You Have To Work With the Love You Are Given: A Conversation with Tayari Jones

Andrew Ervin

Tayari Jones’s new novel An American Marriage, her fourth, does so many things extraordinarily well that it promises to become one of the big breakouts of the season, if not of the year. Everyone will soon be reading and talking about this book. At heart, it’s a love story, albeit one so fraught that it lives up to Tolstoy’s most famous dictum even while the .22 with a pink mother-of-pearl handle in the opening chapter evokes Chekov’s. It’s a wholly original novel of ideas in the grandest sense, and it’s also difficult to put down.

Celestial and her husband Roy are asleep in a rural Louisiana motel after a difficult day of visiting family and arguing. “I was still awake when the door burst open,” Celestial tells us. “I know they kicked it in, but the written report says that a front-desk clerk handed over the key and the door was opened in a civilized manner. But who knows what is true.” That is not a question. The police barge in to arrest Roy for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s an intense scene that, among too many others, calls to mind Alton Sterling, a black man shot at close range by police in Baton Rouge in July 2016. Jones renders Roy’s subsequent incarceration and humiliation with heartbreaking nuance.

An American Marriage is a profound and important novel, one that reminds us that the political is always personal. There’s a Sophoclean tenor to the way it depicts the effects sweeping national events can have on individual lives. In taking on our nation’s overzealous and unconscionable incarceration of people of color, this can also be counted among the first great literary works to arise from the Black Lives Matter movement.

I met Jones in the fall of 2005 when I arrived as a green MFA student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she then taught. Her first advice to me is something I still repeat to every fiction and poetry graduate student I meet. She reminded me that I had only three years in the program and I needed to complete my first book in that time. While my cohorts were out drinking and socializing, she wanted me to stay in and write. And I did. It’s thanks to her insight that I’ve published three books in the nine years since my graduation. To this day, Jones remains an exceptional teacher, and she has also become a mentor and friend and inspiration.

Among many other prizes, Jones has won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. She now teaches new groups of lucky students in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, and she answered my questions via email and telephone in late December and into early January.

Ed.Note: Tayari will be teaching this July as part of our 2018 Summer Workshop. 

Andrew Ervin: Can you recall what inspired An American Marriage and maybe how it evolved during the composition process?

Tayari Jones: In 2011, during a fellowship to the Radcliffe Institute, I had an idea that I wanted to write a novel about something more relevant to the issues of the day. My previous work had focused on families. But I felt like I was ready to try something on a larger canvas. So I decided to write something about mass incarceration, I wasn’t sure the angle. I was reading a lot. I read The New Jim Crow a thousand times, and I heard oral histories, I watched documentaries. I have discovered the scope of a major societal problem. I mean, I knew it was bad, but things were far worse than I thought. But I didn’t have a story. So I was outraged, sickened even, but not inspired. For me, a story has to grow from its characters. My mentor, Ron Carlson, used to say “Write about people and their problems, not problems and their people.”

But when I was in Atlanta visiting my mom, I overheard a young couple arguing. The man seems little tired and not well dressed, and the woman was just stunning. I could tell they were in love, and in trouble. She said, “Roy you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.” And he said, in really frustrated voice, “What are you talking about? This would not happen to you in the first place.”

I couldn’t get these people out of my head. They were both right. He was recovering from a trauma that she was, in many ways, safe from. Or at least she was shielded from its effects directly. But at the same time, he couldn’t even imagine waiting for her. He couldn’t believe a situation in which that type of selflessness would be required of him. So I realize that they were at loggerheads in some ways. And that even though his problem is a societal problem, it is a deep racial problem, it goes back all the way to slavery, really.

At the end of the day, these were two people in a relationship, a marriage. And love requires more than a deep understanding of history, of justice. A relationship is about two people and whether they can share their lives, share a bed, share a home. A close reading of The New Jim Crow won’t bring your lover back to you. I headed to the page wondering about the way our real human hearts intersect forces that are so much bigger and older than we are.

AE: One of the things that made a real impression on me is that it’s part a book about fatherhood in its many forms. Looking back at what you’ve written, why do you suppose that fathers and father figures are so vital to your story?

