Novel praised by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey wins Women’s Prize for Fiction

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones wins £30,000 prize

Tayari Jones: “For most of my life, American wasn’t a word I felt was addressed to me without adding black.” Photograph: Nina Subin

Tayari Jones: “For most of my life, American wasn’t a word I felt was addressed to me without adding black.” Photograph: Nina Subin

 

US author Tayari Jones has won this year’s £30,000 Women’s Prize for Fiction for An American Marriage, about a middle-class black couple torn apart by a miscarriage of justice. The novel, her fourth, has been championed by Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, who is in talks to make it into a film.

Prof Kate Williams, chair of the judges, said: “This is an exquisitely intimate portrait of a marriage shattered by racial injustice. It is a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. We all loved this brilliant book.”

Jones is the author of three previous novels, Silver Sparrow, The Untelling, and Leaving Atlanta. A graduate of Arizona State University and the University of Iowa, she lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at Rutgers university in New York alongside Irish author Belinda McKeon, who praised An American Marriage in last year’s Irish Times summer reads feature.

An American Marriage, published by Oneworld, is the story of Celestial and Roy, a newlywed couple with a bright future, the embodiment of the American Dream and the New South. But when Roy is jailed for 12 years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit, she turns for comfort to Andre, her childhood friend and their best man. Then, after five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned. Jones proves she is not just a masterful storyteller, but also a visionary writer, unafraid to address important issues about race, class and society head-on.

Reviewing for The Irish Times, Anna Joyce wrote: “An American Marriage, like all great works of art, makes you uncomfortable. It is a nuanced dissection of love, race, class, family and gender... The sharp simplicity of Jones’s writing unleashes her characters’ vulnerabilities, and facilitates a remarkably intimate portrait of a corrupt justice system, and the irreversible effects of wrongful conviction... Jones’s references to black culture and construction of strong black characters offer a refreshing and necessary education for white readers, who would rarely be accosted by the realities she presents.”

Jones was an 8-1 outsider for the prize, whose front-runner was Milkman by Belfast author Anna Burns, which won the Man Booker Prize last year. Also shorltisted were Ordinary People by Diana Evans; Circe by Madeline Miller; The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker; and My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite.

Racial injustice is a recurring theme in US writing, unsurprisingly given that African Americans are jailed at five times the rate of white Americans . Most famous perhaps is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding (2011) by Sarah Burns is a bestseller again on the back of Ava DuVernay’s Netflix series When They See Us. Colson Whitehead’s follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad is The Nickel Boys, about a promising young black student who ends up in a horrifying reform school after innocently accepting a lift in a stolen car.

Discussing her work with Winfrey, Jones said her earlier work had focused on the complications of her own family but then “with all the chaos in the world, I wanted to look outward and take on something that mattered to others, not just me”.

She spent a year at Harvard researching mass incarceration but in the end, like Maeve Binchy in Bewley’s, her inspirarion came eavesdropping on a young couple in a mall in Atlanta, the woman saying to her partner: “You know you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years.”

“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. I decided to write about the collateral damage around that—what happens to families, to relationships, to dreams for the future. How does this social wrong translate into the everyday? As a novelist, it was that messy gray area I wanted to explore.”

Discusing the title of her novel, she said: “I was nervous it was too big a title for my book, that it suggested a novel about, say, white people in Connecticut getting a divorce. For most of my life, American wasn’t a word I felt was addressed to me without adding black. But my editor urged me to consider it, and I began to realize that in adopting it I’d be claiming a larger space for my characters and their story. But did I dare? My mentor, Pearl Cleage, gave me this advice: ‘You are an American author and this is an American story.’ So I went with it.”

Greek mythology is a consistent influence on her work. “In this novel, Roy is like Odysseus. He faces an incredible challenge, has to fight to get home, and meets other women along the way, yet all he wants is to know his wife is waiting for him. Alas, Celestial is no Penelope.”
Paris Review interview with Tayari Jones

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