Author Tayari Jones Talks 'Ordinary People Interacting With History' at Boise Literary Event 

click to enlarge - Tayari Jones spoke at The Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 16 as part of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series. -  - NINA SUBIN
  • Nina Subin
  • Tayari Jones spoke at The Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 16 as part of The Cabin's Readings & Conversations series.
Tayari Jones has social justice bonafides.

"My parents met at an NAACP meeting," she said to a packed Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 16. "I am the product of civil rights."

To say that her novels are about the issues facing people of color, feminism or the American criminal justice system, however, is to miss an important part of her message as a novelist.

"My subject matter is ordinary people interacting with history," she said.

Jones, whose latest novel, An American Marriage, has been praised by "taste-makers" like Oprah and former President Barack Obama, was in Boise for The Cabin literary center's Readings & Conversations series. That book is about a woman wrestling with ethical, moral and personal dilemmas while her husband serves a sentence for a crime he didn't commit. Much of Jones' talk was about her own life, and though she didn't earmark the fact for the audience, the stories she told pointed to a tendency toward alienation, and a day-to-day familiarity with the literary and the topical. Her career as a writer seemed almost predestined.

When she was a child, her parents, fed up with American politics, packed their bags and moved the family to West Africa ("Just imagine this kid, in a whole other country, a whole other set of rules," she said). Later, as a student at Spellman College, she forged a department's chair's signature to get into a creative writing class. Since then, her life has been a stream, the current of which has drawn her toward being a writer and encouraging people to scull their own oars.

"When you dedicate yourself to something with all your heart, the doors will open," she said.

There have been rapids, though: At one point in her career, Jones' books were out of print, and publishers looked at their sales and turned away what would end up one of her most noteworthy novels, Silver Sparrow. She would later labor for years over the ending of An American Marriage, the title of which was her editor's suggestion. Though she balked at the title at first—"An American Marriage sounds like two people getting a divorce in Connecticut"—her editor observed that "American" can be a tough term to own.

"I had never been called 'American' before," Jones said.
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