Lenox Square mall is usually good people watching, and it was the day a few years ago when Tayari Jones walked into the food court.
A young couple caught her eye. The woman and the man looked as though they were barely 30 years old, and she was more dressed up than her companion. Their argument stopped Jones cold. The woman looked weary and the man agitated. He wanted to know why she had not waited for him during his seven-year absence. She was incredulous at the question and asked him if he’d have waited for her for so long.
Jones memorized their conversation, their every gesture, every physical detail all the way down to the scuffs on the man’s shoes. She wrote it down, not fully realizing that the couple would prove to be a template for two of the main characters in her latest novel, “An American Marriage” (Algonquin Books). On Friday at 7 p.m. at the Alliance Theatre, Jones will be in conversation about the new book with playwright Pearl Cleage.
Later, as she mined that couple’s conversation for clues to the man’s absence, Jones surmised he had probably been incarcerated. Imprisonment is a maddening and painfully common tale playing out in black communities across the country. Jones wanted to tell that story. The new novel explores what happens to black families, black wealth and especially black love in an age of mass detention of black men.
Given the nation’s history of disproportionately locking up black men, the issue has spawned classics, such as the children’s book “Sounder,” to filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s Sundance award-winning film, “Middle of Nowhere.” Non-fiction works such as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” are plentiful.
But Jones’ novel is ultimately a love story. It is actually a love triangle between a character named, Celestial, her husband, Roy, and her childhood friend, Andre. Roy is sent to prison for a crime he insists he did not commit. How their lives stagnate, flourish and evolve because of Roy’s conviction, is the real life dilemma of thousands of African-Americans.
“I’ve been saying, this novel is not ‘The New Jim Crow: The Musical,’” Jones said, referring to Alexander’s book. “Now, I could not have written the novel without reading ‘The New Jim Crow,’ but I wasn’t trying to fictionalize Michelle’s work. I’m writing next door to the issue, nibbling around the edges.”
Surviving and Thriving
One of the questions that animated Jones was what happens to those who are left behind when a loved one is imprisoned. How do parents, friends and lovers cope? In the case of the young woman who Jones watched in Lenox Square, how difficult is it for a partner to remain not simply faithful, but loyal to the loved one who is absent? That question also forces more complex ones: What does it mean to be a black woman with a strong sense of freewill and agency but who also feels the societal pull of duty?
Poet Asha Bandele explored some of those complexities in her memoir, “The Prisoner’s Wife,” a book Jones also read. During a fellowship at Harvard University, Jones mined oral histories, documentaries and interviews with African-Americans who’d been incarcerated. She wanted facts to under-gird her work, but ultimately she wound up telling a story of imprisonment’s emotional fallout.
“Incarceration is devastating to families, but as hard as it is to say, ‘Life goes on,’ love goes on, too,” Jones said during a recent visit to Atlanta.
For those outside a prison’s walls, “there’s incredible survivor’s guilt,” Jones said. “You can be forgiven for surviving, but can you be forgiven for thriving?”
South Side Atlanta
All of Jones novels are set in her hometown, specifically, southwest Atlanta and the affluent Cascade Road area. Most of her characters have ties to Spelman College, where Jones graduated. She layers in details that anyone who has spent time on the South side can easily recognize.
“Atlanta is a well developed character in her work and she captures the complexity of Atlanta through that unique neighborhood that is the South Side, its history and its challenges,” said author Valerie Boyd, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, who has known Jones for years. “There is a lot of love given to old black Atlanta.”
Jones’ parents still live in her old neighborhood, and it’s where a significant part of “An American Marriage” is set.
“Everyone always associates Atlanta with the Peachtrees,” Jones said. “Peachtree Street, Peachtree Road, Peachtree this or that. But over in southwest, it’s the ‘Lyns’; Lynhurst, Lyn Valley, Lyn Drive, Lyn Way. It’s a witnessing, but now that the city has changed so much, it has become a reclamation.”
The voices of those south Atlantans of all classes are amplified in Jones’ work. These are people she has known, whose truths she has observed and heard over a lifetime.
“She says things in a way that captures the way black people speak when they are together,” said playwright and novelist Shay Youngblood. “There is another language, another way of speaking that might seem foreign to other people, but not to us. When I read her, I think, ‘I know these people.’”
Jones said her latest was a hard book to write, not because she wrote her first draft on a Smith Corona typewriter, which is her practice. The difficulty came in deciding which character could best tell the story. In the first draft, it was Celestial. In the second draft, it was Roy. Her trusted circle of readers of early drafts told her they felt something was missing when the story was told through just one character.
“They felt like they ordered salmon and I served them the steak,” Jones said.
Ultimately, she told it through three characters and through a series of letters between Roy and Celestial. In their correspondence readers get the back story and see the future of a young couple struggling to figure out how to reconcile lives stunted by stolen time.
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