This morning, Oprah Winfrey named An American Marriage her latest book club pick. It's easy to see why Oprah chose this new novel by Tayari Jones: An American Marriage is an extraordinarily timely, moving, and accomplished portrayal of how one man’s wrongful incarceration effects his marriage and his community. It speaks to intimate questions about what we expect from the people we love, as well as to larger concerns about race in America. Jones, who is the author of three previous novels, talked to the Amazon Book Review shortly before Oprah’s announcement.
Amazon Book Review: An American Marriage is told, in turns, by Roy, the young, middle class, African-American man who is sent to prison; his bride, Celestial, an artist; and Celestial’s childhood friend and confidant, Andre. Can you tell us a little more about their story?
Tayari Jones: It's a story of a young couple who are only married 18 months. Like Celestial says, “I was still combing the rice from my hair,” and “My daddy was still paying for the wedding.” They are newlyweds. And when they go to the small town where her husband is from to visit his parents, he's arrested for a crime he did not commit, and given a lengthy sentence that is 10 times how long they have been married. This novel is about how this matter of his wrongful incarceration causes ripple effects through their family and their community. It is a question of “Does life go on? And what does that really mean? Can you reclaim what you'd lost? Can someone else give you what you've lost?” So that's what the novel is about. And it's also slightly funny.
A lot of that humor comes from the narrators’ voices. Roy, Celestial, and Andre each has a distinct voice. Can you talk a little bit about how you distinguish them on the page?
When you're writing a love triangle, the key to it, I think, is to make sure that all three characters are equally worthy. It’s almost like a three-legged stool. Each character has to be strong enough to support the stool. What I had to do when writing was to keep in mind the question, “If each of them had one thing to say and their own defense of their role in this conflict, what would that one thing be?” -- and let that drive the way the characters make their voices.
Roy’s main point is, “I have suffered so much. I deserve to have my life back.” That's what undergirds everything he does. Celestial’s point is, “I had no idea this could happen to me. This is not how I figured my life. I'm in a new territory. I'm making decisions as I go. Don't judge me for wanting to be happy.” And Andre's main point is “The heart is mysterious and you must follow it.” So even if they're just talking about what they ate for dinner, their fundamental view on life is going to infuse the way they see everything.
Some of your supporting characters are from an earlier generation. One of them says, “Six or twelve…. That’s your fate as a black man. Carried by six or judged by twelve.” Meaning, you either have six people bearing your coffin to your grave, or you get sent to jail. There's a sense that things have changed a little bit for young people like Celestial and Roy, but maybe not as much as it might appear. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Back in the day where people used to use an AOL chatroom (I'm dating myself) but I used to have an AOL friend, and that was his AOL name: 6or12. And I finally said, “What does that mean?” And he told me -- this was what, 15 years ago, I guess, but it has always stuck with me. He said, “Your fate as a black man is to be carried by six or judged by twelve.” And it stuck with me. He was older than me. And I remember thinking, well, that's fatalistic, you know, because I was of a different generation. But as I've gotten older, and as I feel that I'm watching just everyday horrible stories about people being wrongfully incarcerated, people being murdered in the streets, men being murdered in the streets, being incarcerated for crimes they did commit, but with outrageous sentences, I never forgot what that man said to me: “Six or twelve.” But I do think that times are changing. But I also think that it's a real fear that is always just under the surface. Even when Roy is enjoying his life as a young executive, that’s just under the surface.
And there's a moment when Andre, who is successful computer coder living in Atlanta, drives south in his imported, expensive car. He says something like, “I was driving very carefully because I didn't want to get pulled over. You know, some people will see a car like this and a black man driving it and think: drug dealer.” He’s worried about the police thinking that. So even from his economically privileged position, he is afraid in drive certain different parts of the country.
He drives carefully. He doesn't stop. He reaches his destination; all is well. But that anxiety, that fear is something that you have to live with, which influences your life even when you arrive safely.
Writing this book, did you ever feel you had to try to represent black experience in its totality? Did you ever feel like you had to cover all the bases?
Well, my mentor the playwright Pearl Cleage told me. “Just tell the truth. Your story will be whole and complete. You don't have to try and make a truth that will cover all the bases or make some kind of points. If you tell a full honest story and write your characters as complex and full as you know, real people to do, then stereotypes fall away just by truth. You don't have to try. It would just happen because the stereotype is a lie and the truth is the antidote. And just remember that, just be your authentic self. Express your authentic worldview and it'll work out.” I think that when you try to represent the race or anything like that, people can feel you're trying and it kind of does the opposite of the work you want to do, so you just have to have faith in the truth.
It’s interesting that the characters in An American Marriage live in all-black communities. Is that a reflection of the South as you know it?
Toni Morrison, in her early work, basically wrote novels with an all-black cast, but of course, Ms. Morrison is a couple of generations ahead of me. Atlanta is a segregated city, but it's also a city where there's a lot of African-American prosperity. So you do have a lot of black people in Atlanta who live comfortable lives, but they do live in entirely or predominantly black communities. That’s where I grew up: I had black teachers, I had black doctors, black dentists. I never had any sense that if you want to be successful or prosperous, you couldn't do it at home. And I do feel that these communities are underrepresented in literature and in popular culture. I feel like so much of what I read lately is about black characters realizing they have achieved the American dream, but they've lost their community. I think that this is a very real crisis that a lot of people have. But I also think that it should just be on the record that one does not have to be alienated from one's community in order to achieve one's dreams.
