An American Marriage, Tayari Jones’s bestselling new novel, was almost never published. Though the plot hinges upon the wrongful imprisonment of Roy, a black man sent to prison for a rape he did not commit, the story, as Jones first wrote it, was told solely from the perspective of Celestial, his wife. That turned out to be too radical a gesture for some of Jones’s early readers, who were profoundly threatened by the way Roy’s suffering had been decentered. At times, Jones feared she might actually lose friends over her manuscript. Not wanting to alienate anyone, but frustrated by the backlash, she considered abandoning the book.
Ultimately, Jones found a way to rewrite An American Marriage to her satisfaction—with inspiration from Toni Morrison. In a conversation for this series, she explained how Morrison’s 1977 novel Song of Solomon provided a crucial model, one that showed how dimensional female characters might subvert a male-dominated narrative, even while relegated to the sidelines. We discussed how the pivotal moment—a rousing, scathing scene in which Lena, sister of the book’s hero, calls out her brother’s unwitting and destructive male entitlement—transformed Jones’s outlook on life when she first read it as a 17-year-old college student, and ultimately taught her how to write a feminist novel largely told from a man’s point of view.
The final, published version of An American Marriage, the current selection of Oprah’s Book Club, features a trio of voices: Roy, Celestial, and Andre, Celestial’s love interest during Roy’s prison term, speak in alternating sections. The resulting story dramatizes the horrors of mass incarceration while navigating ethically fraught questions about loyalty, fidelity, and self-sacrifice. Tayari Jones is also the author of three other novels, Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, and Silver Sparrow. She spoke to me by phone.
Tayari Jones: I first read Song of Solomon as a student at Spelman College in Atlanta, a historically black college for women. It was founded in the 1800s, to provide education for emancipated women, but along the way it (unfairly, in my opinion) developed a reputation for being a sort of finishing school. Maybe that’s what my parents had in mind when they sent me there—that it was a good school for nice, achieving, smart “race women.” They thought I was going to get finished. Instead, I went and got ideologically turned out—and Toni Morrison was one reason for that.
Before Spelman, I understood myself as a black person more than a black woman. I had not really considered the way that my gender influenced the way I moved through the world. I grew up in southwest Atlanta, segregated and bourgeois, much like the characters in Song of Solomon. It had not yet occurred to me that there was such a thing as gendered experience.
I was born in 1970, after all, just post–civil rights. My parents are both PhDs in the social sciences. The racial conversation was such a part of everything. But having grown up in the ’70s, I’d always had that. Even as a baby I’d had books with black children in them. All my dolls were black; the talking one squeaked, “I’m black and I’m proud!” Sometimes when I give talks people ask me to tell them about the moment when I first realized that black people could be the center of stories. I think the answer would be “shortly after I was born.”
At the same time, I hadn’t really noticed how difficult it was for women to be the subject of stories. It never occurred to me that all the puppets on Sesame Street were boy puppets. Cookie Monster. Grover. The one in the trash can, that little red guy. Even Big Bird is a boy. Sesame Street had a multiracial cast and some of the people were women (shout out to Maria!), but all puppets were boy puppets. And no one ever noticed. Growing up, if there was a TV show with no black children represented, my parents would have said, “We’re not watching that.” But with all those boy puppets, no one even blinked.
But in college I started to see that so many of the theories of power I understood about race also applied to gender. It changed me. I would never be the same. And Song of Solomon was a big part of that epiphany. It was that book that taught me gender equality wasn’t just about society—it was about me, personally. It taught me that the patriarchy begins at home. That they call it “patriarchy” because it’s about your father and your brothers and your family. It’s obvious to me now. But at the time, at 17, it was a shock. I love my fathers and my brothers. Daddy and I are especially close, yet I couldn’t deny that there was a serious power imbalance at play.
The novel is all about the main character, Milkman, and his search for self. It’s a traditional narrative in that way. Milkman has never considered himself to be a person that wields any power. He very much understands himself as marginalized, because he’s a black man. And he is marginalized and oppressed; this can’t be overstated.
