An American Triumph:
The Homecoming of Tayari Jones
by Taylor Alyson Lewis
Author Tayari Jones reflects on her novel, An American Marriage, and her return to Atlanta, Ga with Auburn Avenue Editor, Taylor Alyson Lewis.
In the year since Tayari Jones released her fourth novel An American Marriage, I could only imagine how she felt about moving back home. Raised in Southwest Atlanta, Jones spent the last decade teaching at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. In January 2019, she accepted a faculty position at Emory University. One month after her appointment, I got the opportunity to interview her.
As I circled Emory’s campus for the third time on the day of our meeting, watching raindrops the size of lemons pummel my windshield like it stole something, I realized that I would likely be late to the most important interview of my professional life. I was suddenly reminded of the slick wooden pews of Sister’s Chapel, the focal point of Spelman College, where I dutifully listened to our deans reiterate the principle tenet of our undergraduate years: “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is simply unacceptable.” In practice, it’s more like a call to action than an enforced rule, brimming with the reality of heightened expectations and material consequences both in and outside of the gates.
My preparation for the interview brought Spelman to the front of my mind, and I had been reflecting on my institution’s impact, not only in my life, but within the world at large. The alma mater of both Tayari Jones and the protagonist of her latest novel, An American Marriage, Spelman College has a rich history of Black feminist empowerment, and countless stories of individual triumph and success. Jones, who authored three previous novels (Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow) is one of its proudest alumnae. She graduated high school and entered into her freshman year at Spelman when she was only 16 years old. At Spelman, she would study under Pearl Cleage and major in English. The influence of her Atlanta roots and her time in the Atlanta University Center is undeniable in An American Marriage. The novel focuses on the individual journeys of Celestial and Roy, a married couple whose lives are thrown into chaos after Roy is falsely incarcerated while visiting his parents in Louisiana. Grappling with issues of class, gender expectations, and intersections of power, An American Marriage is a compelling work of perspective, challenging the reader to abstain from judgement long enough to reflect on the myriad of ways institutional oppression can permanently affect, or destroy, interpersonal relationships.
My editor and I arrived at Professor Jones’s office and tentatively knocked. A voice answered in the affirmative and we entered. Her office was almost completely bare, aside from a copy of The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction on the bookshelf and a framed map of the United States on the back wall. Situated a little below ground, we could see the running feet of soaked students through the windows above our heads. In the middle of the room stood a sturdy wooden desk made of dark, varnished wood and a few chairs. Jones sat behind it, anticipating our arrival. She stood when my editor and I entered the room, and greeted us like old friends, graciously waving away our apologies for our lateness and damp appearance. Prompted by our drifting eyes, she told us that she had just moved in over a month ago, and was preparing to move back out in order to have an office where she could negotiate a stylish accent wall. Her relaxed nature immediately put my growing nerves at ease, and when she shook the icicle that was once my hand, she gasped and covered it with both of hers in a gesture that was comforting and familiar. “Your hands are so cold,” she said. Her brow furrowed in concern. “Are you okay?” That was when I remembered that Tayari Jones was, first and foremost, my Spelman sister.
I want to start out by talking about the influence of Spelman and Morehouse on An American Marriage. In the beginning of the book, Roy says, "Indoctrination isn't necessarily a bad thing" in reference to his time at Morehouse. I was wondering what your time at Spelman was like, in reference to Roy's statement.
I loved my time at Spelman. I was the youngest girl in my class; I was 16. But I kinda hated every minute of high school. When I was in high school, about halfway through, I realized there was really nothing that could be done. I was just going to have to hold on for the next phase of life and just start over, and that starting over was Spelman. When I got there I felt institutionally affirmed for the first time in my life. I wrote an article in Tin House about it, I said, “At Spelman we were made to feel exceptional, but that we were not exceptions.” So there’s just the ubiquity of that kind of achievement and excellence and also that variety of Black womanhood. I felt like they were just so many ways to be yourself, each of them valid, each of them equally exciting. To this day, I've never felt as free to be myself. I enjoyed belonging to something, and I still enjoy belonging to something.
No matter where I go, Spelman shows up. I was in Australia and I heard someone call my name, and I turned and it was one of my friends from freshman year. I said, “Sabrina, what are you doing here?” She said, “It's not that far from Seattle.” I was so happy to see her. Sisterhood is actually a real thing and I think it is a Sisterhood, too, in that it's complex and real sisters are complicated, but I never feel alone. When I went to Spelman it was Dr. Cole’s first year, so she was inducted into the Sisterhood with us, in middle of the night, in her pajamas. She considers herself our classmate, and so we were there at a very exciting time. It was like a new dawn for Spelman, the new Spelman, the feminist Spelman, the natural hair Spelman, all of that. It was just so exciting. It felt like we were part of an exciting moment of change, a moment of positive change and I had never felt that before.
