Recent reading: An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

Jones revealed in an interview that the idea for the characters in her fourth novel, “An American Marriage,” came to her from a conversation she overhead in a mall. She already had her theme, informed in part by a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute (Cambridge, Mass.), studying the prison pipeline and racial injustice, but not her characters.

And then she overheard a woman saying, “Roy, you know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years!”

Roy replies, “What’re you talking about? This wouldn’t’ve happened to you in the first place.”

“When I see two people arguing and they both seem to have a legitimate point, then I know I have a novel because for me a novel cannot have a clear person who’s right or wrong.” 

“An American Marriage” tells the story of a newlywed couple with everything to look forward to — him as a businessman, her as an art doll-maker — until the unthinkable occurs. The husband, Roy, is wrongly accused of rape. Incarcerated. What happens during the period of his imprisonment and the time immediately after his release comprise the story. The author puts before us the damning, personal consequences of racial injustice. A virulent and widespread social problem up close. She shows two people wrestling with fidelity to the IDEA of marriage, if not to marriage itself, as they try to weather an untimely and grossly unfair separation.

“To black Americans, mass incarceration is an ongoing threat, like hurricanes on the coast and earthquakes or fires in California. Prison can swoop in and snatch up the men in our families at any time.”

from interview with Oprah

This book makes a statement in its very title. It’s not, “An African American Marriage,” but “An American Marriage.” As it should be! It’s refreshing to read a narrative so wholly focused on black characters. No white saviors. No black characters served up as ancillary to the aims of white people. It’s notable that the sole white character here is a life-wrecking accuser.

To celebrate the exclusivity of black characters might seem a bit remedial. But when you consider that “Green Book” just won an Oscar or that during the Cohen hearings last week, Rep. Meadows used a black woman as a prop (and then teared up in outrage when another representative called him on it), it seems not so small a point.

A fast and compelling read. I see why Oprah chose it for her Book Club.

NY Times review

Just to continue a moment on another issue the book puts before us: the use someone else’s pain as the basis for artwork. The doll making character’s career doesn’t really take off until she starts using her imprisoned husband as inspiration. It was interesting to consider the problem of appropriation stripped of the complication of race. Artist-character and her subject are both black, and still we ask: Is it okay to parlay another’s pain into artwork, especially if the subject objects? And if such a use makes one successful, how should we evaluate that success?

(for the question about black pain and white creators, see, critique of Dana Schutz painting ‘Open Casket’ of Emmet Till at the Whitney Biennial in 2017 and The White Card, a play by Claudia Rankine (blogged after seeing the play here). Also, check out “Still Processing: ‘Confederate,’ ‘Detroit’ and Who Owns Stories about Blackness” podcast, featuring Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham).

 

 

 

 

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