Tayari Jones, acclaimed author of Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and most recently An American Marriage, has been named the 2019 Ambassador for Independent Bookstore Day, a celebration of independent bookstores across America happening today, Saturday, April 27. I was honored to have the opportunity to speak with Tayari Jones about her involvement in this event, and much more. Check it out!
Emily Martin: How did you get involved with Indie Bookstore Day?
Tayari Jones: The invitation to be Bookstore Ambassador was a delightful surprise. My relationship with the indies goes way back to my very first book when I was struggling to find an audience. I’ll never forget those days when I showed up at bookstores, all dressed up, and found an audience in the single digits. However, the booksellers always cheered me up and cheered me on, promising to hand-sell the book when I was gone and predicting that soon a day would come when I would always have a crowd. They made me feel like we were in this together. I considered indie bookstore owners to be my first champions— not just as a writer, but also as a reader. When they reached out to me and asked me to be this year’s ambassador, I gave an all-caps YES.
EM: I know you’re from Atlanta, and I also lived in Atlanta for a really long time, so I’m wondering if we have some of the same favorite independent bookstores. What are your favorite Indie bookstores and why?
TJ: We are proud in Atlanta to have so many indies! I will always have a soft spot for Charis, the country’s oldest feminist book store. They hosted my very first reading twenty years ago! And I am very excited that they are moving to a new location. We will cut the ribbon on National Bookstore Day!
EM: That’s amazing. I love Charis, and I didn’t realize they were relocating. How great for them. What about bookstores outside of Atlanta?
TJ: I just love the bookstores that have first edition clubs— Greenlight in Brooklyn, Parnassus in Nashville, Brilliant Books in Traverse City. I could go on forever about the stores that get my heart pumping.
EM: Speaking of Atlanta, all four of your novels are set primarily in Atlanta. What do you think the setting of Atlanta means for your stories?
TJ: One of my missions in life is to help cultivate a resurgence in regional literature. Part of what makes American literature great is the sheer scape and expanse of the country as a physical space and a cultural space. For ten years I lived in Brooklyn— and I loved it. But I started to become concerned that so many our most prominent writers live within shouting distance. I worried that this was encouraging a shared experienced and causing a creeping sameness to our writing. I am a southern writer and I am deeply identified with Atlanta. This is why I decided to move back home.
EM: It’s difficult to talk about your latest novel An American Marriage without mentioning that it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. And then Barack Obama included your novel on his Summer 2018 Reading List. How did that feel when you found out you were getting praise from people like Oprah and Obama?
TJ: I am delighted to be part of Oprah’s Book Club, and Barack Obama’s reading list is always so thoughtfully curated. I am honored to be on their radars and to be among the excellent writers who share their attention. I’m also eager to join Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey in their shared goals of stimulating a national and even international conversation about issues of justice.
I have to say that I am equally pleased for the attention of my other readers who don’t have such big megaphones. Nothing pleases me more than to spy a woman sitting on a park bench at lunch time with a sandwich, Diet Coke, and a copy of my book. It makes me feel like I have arrived!
EM: Getting into the subject matter of An American Marriage, the novel explores issues of mass incarceration in the United States. What kind of research did you do to prepare to tackle this difficult subject? What do you wish more Americans understood about the American prison system?
TJ: The most helpful research for this projects came from oral histories. One collection I highly recommend is Surviving Justice, which is part of the Voice of Witness oral history project. This helped me find Roy’s voice— I had to find out what actual people who are wrongfully accused prioritized when telling their own stories. I had expected the wrongful aspect of their incarceration to be the lead, but they seemed to think more about the nature of incarceration in general. They didn’t seem interested in drawing a line between “innocent” people and “guilty” people. They seemed more interested in everyone’s shared humanity.
This is the thing that I learned about prison. When I started this project I was more in the prison reform camp, but now I am very interested in the work of prison abolitionists. I don’t see how our prison system is working for anyone— not the people who have committed crimes, not the victims, not the tax payers. Nobody is winning here.
EM: Not only are you examining the American prison system in this novel, but you also seem to be making a commentary on the expectations of Black women within their family and community. Not to quote your book back to you or anything, but these lines stuck with me: “A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Everyone of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.” Can you talk a little bit about why it was important to you to tell Celestial’s story?
TJ: The collateral effects of mass incarceration causes a heightened gender conflict in the African American community. Female autonomy feels like a luxury, rather than a right, in the face of prison and other instances of state violence against the men in our lives. When a white, middle class women chooses her dream or her career, there is not a sense that her husband/son/brother will be in dire straights because she has refused the traditional role as caretaker. But with African American women, the stakes are entirely different. However, black women, like all women, like all PEOPLE should be able to pursue their dreams and use their gifts. So, the work/life work/family question is entirely different. Celestial is an artist and her husband is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. With every step she makes toward her life as an artist, he feels like it is a step away from her role as his wife. Every moment in which she doesn’t confine herself to suffering on his behalf, heightens his suffering. But is that really fair? Is it more selfish for her to choose not-waiting, or is it more selfish for him to want her to wait? This is a difficult question for any compassionate person to answer.
EM: I heard American Marriage is going to be made into a movie. How involved in that are you going to be?
TJ: You know, I am not a person who believes that books graduate and become movies. Of course I am delighted that Oprah and HARPO are working on the movie version— and that’s exactly what it is, a different version of this story. I am as excited as anyone to see how things turn out. The screenplay should arrive any day now!
EM: Last but not least: how will you be spending Independent Bookstore Day?
TJ: I am going to visit all the indies in my hometown!