I want to pivot and talk about Southwest Atlanta and the culture of Southwest Atlanta. You frame the "garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes" as the antithesis of Celestial and Roy's marriage. I want to know why you chose to focus on that particular facet of Atlantans.
Well, it's where I live, and I also think the fact that Atlanta has such a thing as "a garden variety bourgeois Negro" speaks to something about Atlanta, where again it's back to, "You're not exceptional. You're not an exception.” Atlanta has enough African-American achievement that it can become mundane. The struggle against a kind of homogenized middle-class experience can only happen when you have enough people. One of the things about living in Atlanta and going to Spelman is that there enough Black people doing what you're doing, and you don't have to like them all.
You also touch on the idea that Black Americans experience class differently from white folks. There's a point where you describe Celestial's upbringing as “middle-class regular America, but upper-class Black America.”
Yes, Black people do experience class differently. I even notice when people talk to me about An American Marriage they say, “This is an extremely educated couple.” I'm like, they've been to college. But when people talk about Black people, like if you've been the college people act like you're a rocket scientist or something because of the different sets of expectations. There are studies that say that most Americans don't know anyone from another class or know very few, but because Black people have such class mobility, like when someone is a first generation college student, that changes the trajectory of that family. And a first-generation college student, particularly going to a Black college, could have a roommate that's a third or fourth generation college student. And so there's going to be class diversity in your peer group in a different way than I think for the rest of America.
Well, Celestial's well-to-do upbringing and her background, you know, the “poupées,” it's all a point of tension between her and Roy's relationship. I feel that sometimes he feels emasculated. Could you talk more about that dynamic?
I actually think the opposite; I don't think it emasculates him. I think it re-masculates him, if you can imagine, because I do think that we do associate masculinity in the Black community with working class experience. So her being from a more upper-class family actually underscores feminine gender expectations of her. I think there is a common story in the Black world that women who are from different means emasculate men but I think it's actually the opposite, I really do. As a matter of fact, that's why everyone sees Andre as being emasculated because he's not suffering enough. He's not struggling enough. So that's a kind of tension, right? I mean one of the things I was doing also in the novel in having the character of Davina is that it was important to me to have a working class Black woman be desired, feminine, womanly, all these things because so often the working class Black woman is written as hard—like an honorary dude almost—and so I was trying to kind of explore and disrupt these tropes. I even like to think of Andre as kind of critiquing our expectations of masculinity, and also the correlation between masculinity and color.
It's almost like the idea of disrupting gender hierarchy is seen as a luxury that cannot be afforded in the face of Roy's incarceration. That's why before he goes to prison, he likes that Celestial doesn't seem to be owned. He likes that she's ambitious, all these things that are kind of disrupting expectation. But then once he's incarcerated he wants an old-fashioned relationship. But what would that mean, then, if feminism can only exist when men are free? There's an expectation of what the story's going to be about if I say it's a story about a man who is wrongfully incarcerated. I was trying to look at what happens when a man is in such great crisis, but there is also female autonomy happening simultaneously. What does that look like?
Every time a woman doesn't take care of someone, someone isn't taken care of. There's consequences to disrupting roles and I think one of the challenges of this book is really looking at the price of female autonomy.
I really deeply empathize with Celestial in that moment where she chooses to separate as Roy's caretaker. Where she longs to be, you know, a sister and an ally and a friend, instead of a wife. And Roy's reaction to that—I didn't expect him to react any other way, but his reaction to that is quite volatile.
Celestial says I will be here for you in all of these other ways, but he can't. And it seems like if she doesn't do everything people treat her as though she did nothing. I had to struggle with it. I made it a point that she took care of him twice as long as she was married to him. I tried to do everything I could in the writing to mitigate it, just so readers could listen to the possibility of it. It's a very difficult thing when the model you have for being a responsible member of your culture, your society, your community, is the extent to which you can do for others. That's why I had that line when he says, “I'm innocent.” She says, “I'm innocent too.” I feel like that's the most important thing in the story.
I got stranded 50 pages from the end of this book for a year, because I couldn't figure out how to end it, because I realized I was letting Roy drag me through the story. Roy thinks that because of how he suffered, that the moral measure of everyone is how much they can help him restore what he's lost. I should go back to underscore that wrongful imprisonment is a real serious problem; I mean, that's the challenge I think of intersectional feminism. What do you when the men are really suffering this racist violence? You can't stand idly by. But you can't throw yourself under a bus either.
