Oprah's New Book Club: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
In the case of Tayari Jones's fourth novel, An American Marriage (Algonquin), the answer to that last question was an emphatic yes. After the first few chapters, as I got to know Roy and Celestial and Andre, I forgot they were fictional characters. I found myself in that zone readers yearn for: I wanted to cancel all my plans and curl up with my new friends.
I won't spoil the experience by giving away too much of the plot; suffice it to say that a wrongful arrest and conviction shatter the lives of the couple at its center, exposing the cracks in the foundation of their relationship and creating new ones where none existed before. The tale unfolds through alternating narrators, each voice as intimate as a confidant; you're inside the heads and hearts of all three, feeling the unfairness, the righteous anger, the helplessness, the confusion—and also the complexity and joy of love.
When I finished, I immediately began sharing the book with others, and they, too, devoured it, periodically checking in to talk about what might happen next. By the end, we were discussing the goings-on between Roy, Celestial, and Andre as if gossiping about next-door neighbors. It's among Tayari's many gifts that she can touch us soul to soul with her words— and that those words are so glorious.
A few months ago, I phoned Tayari to tell her I'd decided to make An American Marriage my new Oprah's Book Club selection. She wasn't expecting me, and at first she just laughed and kept saying "Oh my goodness!" Then we got to talking.
Oprah: How did you come up with the idea of this epic love triangle that also wrestles with the hard-core issue of mass incarceration? It's definitely not a natural pairing!
Tayari Jones: My earlier novels were all about me trying to sort out the complications of my own family. With Silver Sparrow, I felt like I put that baby to bed. And with all the chaos in the world, I wanted to look outward and take on something that mattered to others, not just me.
OW: How did you land on criminal justice?
TJ: To black Americans, mass incarceration is an ongoing threat, like hurricanes on the coast and earthquakes or fires in California. Prison can swoop in and snatch up the men in our families at any time. I decided to write about the collateral damage around that—what happens to families, to relationships, to dreams for the future. How does this social wrong translate into the everyday? As a novelist, it was that messy gray area I wanted to explore.
OW: Define what you mean by gray area.
TJ: My character Roy is an innocent man being punished for a crime he didn't commit, which disrupts not only his life but those of his wife and parents. No ambiguity there. I'd spent nearly a year researching the subject of incarceration at Harvard and accumulated lots of facts, but couldn't find a way into the more nuanced story I was trying to create. Then one day I was at the mall and overheard an argument between a couple. She carried herself elegantly— she didn't seem like the kind of person who hashes things out with her man in a food court. She shouted at him: "You know you wouldn't have waited on me for seven years!" I had no idea why they'd been separated or whether jail time was involved, but a lightbulb went off. Suddenly I had my story.
OW: I love the title An American Marriage. How did you come up with it?
TJ: At first I was calling the book Dear History, but that sounded so academic. I shifted to This Is How I Love You, which spoke to the romance angle but trivialized the broader theme. I was brainstorming alternatives, and An American Marriage popped into my head, but I was nervous it was too big a title for my book, that it suggested a novel about, say, white people in Connecticut getting a divorce. For most of my life, American wasn't a word I felt was addressed to me without adding black. But my editor urged me to consider it, and I began to realize that in adopting it I'd be claiming a larger space for my characters and their story. But did I dare? My mentor, Pearl Cleage, gave me this advice: "You are an American author and this is an American story." So I went with it.
OW: Wow. That's what I love about the title—it owns the scale of the story. Are there writers who have especially influenced you?
TJ: I read Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon at least once a year. When I teach it, I'm that crazy English professor reading aloud with tears streaming down my cheeks. The other consistent influence on my work is Greek mythology. In this novel, Roy is like Odysseus. He faces an incredible challenge, has to fight to get home, and meets other women along the way, yet all he wants is to know his wife is waiting for him. Alas, Celestial is no Penelope.
OW: Ha! I heard there was a point when you considered giving up writing?
TJ: There were so many times I wondered whether the universe had given me all the books it was going to. I asked myself if I should forget writing and do something else. I went back to Pearl and asked if she thought I was done. She said, "Maybe you are and maybe you're not." Somehow that released me from the pressure of having to finish what I started and allowed the story to just be.
OW: Ohhh, I'm so glad you stuck with it. I so love this book, Tayari. Thank you for writing it.
TJ: Thank you, ma'am.