Tayari Jones’ first name is a Swahili word that means “she is prepared.” It’s a powerful declaration that holds true, as the groundwork for Jones’ moving, emotionally complex new novel, An American Marriage, can be traced to seven years ago.
But it truly all began in Jones’ closet, where she wrote her first novel, Leaving Atlanta (2002), on a manual typewriter during her time in grad school. “It wasn’t like an empty closet that I made into an office. It was my closet!” Jones exclaims during a call that reaches her in Las Vegas, where she has a yearlong fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I never had any trouble writing in that closet, because with your first book, you’re like a cup that is full to the top and overflowing onto the page.”
Jones tells this story to explain why she can write anywhere: in Brooklyn, where she usually lives; in Atlanta, where she grew up and where her mother still lives; at Rutgers University–Newark, where she teaches writing as a founding member of its MFA program; or at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, where, during another fellowship in 2011, she felt the need to research the mass incarceration of black men, which would eventually form the backstory of An American Marriage.
“The word in my head was ‘bigger,’ ” Jones says. “Most of my books are about the family, the way people interact. But I felt I needed to write about big issues, and mass incarceration has always been nibbling at the edges of my mind because of its collateral effects. So on this fellowship, I read and read and read and read. I learned all kinds of statistics that would blow your mind. But this did not engage me as a storyteller. . . . So I went home to talk to my mama in Atlanta. And when I was in the mall there, I heard this couple arguing. She said, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ And he said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, because this wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place.’ I know I have a novel when I’m intrigued by two people’s conflict and when I feel they both have a point.”
On its surface, An American Marriage tells the story of the marriage of Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport. Roy is a poor, ambitious boy from small-town Louisiana. Celestial is from Atlanta’s black upper class. When the two first meet, he is going to Morehouse College and she to Spelman. They are introduced by her “bone-deep” friend and lifelong neighbor Andre, who becomes the third leg of this story. Celestial and Roy connect again in New York, where she is an exceptionally talented art student and he is a rising business consultant. The two marry, and a year and a half into their marriage, he takes her home to Louisiana to visit his parents. While staying at a local motel, Roy is arrested for rape. Readers will have little doubt of his innocence, but he is convicted and sent to prison. The exchange of letters between Roy and Celestial while he is in prison is heart-rending. After five years, Roy is released, and the remainder of the novel is a wrenching portrayal of the love, anger and moral dilemmas—the collateral damage—these characters are left with as a result of injustice.
“It is a question of modern African-American life. What is the balance between your desires and your responsibilities?”
“All of these characters are trying to figure out the extent to which they are allowed to be self-interested in the face of this larger cultural crisis,” Jones explains. “In many ways, it is a question of modern African-American life. What is the balance between your desires and your responsibilities? For Celestial to say, ‘I want happiness’ when her husband is a hostage of the state is very different from a novel where the wife seeking happiness is at home, bored, and her husband is a stockbroker.”
Like any good novel, An American Marriage lives in its particular details. Jones presents readers with a richly evocative cultural moment, and each of her characters has a complicated past that raises as many questions about life as it answers. Especially compelling are her depictions of black urban professional life in Atlanta.
“I’ve lived a lot of places since I finished college in 1991,” Jones says. “But I haven’t lived long enough in those places to feel I have enough authority to write about them. I need to know the layers of a place. Atlanta is my hometown, and I know all its layers. Furthermore, it is important to me as a Southern writer to write about the modern urban South. When I tell people in Brooklyn that I’m from Georgia, they act like I got there on the Underground Railroad. They have no concept of the modern South.”
Readers of An American Marriage will discover a bold, big Southern story to match its ambitious title. “I’ve always wanted to be a writer,” Jones says. “And I have accepted that my niche is this quiet space. I’ve never been one of those writers who says writing is the hardest job in the world. Look at the jobs my grandparents had. Can I really say a job I’m able to do in my pajamas is the hardest job in the world? This is not a quiet title. And this is not a quiet story. I was a little intimidated by claiming this title for myself. But this novel caused me to challenge myself. I feel really good about it now.”
Author photo by Nina Subin.