By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
An American Marriage (Algonquin Press, 2018) tells the story of a young, successful African-American couple whose lives and marriage are turned upside down when the husband is convicted of a crime he did not commit. The structure provides author Tayari Jones the opportunity to explore fully the interior life of this marriage, this family and these individuals. It is surprising (in good ways) and honest (in all the ways we need for literature to be honest). Jones spoke to the Pittsburgh Current from her home in Brooklyn. (Answers have been edited for length.)
Can you talk about the use of multiple narrators that runs through your work?
Capturing voices is the thing I do best. I think writing is a kind of mimicry. You’re able to capture the essence of a character if you can master that voice. Particularly in a story like An American Marriage, the characters’ feelings drive the story as much as conventional plotline. Using their first person voices, I feel I’m closer to their emotional space.
What were you thinking about when writing Celestial’s testimony at trial?
I wrote that when George Zimmerman was on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. His friend (Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantal) was treated as not credible because she was, as Celestial says, not articulate and well-spoken. But Celestial was seen as not being real enough, not down to earth enough. For women of color, it’s this credibility tightrope. Celestial says, ‘I didn’t know how to be anything other than well-spoken in front of strangers.’ All her life, just as all my life, as a black woman, the way to be taken seriously is to be well-spoken, articulate, mannered. These things get you into the door.
The person with the most privilege in the equation is the one who gets believed. So how believable you are depends on who else is in the conversation — one person gets believed and one person doesn’t. It’s relative.
Roy’s wrongful incarceration is a way for you to turn the heat up on this marriage.
It was very important that I not cast them as an ideal marriage destroyed by the system. Then they would not be real people — they would be symbolic people. They have a marriage that is very young. Celestial was always told that as a black person, she has to work twice as hard for everything. The same thing applies to her personal life. The only way her marriage could survive would be for them to be like super-spouses, as opposed to just regular people trying to figure out what it means to join your life with another person.
There’s an amazing exchange of letters in which you see the burden that Celestial carries.
I am innocent.
I am innocent, too.”
I think of myself as engaging with the “Odyssey.” Like Penelope, Celestial is a textile artist. Instead of weaving and unweaving her tapestries, she becomes a renowned artist. Like Odysseus, Roy wants his woman’s chastity to be a monument to his struggle. He wants this ancient standard of marriage. Because he is innocent, he feels entitled to special consideration from everyone in his life.
But she, too, is innocent. There is this idea that Celestial’s social, professional and even sexual choices are somehow the determining factor as to whether or not justice is served. As though one woman’s sacrifice would be a greater factor than the larger, racist institutions that caused this. That is what happened to Roy. Celestial’s choices are not what happened to Roy. When I talk to people, there are a few people who say, ‘I thought that Celestial was the real villain.’ I got heckled. Whoever heard of a novelist getting heckled?!
Tayari Jones will speak at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland on November 19th at 7:30 pm.
I was surprised when I flipped the page and saw Andre’s POV.
I re-wrote this book three times. I wrote it all from Celestial. I wrote it all from Roy. Then I toggled Roy and Celestial and it was not quite there. I needed Andre to provide another point of view and just put some air in the room. It also freed Roy’s character from being symbolic as the black man. Once you have two, the symbolism is already shaken. I like Andre’s voice. He tickles me.
On a bookclub site for An American Marriage, there is a suggested cocktail — a caramel apple mimosa. You should demand a better cocktail.
There was a cocktail somewhere called a Celestial. It was really nice. It had champagne and St. Germain and something else.
Something along the lines of a French 75.
I do quite like a French 75.