Faculty Profile: Tayari Jones
“Born, bred and buttered” in Atlanta, Georgia (as she once described herself), Tayari Jones has placed all three of her novels in that city, creating a trilogy, as The Village Voice noted, “defining middle-class black Atlanta the way Cheever did Westchester.”
Although Tayari Jones lives primarily in the northeast these days, “Atlanta is where my imagination lives”, she writes on her blog at tayarijones.com. Jones attended Spelman College where she studied with Pearl Cleage, who published Jones’ first story “Eugenics” in Catalyst magazine. In a forward to her first book, Jones said that the $100 payment for that story “is still the best money she ever made.” She earned a Masters in English at University of Iowa, and a Masters of Fine Arts at Arizona State University, studying with Ron Carlson, who is also, it just so happens, at the conference this year. She now teaches in the MFA Program at the Rutgers-Newark University and recently completed a year as a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University, researching material for her fourth novel.
Leaving Atlanta, her acclaimed debut book published in 2002, is set during the years of the child-murders in Atlanta (1979-81), when Jones was in fifth grade. The story unfolds in the voices of three fifth-graders, moving through third, second and first person deftly and sure-handedly. Jones captures the many humiliations and frustrations of that age with direct and succinct prose that never has to reach to pack a punch. She quite brilliantly weaves the day-to-day struggles, betrayals, shifting alliances and revelations of fifth grade with the haunting realities of seeing their friends’ faces on the evening news, of attending their funerals, of learning the new safety rules that now shape their lives. Leaving Atlanta won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction and was named “Novel of the Year” by Atlanta Magazine and “Best Southern Novel of the Year,” by Creative Loafing Atlanta.
After the larger historical scope of Jones’s first book, her second novel, The Untelling (published in 2005), has a somewhat more personal focus, centering around a young woman in Atlanta coming to terms with dual traumas: one of the present moment, when she fears she is pregnant out of wedlock only to discover that she will never bear children — and another from her past, when her family was shattered by a car accident that took the lives of her father and youngest sister. “The Untelling,” Jones explained, “is a novel about personal history and individual and familial myth-making. These personal stories are what come together to determine the story of a community, the unofficial history of a neighborhood, of a city, of a nation.” This “unofficial history” garnered many accolades. Nikki Giovanni declared “No sophomore jitters here. No timidity. Just a strong wind swirling the truth, hoping for love, daring the reader to inhale the forgiveness.” Essence magazine called Jones “ a writer to watch,” and Robert Olen Butler simply stated: “The Untelling is a wonderful book and Tayari Jones is a flat-out brilliant writer.” The novel was awarded the Lillian C. Smith Award for New Voices.
Silver Sparrow, published in 2011, begins with the striking sentence, “My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.” And so we are plunged into the story of two families — an acknowledged one and a secret one, each with one daughter born within months of each other and living not so far apart in Atlanta. It is a story that rests on the revelation of the truth, the path to it and the consequences after it; it is also the story of the young girls as they seek to grasp their place in the world and with their shared father. Splendidly written, the novel was chosen as the #1 Indie Next Pick for June 2011 by The American Booksellers Association, nominated by the NAACP for the Outstanding Literary Work Award and named among the best books of 2011 by O Magazine, Slate, Salon and Library Journal. It was released in paperback this past May and Tayari Jones has been here, there and everywhere since. We are so happy that she will be landing here in St Helena for our conference week.
Join us during conference week for Tayari Jones’s lecture, titled “Tales from the Kidscape: The Art of the Coming-of-Age Story” on Thursday, July 26, at 1:30 p.m., and for her reading at The Educational Center for the Performing Arts, Napa Valley College Main Campus, Napa, on Wednesday, July 25. Wine reception begins at 6:30; the reading at 7 p.m. Visit the lectures and readings page for full details!