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Tayari Jones

Tayari Jones

Jones was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia where she spent most of her childhood apart from a year with her family in Nigeria. Her first novel, Leaving Atlanta, received the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction. It was named 'Novel of the Year' by Atlanta Magazine. Her second novel, The Untelling was published in 2005.

Jones is a graduate of Spelman College and is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark University. She was named the 2008 Collins Fellow by the United States Artists Foundation.


Rudolf Okonkwo

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
is an MFA student at Western Connecticut State University. He worked as a reporter for many years in Nigeria, Britain, and America. He is the Regional Editor at Instablogs.com. He writes a syndicated column. He is the founder of Iroko Productions LLC and the Olaudah Equiano Prize for Fiction. He lives in Rosedale, New York City.


: Before I get to your fascinating characters like Octavia in Leaving Atlanta and Aria in The Untelling, I want to briefly focus on this other character I saw on your blog. She wore white wings and had a light bulb hanging in the air right on top of her head. How did photographer Victor Ehikhamenor get you to take that pose?

T.J. Rudolf, I laughed when I read that question, as I happened to be on the telephone with Victor Ehikhamenor when the question popped into my inbox. You asking me about that photo just reminds me how much the relationship between the writer and the reading public has changed. I can't imagine having had access to zany snapshots of, say, Toni Morrison. Long live the internet-- as it makes it clear to readers, some of whom may want to be writers, that authors are living breathing people.

As for how Victor got me to pose for him in a blue satin dress and angel wings-- he just asked me to. I have no idea why he happened to have the wings in his truck, but he did and I put them on. Adding the lightbulb was my idea. I hope to pose for Victor again in the future. I don't think it's even fair to call it posing. Victor is a real artist. When he photographs me, we are really working together. Those photos are his and mine both.

: At age 13, you followed your father, a Fulbright scholar to Nigeria. Having spent one year in Nigeria, you are qualified to be classified as a Nigerian writer. After this interview is published, be prepared to be claimed as one of Nigeria’s own writer. And those unfamiliar with your work will begin to ask like those white people you said asked “Is your book for everyone?” What impact did that formative year mean to you as an African-American and as a writer? Are we going to read a novel from you that is set in Nigeria? Won’t that be a great change from Atlanta?

T.J. I feel them to be descriptive. However, the year and a half that I lived in Nigeria isn't enough for me to have earned that label, which is a shame because Nigerian writers are the belles of the publishing ball right now. (Smile.)

As for the question is my book for everyone, I have learned not to get so mad about that. I think the question is so racist in a weirdly friendly way. This sort of dog-whistle racism drives me crazy. But I have learned to say something charming like, "Why of course it is. Why would you think anything different?" That sort of makes the questioner realize the violence of his own question.

: In October of 2008 you were in Ghana for a writers’ conference. In January 2009, you were in Kampala, Uganda, to facilitate a workshop with FEMRITE. Africa must mean so much to you. How much? What is the attraction?

T.J. I was delighted to attend the FEMRITE conference. The Ugandan women were amazing in every way. The students ranged from twenty-somethings who are just finding their voices to women nearly my mother's age who have witnessed so much history. I hope to go back very soon.

The attraction to Africa is the obvious one. I am an African descended person. Going to Ghana was like returning home. When I was there, I was given a beautiful gold necklace with an adinkra symbol. As soon as I returned to the US, I lost it. It must have fallen off my neck. It seems like a metaphor. Everyday I search my apartment for the necklace. I want to have that connection again.

: You said that ‘Nigerian writers are the belles of the publishing ball right now.’ Why do you think that is? Has it helped in anyway to advance the cause of the African-American literature in the light of the fact that many of these writers are living here in the United States? Or is it another case of the African in America taking the rewards of years of struggles away from the African-American? How has that development contributed to the integration of all people of African descends in the Diaspora?

T.J. I have no idea why certain books, or certain groups of authors capture the American imagination at anytime. It's mysterious to me-- like meteorology. I have noticed that African-Americans have faded from the American discourse and at the same time African descended writers who are not American have come to prominence. However, I am not ready to say that Africans have somehow taken the rewards from African-Americans. If this is the case that Africans are taking up the "slots" that have usually been allocated from African Americans, the problem is a slotting system. The problem is not the writers'. I try to avoid any conversational construction that encourages people of color to participate in a cage match with the reward being crowned the "other" of the moment. With the major coverage of Colson Whitehead's new novel, I stand corrected, or at least I stand complicated.

: You have argued in several interviews that the bookstores that carry African-American sections tend to carry more African-American titles. You stated that the nation has to change before the shelving. Isn’t propounding that like calling for bookstores’ own affirmative action? Critics will say that African-American writers have won every prize there is in American literature. They will then wonder why African-American writers cannot compete on the basis of merit on bookstore shelves. A similar question is facing the U.S. Supreme Court over the extension of the federal oversights in the Voting Rights Act of 1964 in the light of Obama’s election as president. Have we overestimated what has changed in America? Is this the primary reason why you believe it is so hard for black writers to make it?

