Tayari Jones opens up about race, marriage and incarceration in bestselling book
Best-selling author Tayari Jones has stated that her book “An American Marriage” deals with the intersectionality of marriage and race.
As part of the annual Leon Forrest lecture series hosted by the Department of African American Studies, Jones was a guest speaker at the Tuesday night event.
“Sometimes people ask me if it’s a love story or not, or if it’s a story of injustice or a race,” Jones said. “A lot of what I’m trying to do in this book is say these things are not separate.”
The book, “An American Marriage,” follows a young woman, Celestial, and her husband, Roy, who was arrested for a crime he did not commit. The Celestials struggle with their love, and part of the novel is told through letters between the two.
Jones began the event by briefly reading an excerpt from his book. Sociology and African American Studies Professor Mary Pattillo, chair of the African American Studies department, said she enjoys hearing Jones read.
“There is no such thing as the author reading their words,” said Pattillo, an event moderator. “It reminds us that the difference between prose and speech is not that far.”
Pattillo, with Ph.D. candidate Claudia Garcia-Rojas, moderated the questions and answers sections. They spoke on behalf of two book clubs that have read “An American Marriage,” one in Evanston and the other as part of the Northwestern Prison Education Program.
Jones spoke about her personal connections to directing the book in Atlanta, as she was born and raised in the city. Although people often think of the South as “grandmothers and mules,” Jones said she decided to write about the Atlanta she grew up in.
“I started writing stories about Atlanta because Atlanta was what I knew,” she says. “I work best when I’m just trying to write the south as I know it, because then I’m telling the truth because I’m not trying to save it from misconceptions.
Jones was also asked how she describes the concept of marriage and feminism in the book, especially in the context of having a significant other incarcerated.
She said she didn’t want to stick to people’s expectations of what the book’s plot would look like based on the title and a basic plot summary.
“If I tell you, ‘I wrote a novel, and it is about a woman and her husband is wrongly incarcerated,’ people (think): a strong woman’s courageous fight to free her man Jones said. “And when it doesn’t meet that expectation, it’s confusing.”
Jones said she chose to focus on the positive impacts of her book instead. She said a reader told her that a similar situation had occurred in her family, but that the book allowed her to “see her mother as a woman.”
Garcia-Rojas also asked Jones about the subject of incarceration in the book.
“Since George Floyd, people have argued that prisons don’t rehabilitate, they punish,” Garcia-Rojas said. “How do you see ‘An American Marriage’ fit into the larger discourse on criminal justice reform?”
The purpose of the book, Jones replied, is to highlight the humanity of those in prison. She said it was important to challenge the belief that “people want people to pay forever” by focusing on punishment rather than rehabilitation.
She stressed that she does not use the language “wrongly incarcerated”, which implies that there are people incarcerated “rightly” and “unfairly,” Jones said.
It took her six years for her to finish writing “An American Marriage” – a difficult process because she felt guilty that she had not, as an author, faced the same experiences as her protagonist.
“I really had to ask myself who I am as a person and as an artist,” Jones said. “But it was worth it… because I had amazing conversations with people all over the world about prison, about love, about feminism and the way forward.
E-mail: [email protected]
– Illinois Prison Project Ambassadors Discuss Incarceration and Reinstatement at One Book Event
– Activists and authors share personal stories at roundtable on abolition of prisons
– Activists and academics imagine a world without police and prisons at “Abolitionist Futures” conference