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Novelist Tayari Jones Talks Writing, Culture with Emerson Students

tayari jones in coat
Novelist Tayari Jones. Photo/Zenebou Sylla ’22

By Zenebou Sylla ’22

Award-winning novelist Tayari Jones talked to Emerson students and faculty last week about how she became the author she is today as she navigated through the writing and publishing world.

Jones was on campus Monday, October 28, for a Q&A session and reading, both free and open to the public, hosted by the Writing, Literature and Publishing Department as part of their Reading Series. Assistant Professor Erika Williams moderated the Q&A. 

Jones is a New York Times bestselling author of four novels: Silver Sparrow, chosen for the NEA’s Big Read Library; The Untelling, Leaving Atlanta, and An American Marriage, an Oprah Book Club pick, also mentioned on Barack Obama’s summer reading list. Jones is a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University. 

During the Q&A, Jones discussed the details of her fourth and most recent novel, An American Marriage, a love story that follows newlyweds Celestial and Roy, who are ripped apart by mass incarceration and includes a love triangle.    

Jones also talked about her novel, Silver Sparrow, which tells the story of two teenage daughters caught between a man’s deception and a family’s collusion revolving around their father’s two families: the public one and the secret one. 

Silver Sparrow is the favorite of my novels as well, but I think it’s because it’s really the most personal,” Jones told the audience. 

Jones has said her inspiration for the novel was her relationship with her own sisters. While they were not secrets, she told NPR, “they were a decade older and did not grow up with her, and therefore had different lives.”  

Jones said she believes that the hardest part of being a writer is something she calls the “tyranny of genre expectation.” 

When she published An American Marriage, Jones said she received a range of emotional responses from readers, some of whom were surprised and disappointed in the outcome of the book.

She said this book was not always about meeting her reader’s expectations, but more about how this story was amplified on this racialized question of wrongful conviction.   

“So when you’re writing against expectation, your craft verdict is so much higher because you have to convince readers to accept something that they were not intended to.”

All four of Jones’ novels are inspired by her hometown, Atlanta, where she has recently moved back. 

When Jones lived in New York, she said it helped her career, but she later realized that so many writers were also living in New York that it created a “homogenous effect,” with writers often coming up with similar ideas and concepts.

And while she was greatly influenced by the culture of Atlanta, she felt like during her time in New York, she was losing grip on what it meant it be a writer from the South, representing those stories.

“I came up understanding Atlanta has a black space and a prosperous space. So when I wrote about these black spaces in Atlanta, I didn’t feel that I was telling an untold story, I thought I was just writing life.”

Jones shared her experience getting out into the publishing world, getting rejections from all ends, and it was her readers who have inspired her to keep writing and dreaming when she first started out. She also mentioned it wasn’t about who she wrote for or receiving profit from her writings, but being able to truly express her stories is what she truly yearns for.

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