Thursday, July 30, 2020


I loved Silver Sparrow and An American Marriage by Tayari Jones so much that I needed to read her other books, too, and fortunately interlibrary loan is again possible, so I got hold of The Untelling and Leaving Atlanta. The latter, set during the Atlanta child murders in 1979, is heartbreaking. Both books are continuing my anti-racist education, as I am learning about black life from black authors. In Leaving Atlanta, Tasha's father joins a search party for one of the missing children and is partnered with a white man. She overhears her father speaking privately with her mother at the dinner table. "Sometimes those decent white folks can understand that we can't forgive them." Yes. "Especially not at a time like this." We're in another terrible time now, still standing side by side, some of us, searching, and still caught in that terrible unforgiving place.

I was surprised to find "Tayari Jones" as a character in Leaving Atlanta. But it also made perfect sense, as the author was a child when the child murders were taking place. (Here's a Reader's Guide pdf about that.) I was surprised and delighted to find a character named Octavia, as I'd just been reading a lot of Octavia Butler. Coincidence?! While Octavia is the point-of-view character, she's worried about a missing boy, a friend in her class at school. Girls have giggled about a possible romantic connection there. That and the geography give us this beautiful sentence: "The sound of wind in the pecan trees was like girls giggling." Will I ever be where I can hear the wind in pecan trees?

In The Untelling, a young woman learns who she is through empathy, awareness, and suffering, and on the way to that she's not always "likable," a wonderful risk for an author to take, and she's otherwise meant to be a sympathetic character, who has survived a terrible loss. "I wanted to tell him that I knew how he felt, though I probably did not. How can you know what another person is going through when your own life is so different from his?" This is so real, so honest. "People had done this to me often enough, telling me that they knew how I felt because they had suffered this or that loss, felt some sort of pain." She's impatient with the gesture of empathy, that possibly surface connection, and decides it's probably best to say nothing: "...I could predict his response, his words, polite enough, thanking me for my empathy, my generosity of spirit. And I could imagine his thoughts, that no, I couldn't possibly empathize. Our situations were not the same at all." She's right, but is it also an excuse for not reaching out to comfort someone?

The book explores differences of class and circumstance among black characters, with differences of race in the background. But I understood that differences of race might prevent any attempt of mine to reach out in empathy to a black person, as I recognized in the words above something that had happened to me. I reached out to a black woman as a woman, and was firmly and not so politely rejected. No, being a woman was nothing like being a black woman. I got her message. But then we went through something hard together, bonded, she appreciated my support, and I feel connected to her forever. Yes, we experience life differently, for many reasons, among them the history of race relations in America, but I can accept that now, feeling the human bond with her. I can respect and honor our difference inside this deep human bond, whether she and I can ever express that to each other in words.

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