Arts & Culture » Lit

Tayari Jones and An American Novel

"I try to find, 'What's the thing that's new culturally, familially?' and try to add something to that conversation."


Tayari Jones' novel, An American Marriage (Algonquin, 2018), depicts events as shocking as they are disappointingly familiar. While imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit, Roy sees the collapse of his marriage to Celestial amid a whirlwind of personal and social forces--all brought home by Jones' powers as a novelist.

"I'm very interested in diving into issues that confront us as a nation, and very interested in issues of justice, but I'm also interested in the way people live, and this is kind of the Venn diagram between the issues that you see on the news and everyday life," Jones said. "Everything you see on the news involves someone's everyday life."

Jones, who will visit Boise as part of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series on Wednesday, Jan. 16, has written a novel much concerned with race in America, a touchy topic about which the lived experiences and accompanying headlines can be hard to stomach: African Americans were just over 12 percent of the U.S. population in 2010, but in 2013, they made up approximately 37 percent of its total prison population. Albeit fictional, Roy is one of those people entangled in the criminal justice system. When his conviction is overturned five years into a 12-year sentence, Roy is released from prison early—the starting shot to a drama that rises above mere statistics.

Legal miscarriage and shattered lives cast long shadows over the novel's pages, but An American Marriage is a family drama, and its conflict is as much couched in the responsibilities that come with freedom as in the human costs of imprisonment. Celestial, a dollmaker, hits her professional stride during Roy's years in jail. What begins with a few articles in well-regarded lifestyle magazines becomes high-dollar-value special orders from collectors, New York City gallery showings and a shop with an assistant in Celestial's hometown of Atlanta. She works hard to live her dream, but also falls for her best friend, Andre, the man credited with introducing her to Roy in the first place. Much of the drama revolves around how she is both liberated from and shackled to her husband.

"Marriage," Jones writes in the novel, "is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk." Celestial's father, one of two loci of black masculinity in the book, performs just such a surgery on a dogwood tree, securing a wild, pink-blooming limb onto a white-blooming tree his wife had picked out for their side yard at a nursery. His own upper-middle-class marriage holds together, as does the marriage between Roy's stepfather and mother, with the former representing the aspirations and possibilities of black America, and the latter its authenticity, values and strength.

The grafting of the old and the new, the small-town and big-city, was largely inspired by Jones' own parents. Her father grew up in a three-room house, one of 10 children; and her mother came from Oklahoma City, which Jones called a "more city-ish background." They met at the University of Illinois, moving to Atlanta just before Jones was born. She calls her father "Daddy Bear"—"and he calls me 'Baby Bear' to this day, even at my advanced age," she said. Such relationships with adult children abound in An American Marriage.

"With people living so much longer, the adult child-parent relationship is kind of an uncharted territory. We're in an unprecedented cultural moment where my dad is in his 80s, and we are maintaining these relationships in a new way, and as society changes," she said. "An adult child is an oxymoron, but if we're blessed to have our parents, it's something we get to negotiate."

Nothing builds apprehension quite like the terms "race relations" and "mass incarceration," but they are, in the end, placeholders for the stories of real people. They raise hackles because of what they represent, but amid discourse so full of shorthand, they're richer in social currency than in meaning. An American Marriage doesn't back into controversial topics; it lives them. It's an anti-fairytale, in which the reunion of the prince and princess always hangs in the balance, and "happy ending" could mean practically anything.

What the book shares with the fairytale is a kind of timelessness. Roy's prison sentence appears across an early epistolary section of the book, the long years slipping into the spaces between letters written to his wife and his lawyer. Celestial's life seesaws between men—her father, husband and best friend.

When he's released, Roy imagines walking through the prison's front portal. Instead, he's ushered through a side door, where his widower stepfather waits for him. His life, like most lives, is full of side doors, and his story doesn't move in a straight line. It isn't the broad, social issues that define him and Celestial; rather, he defines the issues, and the peculiarities of his life and relationships color his family tragedy—a feature Jones said is part of every novel she writes.

"I try to find, 'What's the thing that's new culturally, familially?' and try to add something to that conversation," she said.