My journey back to leisure reading might remind you of my (many) roads back to this blog—I was going about my business, busy with allegedly gaining an education, when I realized I’d read less than fifteen books (and written less than fifteen blog posts) in the entirety of 2017.
I’m an extremely competitive person, and someone who detests the idea of having peaked, in any form, during high school—after all, I hopefully have much more life to live. I remembered my freshman year reading habits, when I used to zip through fifty books before the summer hit, and knew something had to change. While I will likely never hit some of my high school numbers again, I’m determined that my annual book count can return to where my weight can’t.
So far, my literary path home has been paved with masterfully familiar books like Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, and I knew we had to talk about this one here at 2BG.
As many of y’all already know, Tayari Jones’ fourth novel has gotten the equally coveted and disdained book club nod from Oprah Winfrey. I’m not sure we will ever see a time where people don’t have elitist responses to black opinions about anything, let alone about the ambiguous collection of work considered to be “fine art.” Black women have never been able to fully rely on canonical scales of literature to value our authors, whose worth can exist outside of the tradition of dead white men, and in my opinion, this democratic curation is exactly what Oprah’s Book Club attempts to do. In Jones’ specific case, it’s not that An American Marriage doesn’t have literary merit, it’s that its merit is inextricably tied up in its love for everyday black folk.
I recently attended a book talk Tayari Jones gave with fellow author Stephanie Powell Watts, and felt more at home than I had in several months of Sundays. Ms. Jones and Ms. Watts’ readings were a window into the worlds I leave behind every time I attend school, worlds with cheeky religious humor and involuntarily religious women I didn’t realize I’d missed. During her book signing, I found out Tayari Jones graduated in the same Spelman class as my godmother, which surprised me more than it should have. In person and in literature, she knows my people—the future Spelmanites in my Jack & Jill chapter I regarded with (perhaps too much) reverence, the self-assured men they’ll one day marry, and of course, my godmother, who puts herself together in that “articulate in front of strangers” fashion we all attempt to do. Jones knows these people, who become her characters, so well that she uncovers what lies beneath their gleaming, degreed exteriors.
This time, her excavation begins with Celestial and Roy, newlyweds poised to join Atlanta’s black professional community and leave behind their ancestral pasts in the small-town, less prosperous, “Old South” (we’ll get back to that in a minute.) Their plans are upended when a trip back to Roy’s hometown lands him wrongfully convicted of rape, and sentenced to 12 years in a Louisiana prison. Here, Jones humbles a black couple who believe themselves beyond humility’s tax bracket, the sort of people who could otherwise sigh about how no black man is safe in America from the security of their living rooms.
I’ve seen this novel compared to Sing, Unburied, Sing, another fantastic novel by one of my favorite southern writers. For all of its merits as a love story, An American Marriage is also a portrait of the earth-and-time traveling relationships we have with our biological and chosen parents, whose journeys so often dictate our own. Celestial, Roy, and their “best man” Andre are haunted by their parents’ infidelities and blended families, and bring these ghosts into their own lives, much like Jojo’s apparitional companions in Ward’s (second!) National Book Award winner.
Like Ward, Tayari Jones is an author people deem part of the “New South,” while her newest novel features a prison in the historied Deep South. I think it’s telling that both books shed light on the carceral experience by showing how quickly, how willingly, we leave the old behind. Jones’ novel is mostly set in her hometown of Atlanta, but its emotional crux is in such an abandoned place, Eloe, Louisiana. It reminds me of Ward’s idea in Men We Reaped, of the rural, familial South being a place that always pulls you back. For better or worse, Celestial, Roy, and Andre are pulled back to Roy’s small hometown, which, by foil, has shaped their concepts of mobility and the New South as much as Atlanta. Jones captures Roy’s pride in “moving on” alongside the richness of those he has “left behind,” who have made him who he is, and continue to sustain him after Atlanta has forgotten his name. I thought about my Sunday School lessons in Ecclesiastes, about how the New South lives in the shadow of the Old. In Atlanta, as in Eloe, there is nothing new under the sun.
In her novel, Jones also shares some stunning revelations about the real-life implications of consent, perhaps fitting given her main character’s “crime,” and incredibly timely given the whiteness of our national conversation about sexual assault. Throughout the novel, Roy “lives his life due to the vast generosity of women,” so much so that he comes to take it without sanction. He feels most entitled to the self-sabotaging loyalty of his wife, perhaps the most impressive character in the novel.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration when I say that everyone will want to read about Celestial for at least five more books. She exudes that peculiar brand of convention and progressivism all Spelmanites balance like toddlers on their hip, her human-scale contradictions a rare trait for black female characters. We have so many books about women who are irreverent, but so few about women who are irreverent and still steeped in communal tradition. Celestial is highly independent, easily irritated, but also stubbornly long-suffering—in her own way, she fights for a marriage she’s not even sure she wants. Your jaw will drop not from her revelations, but from how precisely she identifies her circumstances. It’s proof that no one can critique something—marriage, fidelity, her alma mater—like a woman who loves it.
I imagine some people will feel let down, or too neatly tied up, by the epilogue. I think the relatively happy ending has its footing in Jones’ desire to lose the “expectation of genre” in this novel: “The expectation of genre means if you say something is a love triangle it means who gets the girl? Who gets the guy? And I had to take that genre expectation out of my own head. And the question is: How can they each move forward whole?”
In An American Marriage, the expectations are twofold: first, in a story about a love triangle, you’re not expecting everyone to walk away loved. By introducing Davina, Jones shows the multitude of ways love can save a man, and the multitude of women who are worthy of love. Secondly, in a story about black people, you’re not expecting to see these characters catch a break, let alone give each other one. By simply seeking to restore the personal lives of these characters, it feels like Jones is flipping our genre and societal expectations on their heads.
She says in her Electric Literature interview that “social justice is not a character. Every person who is impacted by social issues is also busy living a life.” In An American Marriage, Tayari Jones exposes a great social injustice, as a means to do something much rarer—bulldoze, mine, and reconstruct the lives of the people it affects. This is one way we restore humanity to black & brown characters in literature—by not just exposing their trauma, but also their prolonged, much-deserved healing.
As I get closer and closer to adulthood, I find myself thinking of Janet Mock’s ideas about what happily ever after looks like for black women. I find myself thinking about the women of my childhood, about the models they’ve left for me. I find myself thinking about my godmother, who has made happily ever after through my adorably precocious and dynamic godsister, through an incredible career, through continued service of her community, and so many other aspects I could name (y’all don’t need to know her business like that, though.)
With An American Marriage, I now find myself thinking about Tayari Jones, who has left us with a vital opportunity to consider how a new generation of black Southern women can put our inner selves together as well as we assemble our outer ones. In the very short new year, it’s been one of my favorite books to get lost in, because it’s one where I’ve found the writing, people, and places I love.
If you’re looking for more information about An American Marriage, check out Oprah’s reading guide, the Buzzfeed and Electric Literature interviews referenced above, or my Goodreads review of the book (which heard all these ideas first.)
If you’re interested in holding me accountable to my 2018 Reading Challenge, please (please!) friend me on Goodreads, or leave your profile in the comments below.