TJ: I think you are the first person to notice the way that fathers thread through the entire body of my work. I really can’t say what my thing is with fathers. It may be that, like a lot of people, I have a father. We’re close. I call him Daddy Bear, and he calls me Baby Bear. To this day! But I think about me and my brothers and sisters it sometimes seems to me like we are five people who have five different fathers. And that has always intrigued me about my dad—and everybody’s dad. So perhaps I’m working that out in my fiction?

AE: In what ways did our current political climate complicate and inspire your novel?

TJ: The idea of incarceration looming as just one misunderstanding away has always been part of my understanding of the world. As a matter of fact, writing this I always thought that this was the least interesting part of the story. Roy’s actual imprisonment and the injustice. After all, for me this is a settled issue— both that it exists and that it is wrong. For me, the challenge lies in the collateral effects. This is where story trumps issue.

AE: What did you learn in writing this?

TJ: The most interesting thing I learned was a matter of craft. When I first started to write this book, understanding that it was a story of a marriage, I wanted to focus on Celestial. I was fascinated by her dilemma. Here’s this woman, more bride than wife, married less than two years. And now she is expected to be “ride or die” for her husband—just as her art career is blossoming, as her dream is unfolding before her. For obvious reasons, I was into it. But as I wrote draft after draft, the pushback from my beta readers was overwhelming.

People think they are interested in women who don’t play by society’s rules, but when they see it in action, it is too disturbing. A question I kept getting was why is she “like that”? My question was “like what?” After all, in my view, Celestial is a person who wants the same things that anyone wants—to live her life in a way that fulfills her. This emotional limbo of being married but not really, of having one foot in her life as an artist and one foot emotionally serving the needs of her husband—it was too much.

Anyway, so I kept trying to make plot points that would justify her right to her own life. And I was getting irritated, and the book was getting clunky. And, truthfully, I was tired of what I processed as people’s really basic understanding of the conflict. Seriously. I stopped getting feedback because it was not helping me at all.

I started thinking about other novels by women that questioned the idea that women’s first (and only) priority is to be a good wife and mother. These novels were primarily by white women. They just get tired of being domesticated and go do something else. Trigger the applause. So why couldn’t Celestial?

And here is my big revelation. The reason is that in the novels by white women, all the characters have about the same level of material comfort. The husband that the woman wants to leave is in a comfortable position. You feel that he will be alright without her. He’ll probably be remarried in 25 minutes and there might be a custody fight or something, but you don’t worry about him. I connected this dot to understand that in a story the person with the most urgent crisis will always take the reader’s eye. You can’t revise around this. I could embroider Celestial all I wanted to but as long as Roy was wrongfully incarcerated, he would be the center of the narrative.

This made me a little crazy because part of what intrigued me about this conflict was the idea that Roy (and the Roys of the world) are the default narrative in African American discourse. The point of any novel is to challenge the prevailing narrative and my novel seemed to be almost fated to be more of the same. I knew if the book was going to work I needed to make Roy the main character. For a full year, I was resentful as hell! But then I had an idea. I, as the author, understood Celestial’s heart. Maybe I could take Roy on a journey to learn what I figured out. So that was the craft thing.

The emotional thing springs from the same well. With Roy, the question always is “What is freedom?” Roy starts out thinking that freedom is the ability to control your own life—and I agreed with this; this is why I so wanted Celestial to have the right to her own destiny. But Roy and I both—by the end of six years—come to understand that freedom is when you understand yourself to have the luxury of empathy.

AE: Does that empathy also explain why the novel is so funny at times?

TJ: People always ask me how I manage to find humor in situations that seem so daunting. But my general belief is that life is a predicament and there is always a funny angle on a predicament. The novel is funny at times because no matter what is going on with you, even if, like Roy, have the boot of The Man on your neck, something funny is bound to happen. You go to prison, but your cellmate chooses to be addressed as the “Ghetto Yoda.” I’m into humor. I don’t believe that we laugh to keep from crying. We laugh because life is hilarious.

Tayari Jones is the author of the novels Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and An American Marriage (Algonquin Books, February 2018). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, The New York Times, and Callaloo.  A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, she has also been a recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. An Associate Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University, she is spending the 2017-18 academic year as the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House and a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. His most recent book is Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our World.