At one point, he discovers that his older sister has a lover who is a member of a violent organization, and he tells his father. The father fires the man from his job and garnishes his wages, and it breaks them up. That relationship was the only time the sister, Corinthians—who is a grown woman—has ever had any happiness or pleasure, and suddenly it’s taken away, by her father and brother.
One scene in particular changed everything for me. It’s a scene where one of the sisters, Magdalene, confronts Milkman, reminding him that, for his entire life, the women in his family have organized themselves around him. How they’ve been property for their father and brother. Lena uses the occasion of her sister’s devastation to tell Milkman about her lifetime of resentment—of his power, of his privilege—and lets him know the damage he’s done his sister by ruining her life. We read it out loud in class with our professor, Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, and got ourselves whipped up into a fine frenzy:
You’ve been laughing at us all your life. Corinthians. Mama. Me. Using us, ordering us, and judging us … You don’t know a single thing about either one of us—we made roses; that’s all you knew—but now you know what’s best for the very woman who wiped the dribble from your chin because you were too young to know how to spit. Our girlhood was spent like a found nickel on you. When you slept, we were quiet; when you were hungry, we cooked; when you wanted to play, we entertained you; and when you got grown enough to know the difference between a woman and a two-toned Ford, everything in this house stopped for you. You have yet to wash your own underwear, spread a bed, wipe the ring from your tub, or move a fleck of your dirt from one place to another. And to this day, you have never asked one of us if we were tired, or sad, or wanted a cup of coffee. You’ve never picked up anything heavier than your own feet, or solved a problem harder than fourth-grade arithmetic. Where do you get the right to decide our lives?
When I read this, it was the emotional equivalent of fist pumping. Yes! That’s what literature can offer: It’s not every day someone voices your deepest, most rageful thoughts in an eloquent way and leaves another person dumbfounded. That doesn’t happen in real life, but it can happen in books. And you just feel like: At last, someone has said it.
Lena is describing the way that, when there is a boy child in the family, he becomes the sun around which all other planets orbit. That’s of course exacerbated in the African American community because there is such a sense that the men are under siege—and that to serve them, to save them, is a righteous cause. That’s one reason intersectional feminism is so complicated. There’s no way that a family could not feel protective of its sons; but can we do this without neglecting our daughters? This is what Lena is talking about, neglect and invisibility.
But what Lena’s saying is that, despite Milkman’s understanding of himself as a person under siege, he is also an unwitting or careless tyrant in his own home. He believes himself to be a nice person. And throughout this exchange, he doesn’t respect Lena enough to know that she is capable of telling him this fundamental truth about life. And it changes him. Her dressing him down is what teaches Milkman empathy.
As I wrote An American Marriage, I was frustrated because I did not want to make Roy, my male character, so central. The first time, I wrote it all the way through from the point of view of Celestial, his wife. I was interested in the expectations of femininity and domesticity, the way that a black woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated—this archetypal racial problem—would behave. What is her role in supporting him? What does it mean to be a wife? I knew that would necessarily mean that, for Celestial, any decision other than organizing her life around his comfort would be considered treasonous.
As I wrote, sometimes even speaking about this topic seemed treasonous. At a party, I ran into a black man who’s a friend of mine, and he asked me what I was working on. I told him I was writing a novel about a woman whose husband is wrongfully incarcerated. He said, “Oh, it’s about how she’s fighting to get him out.” I said, “It’s about a lot of things. And she doesn’t actually ‘wait’ for him in the traditional sense.” He jerked away from me. Just even imagining Roy’s story as anything other than the center caused him to physically recoil.
And I was like: Wow, it’s that deep? I’m not even allowed to think about it? I mean, I don’t actually have a husband who’s wrongfully incarcerated. I’m not not-waiting. I’m just thinking about it. So I really resisted all the feedback from my beta readers who wanted more Roy, more Roy. I felt like the project was about complicating that narrative, and nobody wanted to indulge me in it. I finally did decide to write the book having Roy, as the first point-of-view character, to be more central. But I did it in a rage. I felt like Lena in Song of Solomon—as if I, as an author, was in service to Roy now. Like I’m working for him now. I was really, really angry. And I decided that if this was the only way that the story could work, then how about I just stop writing it?
