ASU alumna Tayari Jones' latest novel chosen for Oprah's Book Club

The novel, 'An American Marriage,' is the fourth book by the ASU creative writing MFA graduate

On Jan. 29 Tayari Jones, an ASU alumna who graduated in 2000 with an MFA in creative writing, released her fourth novel. Not long after, she received a call from Oprah Winfrey.

Jones' novel, "An American Marriage," was chosen as the latest selection for Oprah's Book Club, the long-running discussion of contemporary literature started by Winfrey in 1996.

"It's one of those books that I could not put down, and as soon as I did, I called up the author and said I've got to talk to you about this story," Winfrey said.

Inspired by current events, the novel centers around Roy and Celestial, a married couple dealing with Roy's wrongful incarceration, and puts their story in a larger social context.

“I was inspired to write this novel because I was aware that America incarcerates more of its citizens than almost any country in the world,” Jones said. “I was wondering about the lives interrupted, and I wanted to take on the subject with a critical eye, but also with hope.”

Jones said her goal is for people who read her book, who have never considered the lives of incarcerated persons and their families, to walk away with a new sense of empathy, and for those who have first-hand experience with these issues, to feel seen. 

She also said she hopes readers will not only sympathize with Roy, who is wrongfully incarcerated for most of the novel, but also with his wife Celestial. 

“She, like a lot of women, is searching for that elusive balance between her responsibility to her partner and her responsibility to her own hopes and dreams,” Jones said. “It’s an everyday conflict under extraordinary circumstances.”

Jones specifically wrote her characters to be multi-dimensional in order to highlight just how unique each of their situations is to reflect the nuances of society.

“Each of the characters are impacted by their race, class, gender and sexuality. My guess is that there are even more affinities, loyalties and influences that I am not even aware of yet,” Jones said. “Intersectionality understands that there is no one black experience, female experience, working class experience ... this is about multiple realities.”

A discussion with Jones about "An American Marriage."

In addition to being featured as Oprah's latest book club selection, Jones was a featured guest at the 28th Annual Book and Author Event hosted by the Phoenix Chapter of the Brandeis National Committee, which was expected to have an attendance of over 900 people.

Beth Messer, co-chair of the author committee for the BNC Phoenix Chapter, said she had the opportunity to read the original manuscript of "An American Marriage" when considering authors for the event, and was amazed by the character-driven narrative style Jones used in the book.  

"I knew as soon as I read the book that Ms. Jones would be a perfect participant," Messer said. "I was very moved by the story – how could (the characters) all have been faultless yet all end up losing so much?"

Joyce Grant, another member of the author committee, said she had never read Jones' work before "An American Marriage," but that she was immediately impressed by it.

Grant said that, after reading the novel, she also read Jones' first book "Leaving Atlanta," which won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, which Jones wrote as her master's thesis as a graduate student at ASU. 

"I think the authenticity of her characters really stands out to me," Grant said. "You have honest dialogue and situations that the characters go through that can really resonate with the readers."

She also said one aspect that sets Jones apart from her contemporaries is that she writes her characters from varying socio-economic backgrounds and demonstrates their capacity for upward mobility. 

"Roy is on the executive track, and his wife is trying to make a career in art, and the characters are very upwardly mobile in that sense, which is a common aspect in a lot of her books," Grant said. "It's not something that you see in other writers, which makes her unique."

Grant said the book is currently being picked up and read by a number of official BNC book clubs as well as many smaller discussion groups around the country.

"It's the type of book that you finish reading, and you would want to discuss it with someone else," Grant said. 

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