TAYARI JONES AND I first met at AWP. New Orleans lured a whole group of us Black girls together, laughing because we had found each other, and instantly we grew a sisterhood. Out of the air-conditioned sterility of conference rooms and into the streets we tumbled, finding our way through sound, motion, and smell. We inhaled New Orleans. Marita Golden treated the lot of us to dinner one night, and I think the servers were glad to get our long, happy table. Tayari had won a Hurston/Wright Award, and she read from her debut novel, Leaving Atlanta, at AWP.
Since then she has published The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and now in February 2018, An American Marriage. Winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship, and Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship, Tayari is currently the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
EISA NEFERTARI ULEN: You did something fine with An American Marriage. I’d like to start by talking about the title. Part of the power in your narrative is that an array of family configurations exists, with various iterations of Black married life unified by one important theme: Black Love. This rich diversity in what are essentially different branches of one Black family is just beautiful. One possible title could have been American Marriages, but of course the one marriage that really drives the plot is Celestial and Roy’s. Celestial and Roy are the newlyweds at the center of the novel, and they’ve been married less than two years when he is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. This book is as much about our criminal justice system, our contemporary cultural landscape, our history, our America, as it is about these characters. And yet your title suggests this is merely one of a great many American marriages. Obviously this is true, this is just one American story, but it is a story that could only be set in this country. It is quintessentially American, even as it is quintessentially African American. So, I guess my question is, did you agonize over that one little article in the title? Why not just “American Marriage”?
TAYARI JONES: Thanks, Eisa. I am so glad this story connected with you. It took me a long time to write it because I just wasn’t sure how to resolve such thorny issues. I needed it to feel true, but also move the conversation forward. Maybe I wanted to move various conversations forward. The title, An American Marriage, wasn’t really my first choice. The novel in your hands is very different from the novel I started writing. When I finished, I realized that I needed a new title. I was brainstorming with my editor and I threw out the title and he loved it. I was unsure. I was worried that the title made it sound like it was about some white people in Connecticut having feelings! But my editor kind of sat me down and he said, “If you don’t want the title, we won’t make you keep it. But just take a moment to think about why you don’t want it. Is the issue that you don’t feel like your book is big enough for such a heavy title? Do you feel uncomfortable claiming the American-ness of this story?” And I thought about it. Why would I believe that something in Connecticut is more “American” than the lives of Black people in the South? Aren’t we as quintessential as any of other citizens? But I knew that it had to be “An” American Marriage, not just American Marriage because the story is very specific — just one marriage. I am not interested in pushing the idea that there is one relationship that is representative of the country. I wouldn’t be comfortable with calling it “Black American Marriage.” I need the “An.”
An American Marriage also centers the life of a Black female character who is able to support herself, to make a living as an artist. As contemporary and fresh as Celestial is, her art is steeped in tradition. For Celestial, this tradition of Black female artists is expressed in the dolls she produces. She works in a tradition that has historically been called folk art, but it is clear that her work is fine art. The responses she gets to her work suggest that each doll is exquisite — and Roy is her subject. Meanwhile, she and Roy are your subjects. This art within the art feels like a story within the story to me, in that through Celestial’s art we are meant to understand much more about the bigger art, your novel. I would love to know where this particular avocation, which becomes Celestial’s vocation, came from. Also, what do you see as the work and the power of the art in Celestial’s life? Can you talk for a bit about what her art does, for her and to other characters?
Like Celestial, I have spent most of my adult life making art, consuming art. I actually dedicated quite a bit of my childhood and adolescence to art. I didn’t want Celestial to be a writer, however. Being a writer is fun if you’re a writer, but not exactly a spectator sport. I considered a lot of different art forms for Celestial. I thought about her being a quilter — I make quilts myself — but something felt a little too precious about it when I tried to put it on the page. I decided on her being a portrait doll-maker because it involved a lot of the same questions that writers deal with. What does it mean when a real person inspired your art? How close do you have to stay with the truth? Who owns it? Who has veto power?
Roy loves being her subject when it feels like an uncomplicated expression of desire or admiration. He’s all for it! But when she uses her art to explore a more complex understanding of his life and their relationship he loses it.
