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In ‘An American Marriage,’ a wife feels imprisoned by her husband’s wrongful incarceration

“An American Marriage” explores the bonds of love in extreme circumstances, against a larger background of race and mass incarceration. Author Tayari Jones joins Jeffrey Brown to talk about her new novel, set in Atlanta and written in letter form, and the important questions it raises about modern life.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now Jeffrey Brown discovers the next item on the NewsHour Bookshelf.

    Author Tayari Jones talks about her latest work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Two people come together, get married, and then see their lives torn apart when the husband is falsely accused and convicted of a crime.

    The new novel explores the bonds of love and marriage in extreme circumstances against the larger background of race and mass incarceration.

    It's called "An American Marriage."

    Author Tayari Jones joins me now.

    Welcome to you.

  • Tayari Jones:

    Thank you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Is it correct that this began for you with thinking about the issue of mass incarceration?

  • Tayari Jones:

    It did.

    I was on fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard and I was doing research on mass incarceration. And I did so much research. I learned so many disturbing things. But I'm not an ethnographer. I'm not a sociologist. I'm a novelist.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Tayari Jones:

    And I had nothing to show for my time. The deadline was ticking for the presentation. And I had not written one fictional word.

    But I went to Atlanta to visit my mother, and we went to the mall. And while I was at the mall, I overheard a couple arguing. And I heard the woman say, "Roy, you know you wouldn't have waited on me for seven years."

    And with that my imagination just went wild with imagining the conflict between these two people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. So you created your fictional Roy, who is the character, and Celestial, his wife. He gets sent off to prison. And then it becomes what happens, right? How do people behave under stress?

    What do they — what do two people owe each other?

  • Tayari Jones:

    Yes. How do you balance your desires and your responsibilities?

    I mean, Celestial, she is about 25 when he's arrested. And they have only been married 18 months. Her daddy is still paying for the wedding when he is taken away.

    Can we really expect her to basically live her life for him? How could you ask that of her? But then there is a feeling like, how could she not? And that, I think, is the conflict of the story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You wrote this with alternating voices through letters that they sent to each other. But this was to give the two voices of a marriage?

  • Tayari Jones:

    The letters, for sure, because I'm a letter writer in real life. I write five or six letters a week.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Actual letters?

  • Tayari Jones:

    Yes. And nobody writes me back.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tayari Jones:

    It's terrible.

    But I love the idea of them being in — with him in prison, the letters, just this literal small canvas. It's all they have to try to be husband and wife with. You can just see how it's a losing battle.

    But I did want both their voices, because with him being in prison and her being in the world, they inhabit two different worlds. Neither of them is able to tell the full story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There is a heartbreaking moment in the exchange of letters where the stress of imprisonment is so profound.

    And he writes to her, "Dear" — one sentence, "Dear Celestial, I am innocent." And she writes back and says, "Dear Roy, I am innocent, too."

  • Tayari Jones:

    Yes, because it's true. She is innocent.

    His innocence feels more elevated because he has been jailed for a crime he didn't commit, but she also, as his wife, is being jailed for a crime she didn't commit either.

    And they really have to figure out, will they remain married while he's in prison? And, if they do, what does that mean to be married to someone you cannot touch?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Race is a constant here, along with incarceration, but also the questioning of growing up in a kind of well-to-do black Atlanta.

    And I read that this is your own upbringing. What were you trying to bring out?

  • Tayari Jones:

    Well, I do think that modern Southern life for black people is really underrepresented. Right?

    People think of the South as shorthand for black misery.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Tayari Jones:

    But I grew up in Atlanta, where there is this really robust black middle class, where I needed a doctor, and my godmother was reluctant to sent me to the doctor because the doctor had not gone to Morehouse College. The doctor had gone to Harvard.

    But she says, "But I think he will be OK for your cold."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tayari Jones:

    So, Atlanta for me is that kind of place, where it's kind of a black oasis.

    But Celestial and Roy, I think, forget about the circumstances in the rest of the world, the rest of the country, and they go visit his family in the small town where he's from. And he is, as Celestial's father says, the wrong race at the wrong time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you clearly wanted to put the African-American sort of at the front of the story.

  • Tayari Jones:

    Yes, I mean, that's really the question of progress.

    What does it mean to be an individual? What is your responsibility to the collective? How is this amplified by race? Is it fair? Is fair beside the point?

    So, these are the kind of hard, I think, very modern questions. I think it's a very modern moment for a black character to have to wonder whether or not the problems of one are the problems of all.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And I have to ask you, the title, "An American Marriage," that's a big title, right? That puts — sort of ups the stakes.

  • Tayari Jones:

    I was reluctant to take it for two reasons.

    For one, I had never really thought of myself as American, without saying black American or African-American. I told my editor that I felt like "An American Marriage" sounded like a novel about white people in Connecticut.

    And he says- "Connecticut is a very small state. Why would you think what happens in that small state was somehow more representative of America than what happens in Atlanta, one of the largest cities in the country?"

    And so I had the really think it over. And then he asked me another question. He says- "If you feel that this title doesn't represent your work, I will support you in changing it. But if you're afraid of stepping into the world of big ideas, if you're afraid that your novel cannot support the weight of the claim of an American story," he says, "I really implore you to rethink it."

    And I said to him, "I will tell you tomorrow."

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Tayari Jones:

    And then I just thought about it, and I just decided to be brave.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. You did, and you stepped into big ideas.

  • Tayari Jones:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    OK.

    The title is "An American Marriage."

    Tayari Jones, thank you very much.

  • Tayari Jones:

    Thanks for having me.

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