But then I remembered Song of Solomon. Morrison is able to use Milkman as the protagonist in a way that helps the reader understand male privilege. And just because he is the protagonist doesn’t mean the story is only about Milkman. Morrison manages to tell the story in a way that the women’s stories are not lost—they are actually illuminated more. The women in the book are often invisible to Milkman, but when he is forced to look at Lena and Corinthians and their mother, Ruth, the reader is forced to see them, too.
He not only sees them—his own power is reflected back to him in a way so that he can see its ugliness and banality. I love the exchange at the climax of his confrontation with Lena:
“Where do you get the right to decide our lives?”
“Lena, cool it. I don’t want to hear it.”
“I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs.”
This moment echoes one in Their Eyes Were Watching God, where Janie is being berated by her husband and she insults his body. Both are scenes where the woman dares to insult the mighty phallus. It’s an insurrection, right there on the page. She says the unsayable, the unthinkable.
I think Celestial does that, too, in her own way: She wants to be free. Your first thought is: Well, what about Roy? Because he is in fact suffering. That is what makes intersectionality so important—he is suffering, and he needs her. But she also needs herself. My favorite moment in the novel is when Roy writes a letter to Celestial and says, “I’m innocent.” And she writes back, “I’m innocent, too.” Reading Morrison allowed me to think about ways I could have compassion for Roy, and let him speak, without his problems rendering Celestial’s desires and aspirations irrelevant. But it was hard. Some of my friends, I had to stop talking to them about this book. Because I was worried we weren’t going to be friends anymore. I really, really was.
When I started the book, it was before #BlackLivesMatter. But then, that conversation—which is really about black men facing police violence and incarceration—even heightened the expectation of what the center of my story should be. So I wanted to tell both stories. Because I completely believe that the criminal justice system unfairly targets black men and causes unspeakable harm. But just as we see that Roy is a person who is facing a tragic miscarriage of justice, his suffering is not the only thing happening in the world.
Milkman and Roy are the same, in this way: They think they’ve lost power because of their experiences of racism, and they want that power back. But what they come to understand is that empathy will free you, not just power. Empathy is what makes you a citizen of your relationship, or your community, and ultimately of your own life. Empathy is how we are able to understand ourselves as part of a community, nation, or family, and ask ourselves what we are doing for that whole. At the end, Milkman has released all that craving for power and instead has chosen to have empathy and compassion.
Same with Roy. Roy thinks that he has lost his car, his job, his woman, and he’s enraged. He wants to get back what he’s lost. But in the end, he realizes that he’s lived his life, as he calls it, “through the vast generosity of women.” He asks himself what he can offer the women in his life, what he is able to do to make their lives easier, and when he makes that step he is finally able to find his own way.
I wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, but I didn’t know I could do that. I’ve often said that if you like to read and write when you’re a girl, people don’t think it means you are a writer or an intellectual. They think it means you’re nice. Because there are two kinds of girls, or so they tell us: girls who are nice, and girls who are not nice. When I was a teenager, the question was—is she nice, or is she chasing boys? The reading and the writing were a signifier that I was nice.
It wasn’t until I got to college that this changed. I had a teacher, a playwright named Pearl Cleage, who was really interested in my mind. We read books and talked about them, and I wrote. That’s when I started to think writing was that I could do, that I should do, and that it was meaningful. I think that’s what I learned by being so deeply affected by writing and books—that literature is meaningful. Because when I first started writing as a child, it was merely pleasurable work.
You can feel just how meaningful in the exchange between Lena and Milkman, the way she shames him and ultimately makes herself visible. The way she brings him down by referring to his physical qualities, reflecting “the hog’s gut that hangs down between [his] legs” back to him, forcing him to see himself from her perspective. That’s a powerful use of language. It’s got bite. It’s not cute, it’s not ladylike, and it’s not charming. Because that’s how the truth is.