T.J. I laugh at anyone who says being in the "general" section of the book store is a question of merit. Have you seen what's over there? Sure there are great writers over there, but also Danielle Steel and other writers of pulp. There is a fallacy that shedding of labels comes only when you have proven yourself to be good enough to be unlabeled. Writers are unlabeled when they are no longer thought to be "different" than the mainstream.

. Your first novel, Leaving Atlanta, is a story about fear and love. It was set under the backdrop of the Atlanta Child Murders of the early 1980's. You were in 5th grade when the kidnapping and murders happened. Why did you choose to tap into that experience for your first novel? Are first time novelists better off taping into something very profound in their lives?

T.J. Well, *this* first-time novelists was better off writing what I knew. I think writing about childhood, a very specific childhood of which I knew all the rules and nuances, allowed me to write confidently. I never worried that there was a reader out there somewhere who could tell me I didn't know what I was talking about. And also, since I was a witness to these murders, I felt that I was doing work that needed to be done. That book is a love letter to my generation.

: In Leaving Atlanta, you told Tasha's story from third person because she isn’t matured enough to tell her own story. You told Rodney’s story in second person because he was a reserved character. And you ended with Octavia whose story you told in first person. How difficult was it to do all that in one book? Did that strategy give you, the writer, special advantages?

T.J. This may sound a little crazy, but my memory of writing Leaving Atlanta is starting to fade a bit. I can even feel myself getting nostalgic, and applying insights I have now to my recollections of the process. I don't recall the technical aspects being very different. I wrote Leaving Atlanta very organically. The reasons I gave for point of view are true, but it is something that became clear once the novel was finished. For each character, I used the point of view that would best work for the story. I didn't map it out in advance. I looked at each section of the novel as it's own thing and then I was just in service to the story.

: You attended Spelman College. Spelman and other historical black colleges have produced prominent African-Americans who are at the peak of their careers in all spheres of human endeavors. Why are some historical black colleges in financial difficulties that they are at the verge of closure?

T.J. In times of economic decline, all institutions that serve minority and disadvantages populations are the first to go under. The HCBUs don't have the endowments that many mainstream and elite institutions enjoyed. Spelman College, my beloved alma mater was founded on the $100 Rockefeller happened to have in his pocket. He gave it to the missionaries who wanted to found a school for black women. Yes it was generous for Rockefeller to give, but when you look at the size of the donations given to found, say, Carnegie Mellon, you can see that even the elite HCBUs like Spelman and Morehouse have never been on equal footing. The news is not that many are now on the verge of closing, but that they have been able to educate so many students over so many years on the resources they have had access to.

: In your second novel, The Untelling, we see through the eyes of Aria how black life in urban South has changed for the generation living after the civil rights era. In more ways than one, the novel asks the question, “Is this what Martin Luther King died for?” What did Martin Luther King die for? Is that the central question in the African-American life today?

T.J. I so think that "That's not what Dr King died for!" is the distillation of the survivors guilt of a generation. I mean, can anyone ever live well enough, accomplish enough to really earn all the blood shed by the generations before us? It's a debt that can never be repaid. One of the reasons that even black people are so eager to embrace this idea of post-racial America is that it cancels out that incredible debt.

. The exploration of the black female selfhood started with Zora Neale Hurston. It was proper that your novel, Leaving Atlanta, won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. Are you comfortable with where that exploration is headed in the light of the explosion of the so-called urban/ghetto lit?

. The exploration of Black female selfhood started with ZNH? Let me step back before lightning strikes. Harriet Jacobs is frowning from the afterlife. As for so-called Ghetto Lit. I don't have a problem with any author or any book in particular. What I am disturbed by is the marginalization of African American writers in general. I mean, you don't see respected white writers being forced to answer questions about how they feel about white writers of pulp fiction. The problem is that African American literature is seen as a genre in and of itself. That's not fair to anyone.

Yes, I get irritated with I go to the African American section in a bookstore and see that the buyers have chosen 80% of the collection to be "street lit." The problem is with the buyers not the writers.

I am also concerned with the rift between Black literary writers and black commercial writers. No one is really willing to talk about the class dimension. Most literary writers have advanced degrees and live a much more privileged life. Many writers of 'street lit" are self-taught, self-published. I am suspicious of any debate where the privileged are given the opportunity to berate the people who have fewer resources.

I am really concerned with what I see as the over representation of the poles of black American experience. It seems that African American stories need to involve The Hood, or the Hamptons. The Projects, or Princeton. Much is made as to whether or not narratives of poverty misrepresent the experience of black Americans, but what about the mainstream fascination with stories of black people who enjoy summers at Martha's Vineyard (and yes, I am aware that I am typing this from that very location.) What about the fixation with black people (women mostly) who look white? Aren't these misrepresentations as well? It seems that an ordinary black life isn't seen as remarkable or worthy of attention. This concerns me.

: W. E. B. DuBois once argued that, "We want everything that is said about us to tell of the best and highest and noblest in us. We insist that our Art and Propaganda be one." In 1926, he said that, "All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists." How will he view the explosion of urban literature today?