One thing that’s remarkable about your book is that sense of community. Celestial and Roy’s parents, among others, have a lot to say about the choices they make.
Everybody has an opinion. These are the most opinionated people! These people have never considered why one might mind one's own business. Never occurred to any of them.
Did you feel that maybe your characters would've done better alone together in a room with a closed door?
It could have helped, but you know, that's the thing too: this is very much a Southern novel, and we stay in each other's business. Even though the South is very segregated, the culture is not. Southern culture, I think, crosses racial lines and class lines. Everybody's in everybody's business in the South and we think it's our birthright.
One of the great Southern pleasures in your book in Southern cooking.
I have the most fun in a story when there's someone who can't really cook because you know, bad meals are more fun to write about. But I did really enjoy the wonderful meal that Roy eats when he gets out of prison. You know how in the Bible it says, God prepares a table for me in the presence of mine enemies. I wanted him to have like a Biblical-level feast when he came home from prison. I wanted to give him that pleasure.
That leads me to a question about the way that you depict Southern womanhood. The women in this book are universally generous to men, and cooking is one of the ways they express that generosity. Is there anything problematic about the gender divide you’re describing?
That’s one of Roy’s big revelations, that he realizes that he has lived his whole life due to the vast generosity of women. He thinks it's just like in the air. It's almost like when you're a little kid and you have no idea that your mother preparing your breakfast is optional. You have no idea that that’s a decision she makes. Somehow you wake up and then there’s cereal there, you don't know where it comes from. It’s like, Oh, the bacon fairy made you breakfast! And I think that really is Roy’s reckoning, when he says he realized that he's lived his life due to the vast generosity of women.
I think that one of the things I was going for in that moment is this generosity that up until now has been invisible labor. And I think it's labor that's appreciated and is optional. That is not problematic if it's people's choice. But I also think that all labor should be met with great thanks from those who are receiving the benefits of that labor, and I think Roy comes to see that. He just had never thought of it.
Your saying that illuminates a scene towards the end of the book in which a woman is offering Roy something which he ultimately refuses, because he feels the offer is not wholehearted. That is a change in him, isn't it, that he's able to understand the woman's reality.
Yes, that's what he has to learn. It is the question of empathy. He thinks that freedom is recovering what he's lost in terms of his family. He still thinks he's lost his marriage, he's lost his job, he’s lost his money, and he thinks this is what he's lost, but he comes to see is that real freedom is empathy for others. Having empathy is not a luxury, it's almost like he felt that because he suffered so much that he couldn’t afford to pay attention to other people's feelings, that he is so hurt that taking care of himself is all that he has energy for. But he realizes that caring for others is how you know you're free. That is the real freedom.
Did writing An American Marriage take you to a different place than your previous three books?
Yes. This book had very little autobiographical grounding. I had to really stretch myself with empathy. I had to imagine the lives of others more from whole cloth than I had done in my previous novels. I didn't have little autobiographical signposts to follow. I had to really think, what would it be like to be imprisoned? Not just to be in prison, and you're innocent, just what is it to be imprisoned, be it literally or metaphorically. And I had to spend a lot of time, because it's so different than my day-to-day life. That was the real challenge. So the empathy that Roy had to learn for other characters, I had to learn for Roy.
What has your path as a writer been like?
I wrote as a child, but I did not know that being a writer was something I could do with my life. I thought it was a hobby, which I think in many ways is because I was a girl. I think that when girls like to read and write, at least when I was coming up, people wouldn't think that you were a writer or an intellectual. No one ever said, “What are you reading? What are you thinking about that?” When I was a teenager, reading and writing in my little journal it, just seemed that I was nice, that I was an obedient child. My parents didn't have to worry about me, you know, like a nice girl. Nice. That the question of girlhood is if you're nice or if you're not nice. Which is also what Celestial comes up on. No one ever says, “Well, your art is really important and you should pursue it at all costs.” It's more like what you're doing is not nice. So when I went to college I loved to write, but I didn't know it could be a thing.
And then I met my mentor when I was just 17 years old, and she asked me, “What are you thinking?” And no one ever really asked me that in a sincere way. And I started to tell her, and she says, “No, no, no. Write it down.” I look at that as the start of when I became a writer.
After I finished college I went to get a PhD in English, you know, to be an English teacher, not to be a writer. And it was like that famous Saul Bellow quote where he says, “I am a bird, I am not an ornithologist!” But I was like, “I’m a bird! I am not an ornithologist!”
So I had to find the courage to say that: “I am a bird!” I'm a person who believes that when you make the real commitment to your work and your art, the doors open. So once I decided that I was going to be a bird, you know, started flapping around a little bit, I had a chance meeting a writer by the name of Jewell Parker Rhodes, who ran an MFA program at Arizona State. She had seen the one story I had published and she said to me, "Come to Arizona and work with me. I'll help you, I'll be your mentor."
And I was like, “Oh no, Ma’am, I can't move to Arizona. It's hot out there and they don't have the [Martin Luther] King holiday.” And she said, “It's only hot in the summer, dear. And we have had a voter referendum. I will have you a King holiday by the time you get here.” And with that I went off to seek my fortune, like one of the three little pigs.
Thank you so much, Tayari Jones. It’s been a pleasure to talk to you about An American Marriage.
(Photo Credit: Nina Subin)