Embrace a diversity of narratives about the American experience, New York Times bestselling author Tayari Jones said at a Georgetown University Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice event Oct. 23.
Jones is the author of four fictional novels, including “An American Marriage,” which was selected by President Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey’s reading lists. “An American Marriage” is her most recent book and has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Aspen Words Prize and an NAACP Image Award. Jones currently serves as a Cornell University professor-at-large and an Emory University professor of creative writing.
Jones’ protagonists in “An American Marriage” are black; however, they do not represent all members of the black community, according to Jones.
“I came from an era of black writers who don’t have to write about being black persay,” Jones said. “Blackness is the condition of our characters but it doesn’t have to be the exact subject matter. The characters don’t feel like a representative.”
Although Jones’ works examine the black experience, the author sometimes faces criticism for not highlighting issues such as racism in her books, she said.
“White writers write stories about families and their emotions,” Jones said. “But I sometimes get negative feedback where they are like, ‘Too much family, not enough racism.’”
The Lannan Center hosted the reading and conversation with Jones in Copley Formal Lounge as a part of its reading and talks initiative, which invites authors to Georgetown’s campus to speak about their works. Aminatta Forna, the visiting chair of poetics and interim director of Lannan Center, moderated the event.
“An American Marriage” tells the fictional story of a newlywed black couple from Atlanta that faces marital struggles after the husband is accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison.
When deciding on a title for the novel, Jones initially disliked “An American Marriage” because “American” improperly characterized her story of the young black couple, she said.
“I’ve never been called an American, not without another word in front of it,” Jones said. “I’ve been called a black American. I’ve been called an African American.”
However, the author later warmed up to the title after an unnamed mentor reminded Jones about her American right to assert her citizenship, according to Jones.
“She said, ‘So many people made so many sacrifices so that you might have the full benefit of your citizenship, and part of the benefit of your citizenship is that you can claim it for yourself,’” Jones said.
Jones originally hails from Atlanta, Ga. The majority of her books take place in the city, including “Leaving Atlanta,” a novel which tells the story of young Atlantans coming of age during the Atlanta Child Murders, a series of homicides that claimed the lives of 28 black children and young adults between 1979 and 1981.
Jones’ works explore the Southern experience, which is often wrongly judged by those from Northern states, according to Jones.
“I realized how misunderstood the South is, particularly the urban South,” Jones said. “They think the South is shorthand for black misery, and so I think at some point I did consciously start writing against that myth.”
Jones tries to respect the vernacular of minority groups in her writing because people who have had the English language imposed on them reshape the dialect in valuable ways, she said.
“When I tell people I am an English professor, they think, ‘Oh ,she’s going to be correcting me all the time,’” Jones said. “All over the world, people have taken the language and bent it for their own needs, and I always try to honor the way people speak.”
While Jones had not received significant recognition or awards before “An American Marriage” gained public acclaim, she always felt that she wrote without an expectation of how many people would recognize her work.
“I think that my invisible girlhood prepared me for the experience of being an invisible writer in writer in America,” Jones said. “I’m really used to satisfying only myself. I never thought anyone would pay much attention to what I did, so I wasn’t disappointed.”