read. And Jones will visit Tyner Academy on Thursday for a discussion of her book with students.

"All grades are reading the text, one day a week in advisory," Renneisen says. "All advisory teachers, regardless of what they teach, are reading the book with their students and having discussions with them. Teresa Patterson, our librarian, is spearheading this event for our school."

Tyner has held previous group reads and enjoyed the community it created among teachers and students, Renneisen says.

"But this year we thought about how much stronger our reading community could become if we all read and discussed the same book. Tayari Jones' book is accessible to struggling readers while simultaneously presenting a challenge for those who enjoy delving into its subtextual treasures," she explains.

Who Are Silver Sparrows?

For her part, Jones says, "I like to write about the characters whose point of view is often forgotten."

For example, her debut novel, "Leaving Atlanta," about the Atlanta child murders of the late 1970s, is told through the voices of school-age children. Two of those victims were students in the same elementary school Jones attended.

In her latest novel, the title refers to silver sparrows who are the overlooked, possibly forgotten, children left behind after divorce, affairs or even bigamy, like the book's Dana Yarboro. The sparrow reference is an obvious nod to the gospel song, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" and its lyrics, "His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me."

"I travel all over the South, out to small towns in Colorado, teeny little places in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — and everywhere I go I meet people who say they are the silver sparrows of their families," says Jones.

"I think that being a secret child is a real taboo. There are a lot of things that people like to claim are taboo, but if you talk about it, it's not a taboo. We have no trouble imagining men have affairs, so when people have a secret child, why are we shocked?"

As Dana grows up, watching the life of Chaurisse Witherspoon unfold through secret glimpses of her or conversations she overhears between her mother and father, she makes it a point to run into Chaurisse. The two teens become friends, with Chaurisse still unaware that the girl whose spontaneity and style she so admires is her sister.

Dana begins to take more risks in these meetings — visiting Chaurisse's home, then the beauty salon Laverne owns — as the plot builds to the inevitable, explosive confrontation between the two mother-daughter pairs.

"Dana's story evolves through a life of secrets and lies to living an open life. That was important to me: living with integrity," says Jones.

"If there is one thing I want people to take away from the book, it's that every person is legitimate. Every person counts."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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