There are many times that the characters equate incarceration with death. It especially comes up a lot with Andre and his referral to Celestial as a “widow.”
Every incarceration is a family separation, and it's not as though they are dead. I mean, I think Andre feels that Celestial is a widow because he's with her and she has a husband but doesn't have a husband. There's the distance of separation and I was really just wanted to write about the emotional costs and the most helpful research I used was oral histories.
Do you feel like readers have demonized Celestial?
You know what, it’s split. I think the ones who dislike her so strongly, I remember them, because they hurt my feelings. But it is split. There are some people who whisper to me that they really identify with her. I will say that the people who hate her, hate her more than the people who like her. It's really interesting. Younger women tend to be more interested in Celestial because I do think the older you are the more steeped you are in that this system uses your role.
I do want to bring up Celestial and Roy's class privilege. Celestial brings up that she felt insulated: “I knew this [false incarceration] happened to people but I didn't think it happen to people like us.”
I think a lot of things we call privilege, we should stop calling privilege because so many things we call privilege are things that everyone should have as basic citizens. I think that it's a mistake to call it that. Because it makes it so that the neutral ground is being brutalized and not being brutalized sounds like indulgence. But the thing is—class cannot protect you, class is not bulletproof. Do I think that as black people as a culture, as collective, have an obligation to help those who are not as fortunate as we are? Yes, but I don't think it's a mark against her character to expect her husband not to be wrongfully incarcerated.
What do you have to say to Black folks who kind of completely disconnect once they make paper?
I'm actually going to make a bigger point, I think that everyone should care about people who don't have resources, not just Black people. I think everybody with resources should care about people without resources. The role of philanthropy to people who have earned their money as opposed to people who are born with their money is super different. People may say what are you doing for the community? But most people are doing something for their family and it counts. That is vital. I think mostly everyone goes back. I think it's very unusual for someone not to give back. There are people who don't care, who don't feel obligated to the collective, but I think everyone feels obligated to someone and I think that matters.
What's it been like moving back to Atlanta?
I'm so happy. I'm so happy. I'm so happy. You just don't know how happy I am. I am so happy like I could just put my head on this desk and cry. I'm so happy. They could have New York. They can have the whole thing.
What's the best part? What did you miss the most about Atlanta?
I do miss Southern Blackness, really. People who live in New York act like you got up there on the Underground Railroad. You say you went to Spelman College, they don't understand what means and you're like, "No, I'm telling you something." This idea that our own institutions are our own and are valuable and have prepared us exquisitely and I missed just people who've known me forever.
I don't live in Southwest [Atlanta]; I live about 12 miles from my parents. They act like they need a passport and a visa to get over there. But I am closer to my parents. I don't know. I'm just happy as I can be, I could not be happier.
Is it different now, from what you remember?
It is different, but some of the things are better. You know, I like the bookstore scene. I like the music scene. I like the literary scene. Can I say it is different because I'm just older, too? I feel ordinary in some ways. People mistake me for other people—that never happened in New York, you know? There are a lot of things I liked about New York, but New York is for New Yorkers, and I'm not one. I was always aware that I wasn't home. I’m happy to be back home.
You know, I would love to teach a class at Spelman. Spelman, if you're listening, I would love to. Because I became a writer at Spelman, Pearl Cleage was my teacher. She took me up under that wing. We're super close; I talk to her all the time. That's where I found my voice and my purpose and I would like to pass it on to someone else.
Spelman is such a gem; it's got so many brilliant professors.
Yeah, and I love all our rituals. Especially, now that we're out, reunions. When we're all around the arch, and the girls are coming through in their caps and gowns, and we're like, “We love you.” It's powerful. They have you forever. I have given money to Spelman every month as long as I can remember. It's my joy and you know what when people make jokes about Spelman I'm not amused. It's like, "Do I talk about your mother?" [laughs] That's how I feel. Sorry, I feel it. So strongly. I was in, I want to say, Oakland and there was a very elderly man there and he was on a walker and everybody moved out the way, and he came up and he had copy of the book for me to sign. And he said that his wife was in hospice and she sent him to get a book signed; she was a Spelman woman. So that's how we do it.
Just curious, what is your favorite restaurant in Atlanta?
I love Gun Show. That's the new Atlanta where you can eat at Gun Show and they set your drink on fire. Very often I'm sitting next to some interesting person and they talk to me. Yeah. I love it. I'm home.
An American Marriage (Algonquin Books) was released in paperback in February 2019. It is available for purchase here.
Taylor Alyson Lewis is a poet, writer, and Spelman alumna from Atlanta, Ga. She serves as Poetry Editor at Auburn Avenue.