Their conflict over this may be the thorniest issue in the story. (Aside from the love triangle, maybe.) When she makes a doll depicting him as a baby, but wearing a prison uniform, he is shaken by the image. And, he is resentful that this image of his predicament has won her a major accolade, furthering her career. She argues that she is raising awareness about the prison-industrial complex and he shoots back that no doll ever got anyone out of prison. They are both right. I do think that artists can be a little self-aggrandizing as they fantasize about the impact of their work. I do think that art enriches our lives and is essential to our humanity. But I also understand that there are real limits. There is an interview in The Rumpus with Edward P. Jones and he says that “the Mona Lisa’s a nice painting but if the guy had never painted it, the world would still go on. Not that I’m da Vinci or anything, but having those kinds of feelings sort of frees you.” That cracks me up every time. I know Roque Dalton said that poetry is like bread — and he means that it is for everyone, but it has kind of been appropriated to mean that poetry is actually like bread. And the truth of the matter is that if you offered a starving person a hot buttered roll or perhaps a few stanzas, they would go for the roll every time. I am not mad at that. I’d take the roll over Song of Solomon and I think it is the best novel ever written!
Celestial makes art for several reasons, but the first is that it pleases her. It fortifies her and challenges her mind and spirit. She chooses to use her work sometimes to raise awareness. Sometimes she uses it to work out questions in her own mind. Some of her art she makes to sell. Her art is as complicated and varied as she is.
This is a luxury that women artists seldom admit. It’s almost like you can have permission to be an artist only if you make it about providing aid or assistance to someone or some cause. “I write this book because people are suffering.” You know, something like that. And yes, we all want to use our gifts to heal an ailing world, but I would write even if the country were not on fire. I do it because I like slipping into a fictional world. It took me a long time to be able to say, first and foremost, I do it because it pleases me.
Oh, how liberating! Yes. Here we are, talking about the resources required to support the art, to produce the art, but we have not devoted enough attention to art for the pleasure of art. The feelings conjured by a song, a line of prose, a handmade doll. You know, given our history, from artists like Phillis Wheatley to Nella Larsen to some of our contemporaries that we know who seek full-time teaching so they can buy that hot buttered roll — the act of resisting erasure by simply surviving — has been a primary charge. Of course, creating art to serve a cause, advance an idea, creating art as resistance and assistance, is an important one, and is rooted I think in African ontology, in the idea that art works, is utilitarian. That art does something like elevate the discourse around the prison-industrial complex. But, art as luxury, as pleasure, as a path to push beyond survival and begin to thrive, that might be its own radical form of resistance. I think for Celestial, too, art is a witness. Baby-doll Roy in prison garb witnesses.
What about the things that Celestial and Roy bear witness to? Can you talk a bit about the story and the plot?
In writing this novel, I had to evolve my theory of plot. In my training, I was steeped in the belief that I could write a compelling novel from the point of view of whichever character speaks loudest to me, as the novelist. My initial impulse was to write this novel from the point of view of Celestial. Roy, whom I find compelling, wasn’t intriguing to me at first. I was moved by his experience — wrongful incarceration, who wouldn’t be moved — but I just didn’t find enough conflict there. Also, I wanted to push back on the idea of the “man in trouble” theory of Black culture and Black letters. So I wrote the book from her point of view, but Roy’s struggle kept sucking the air out of the novel. Beta readers argued that he was more developed than she was, that his family was more developed than hers. I even went so far as to make a spread sheet to keep count of how much information I provided about each person in the book. And it wasn’t true that he was more developed. It’s just that the severity of his challenges made all of her problems seem like nothing.
The simple way to fix it was to make this a more conventional story — a man is in pain and his woman fights to save him. But that idea just bored me to tears. So, I started reading a lot of fiction by white women authors who write about women who feel confined by marriage. I wondered how it is that they are able to make their heroines sympathetic and I was having such a hard time. But I finally came to see that in their novels, the man has so much more power than the woman in all spheres — that way you don’t feel bad when she walks away. You cheer for her, you feel like he’ll be fine and now she’s free. And in these books, the man is not a monster, it’s just that the relationship isn’t allowing her to flourish and she wants to flourish. Her desire to be happy and fulfilled is enough motivation.
Now when you look at the African-American canon, generally when you have a story about a woman walking away from marriage, the man is abusive. This allows the reader to cheer for her — think The Color Purple. I found myself asking under what circumstances a Black woman can choose herself, if the man isn’t a bad guy. It was hard. I was urged to make Roy guilty, so that she could have a right to her own life. It was like he needed to do something unforgivable in order to relinquish his ownership of her spirit. I just wasn’t interested in that. I was bored and annoyed by the suggestion. There should be a word for that hybrid emotion.
Finally, I centered the narrative on Roy and I hated it at first. The book felt dated and obvious. But when I decided to let my three lovers share the narrative, it felt more textured. This got me 75 percent through, but what pushed me over the finish line is when I came to see that this story is Roy’s journey to understand the complexities of power. He is so convinced that as a Black man, he is the most powerless person in the world. It never occurs to him that he wields great power when he is at home in his various communities. Until now, he never had to ponder the “vast generosity of women.” That’s the turn that made this project and this plot worthwhile for me — when Roy has to self-interrogate. This is when I felt satisfied with the book.