Novelist Tayari Jones on her Aspen Words Literary Prize-winning ‘An American Marriage’
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Tayari Jones on Social Justice, the Writing Life and Oprah’
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Tuesday, June 18, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: aspenwords.org
ADDITIONAL ASPEN SUMMER WORDS PUBLIC PANELS
MONDAY, JUNE 17
“Crafting Memorable Characters and Compelling Dialogue”
The Gant | Maroon Room | 3:30 p.m.
Tom Barbash, Heather Harpham, Susan Minot and Samrat Upadhyay
“Writing Your Way Around the Globe”
Belly Up | 5:15 p.m.
Laura Fraser and Pete McBride
TUESDAY, JUNE 18
“The Business of Being a Writer “
The Gant | Maroon Room | 4 p.m.
Authors Rumaan Alam and Susan Minot, agents Allison Hunter and Seth Fishman and editor Jennifer Barth
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 19
Live “First Draft” Podcasting Session
The Gant | E. Maroon Room | 3:30 p.m.
Mitzi Rapkin and Tina Chang
Aspen Words Summer Benefit
Hotel Jerome Ballroom | 6 p.m. reception 7 p.m. dinner
THURSDAY, JUNE 20
The Gant | Maroon Room | 4 p.m.
Tom Barbash, Tina Chang, Meghan Daum, Nick Flynn, and Laura Fraser
Non-member passes $100 (includes all public panels)
Member passes $75
Individual tickets $25
Tayari Jones knew she wanted to write a novel about American mass incarceration. She spent years researching, writing and abandoning drafts.
But it was a chance encounter at a shopping mall that finally crystallized what would become “An American Marriage,” her essential and masterful portrait of an African-American couple split apart by a wrongful imprisonment.
Searching for a way to illuminate the corrosive societal effect of the U.S. carceral system, Jones studied the issue as a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute beginning in 2011. But the author struggled to find her story.
“It was the first time I set out to write a novel that was deliberately engaging with a social issue,” Jones recalled from Seattle in a recent phone interview. “I had the hardest time. Everything I was writing just wasn’t good and sparkling and complicated in the way a novel should be.”
She found she was trying to animate social issues, rather than telling a human story. But then she witnessed a couple arguing at an Atlanta mall and the book came to her in a flash.
“I heard the woman say, ‘Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. This wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place,’” Jones recalled. “And then I knew what I needed to make a novel.”
She knew then that she’d write the story of a marriage. The novel’s Roy is a successful businessman, his wife, Celestial, a talented artist. They’re a well-off, young and newlywed Atlanta couple with roots in Georgia and Louisiana. They’re torn apart pointlessly and devastatingly when Roy is arrested during a visit to family in Louisiana and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
Jones tells their story through alternating first-person narratives from Roy, Celestial and Celestial’s lifelong friend Andre — along with letters to and from Roy in prison — as the relationship erodes.
With its multiple voices and perspectives, “An American Marriage” draws the reader’s loyalty to swing to at least three often-opposing sides, as they learn more about each character’s viewpoint. This miracle of a book is also peppered with romance, humor and pop culture references.
Jones doesn’t grant any of her characters sainthood. They all have secrets, they’ve all make mistakes. And she lets readers see the world through each of their eyes, navigating thorny issues of race, class, gender, parenting, abortion, love and loyalty. By the time you’re turning the last page, your empathetic capacity has been enlarged.
“They call it ‘mass incarceration’ because it happens to so many people and I don’t think we’ve thought about what that means for our society and impacted communities,” Jones said.
The familiar injustices of racism in the judicial system are so familiar that Jones doesn’t bother much with courtroom scenes and legal proceedings. She deals with Roy’s arrest, trial and wrongful conviction elliptically. When you realize what she’s doing, it’s a shock to find that these wrongs are so common that you can fill in the blanks. Instead, her narrative centers on the stories the public rarely hears about the intimate lives of the families decimated by mass incarceration.
In April, Jones won the second annual Aspen Words Literary Prize, an award from the locally based literary organization given to a work of fiction that addresses contemporary social issues. She will give a public talk on her work Tuesday at Belly Up, as part of the Aspen Summer Words conference and literary festival.
The Pitkin County Library and Aspen Words in early May launched a community read of “An American Marriage,” giving free copies to locals interested in reading and discussing the book this summer. The scene at the library on book giveaway day was every author’s dream: copies of “An American Marriage” stacked high, hundreds of readers filing in excitedly to get their copy and start reading. (The library hosted a community discussion about the novel on Thursday, in advance of Jones’ visit.)
The local conversation about the book follows such events across the country and discussion online that came in the wake of its Oprah’s Book Club selection last year. Along with the Aspen prize, the bestselling book also has earned Jones the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work and earlier this month was awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Jones wrote the book to get people talking about the true cost of mass incarceration, but she’s not prescriptive about the debates it inspires.
“I was most interested in the trickle-down, collateral effects on families, on the ways we understand gendered relationships,” she said. “But you can never predict where the conversation is going to go.”
In her travels with “An American Marriage,” she’s met many people who see themselves in its pages. Among the most impactful, Jones said, was a man in Fairfax, Virginia, whose father was imprisoned and who had a fraught relationship with his mother as a result. He told Jones that her book allowed him to understand his mother’s perspective.
“The public face of these families is stoic and they are loyal and dedicated and single-minded in their concern for their loved one,” she said. “But in a novel you can see behind closed doors. You can see the true cost of sacrifice.”
Summer Words runs Sunday through Thursday and includes panels with writers including essayist Meghan Daum, poet Tina Chang, novelists Tom Barbash and Nick Flynn and Aspen Words Lit Prize finalist Samrat Upadhyay, who are all teaching workshops.
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