Tayari Jones Portrays a Complex American Marriage | LibraryReads Author

However engaging her prose, Tayari Jones is not the sort of author who tosses off fiction meant merely for entertainment. After completing Silver Sparrow, an LJ Best Book and NEA Big Read about the two daughters of a bigamist father, she wanted to dig into another timely and topical issue.

headshot of Tayari Jones. Photo by Nina Subin.However engaging her prose, Tayari Jones is not the sort of author who tosses off fiction meant merely for entertainment. After completing Silver Sparrow, an LJ Best Book and NEA Big Read about the two daughters of a bigamist father, she wanted to dig into another timely and topical issue. So she won a scholarship to Harvard to research wrongful incarceration. Jones watched documentaries, plowed through sociological texts, and immersed herself in statistics, but she still didn’t have a story. As she observed at LJ’s 2017 Day of Dialog, “I’m a novelist, not a journalist.”

Then, home in Atlanta, she heard a couple arguing at the mall. Relates Jones, “The woman said to the man, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years,’ and he said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about because this wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’ ” At that moment, Jones had her novel: how wrongful incarceration affects both people in a relationship and how their different perspectives are both valid. While the best fiction shows all sides of a situation, in wrongful incarceration “there is no other side; it’s terrible to lock people up for things they didn’t do,” says Jones. “But if I don’t have a struggle, I don’t have a novel.”

An American Marriage book coverThus, in An American Marriage, Jones introduces us to Roy and Celestial, a young, upwardly mobile African American couple married just 18 months and visiting his parents when he is accused of raping a woman at the hotel where they are staying. Celestial testifies at Roy’s trial that they were together at the time of the attack, but Roy is given a 15-year sentence. As disclosed through a series of increasingly forthright letters, their relationship frays badly during Roy’s imprisonment, and “in many ways Celestial has moved on in her life,” says Jones. Then, upon Roy’s early release when he is proven innocent, she comes home to find him sitting on the couch, and “everything must be recalibrated.”

Before Roy’s arrest, we see Roy and Celestial bickering like any other couple about in-laws, parenthood, and spilled secrets, and Jones deftly keeps the focus on the details of the relationship, with the criminal case “just a shadowy backdrop” to the narrative. “Crime just sucks you in, and the people become symbolic rather than real,” she explains, pointing to the reductive focus on the culprit in most TV crime shows as a danger to be avoided. Similar danger exists for any novelist hoping to plumb an urgent topic (no reader wants a book full of mouthpieces), and Jones offers a veritable lesson in character development as she explains how to keep things personal.

“Each of us has a big issue, and someone could look at our lives and see only that one thing,” she says. “But all of our lives are complicated and messy.” Even when dealing with a big, life-shaking event such as wrongful incarceration, the particularities of personality and the inevitabilities of family drama are there at hand and must be brought forth to create an effective reading experience. In the end, Jones says she has too much respect for her characters not to portray them in all their richness.

In fact, failure to do so risks the entire enterprise. “Usually, if you write about something topical, it’s because you want to bring light to that issue,” she clarifies. “But you can accidentally bring light to that issue and put darkness on your characters.” All the way to her honest, bittersweet ending, Jones brightly navigates the conflicted and conflicting emotions of her couple, countering Roy’s declaration, “I am innocent,” with Celestial’s corresponding, “I am innocent, too.” For as Jones proclaims, “Keeping that balance is ultimately the truth.”—Barbara Hoffert

Photo by Nina Subin

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