T.J. Oh I think Dr. DuBois would be appalled by the explosion of urban literature. Well, I think I should say that I think the DuBois of 1926 would be appalled. I don't know how he would think if he were alive today. In some ways, it's really unfair to speculate about the opinions of dead people. I am assuming that DuBois would have continued to grow and evolve. He was a great man and a brilliant mind. Brilliant minds often grow in directions that regular folks like me and you cannot imagine.

But to the heart of your questions-- if urban lit is standing in as propaganda, we're in trouble. However, I am not sure that it is. And if it is, again, that is the fault of the reader. No writer, be it Toni Morrison or Vickie Stringer should have to write fearing that her representation will someone become the permanent-- or even fleeting-- image of her people.

: Do you agree with Langston Hughes that Black artists must express themselves freely no matter what the Black public or white public thought?

T.J. I think this is true for all artists. But I also think that artists must go out of their way to tell a true story. True stories, I believe, are what will set us free. It is the truth that makes stories universal.

: In your fable, “LaKeisha and the Dirty Girl," a girl who collects books loses one book and upon seeing a similar book in the hands of a Dirty Girl, accuses her of stealing her book. The police pick up the Dirty Girl only for it to turn out to be a different book. How worried are you about stereotyping and profiling in America?

I had fun with that fable. I was a little off-put by the assignment, but it ended up being fun working with such basic characters. There was a 200 word limit. My favorite moment is when LaKeisha realized that the Dirty Girl didn't steal her book and the policeman says, "if she didn't steal it from you, she stole it from someone." I was being very wicked there. I wanted to show that it takes more than one person seeing the error of her ways to stop a system of criminalizing certain people. And then at the end, LaKeisha steals the book herself. Don't ask me why, but the whole idea cracked me up.

: In an interview, Toni Morrison said that, “Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone.” Do you agree? How does that fit into the 'coming' post-racial America?

T.J. I think Ms. Morrison was being a little hyperbolic there. I mean the least reliable information you can have about someone is their shoe size or something like that. But of course I agree that race doesn't "mean" what we think it means. Ms. Morrison was a bold statement which, I think, sparks a really necessary dialogue about race and the assumptions and privilege that goes along with it. Have you read her excellent short story Reciticaf? The story is about a pair of women who have a very tense and racialized relationship, but she never tells you which is black and which is white. The fact that she never revels this makes the story more of a fiction of ideas, I think. It's designed to keep you guessing, to make you look at yourself, and to make you interrogate this social construction that we call "race."

: How do you explain inspiration? Where do you find it? Do you wait for it in order to write?

T.J. How do I explain inspiration? I don't. I think it's a lot like falling in love. You don't really control it. It sort of happens to you and you decide whether to roll with it or not. I don't wait to be inspired to write. That is as silly as "waiting" to fall in love. I believe that you can be plodding along writing a terribly uninspired sections and BAM, inspiration will strike. The act of writing itself can inspire. It's much in the way you can be dating a perfectly adequate person. You are not in love with this person, but then you learn something about him, or he does something heroic that you did not know he was capable of. And then, BAM. You're in love.

: What is the most important idea a writing teacher can teach her students?

T.J. Revise. Revise. Revise. Also, I try and teach them to bond with their classmates. Everybody needs a community.

Do you pay attention to reviews of your works? How important are positive and negative reviews to you?

T.J. Yes, I pay attention to reviews although I know it is more high-minded not too. I would like not to care. What I am learning, though, is to learn to savor the good reviews. I can quote the negative ones chapter and verse. There was a harsh and sort of stupid review for Leaving Atlanta that appeared in the Washington Post by a guy named Michael Scube. For years I dreamed of confronting him at a cocktail party. I am happy to say that I have grown past that mark, but it's still painful to see something unpleasant about yourself in print. When it comes to good reviews, I tend to take them with a grain of salt, but that is something I am trying to learn not to do. It can be hard to accept compliments.

: Do you write any poetry at all?

T.J. No, not really. Some of my best friends are poets, though. This April for National Poetry Month I promised my friend, Mitchell LH Douglas, that I would write a poem. I did write something. It is somewhat poetic and I will never show it to anyone!

: What 3 novels do you wish you had written? Why?

T.J. I don't even know what that questions means. Does it mean three books I like? I mean, what would make me wish I have written someone else's work? I can tell you three books that I am so glad are in the world. I will start with The Bluest Eye. Although, as many have pointed out, it's a flawed novel. However, the shock of recognition that I felt seeing my own sort of childhood issues made into beautiful literature. What can I say? I've been a Morrisonista ever since. Another book that is dear to me is Meridian, by Alice Walker. I know that everyone got all bent out of shape because of The Color Purple, Meridian-- a novel about the black female experience during the civil rights movement-- is the bravest book I know. Another favorite of mine is Erasure by Percival Everett. I love how funny it is and I love that it is about a novel and it is also a novel of ideas. As for my favorite book of poetry-- Domestic Work by Natasha Trethewey.

: When not built on real events, where do your stories come from?

T.J. I don't know where they come from exactly. I think they come from the same place taste, hunger and thirst come from. They just are.

: Where did you get your talent?

T.J. I don't even know what talent is. I know that writing is the thing I love and one of only two things I have ever wanted to do with my life. (The other thing was to be a hair dresser.) I have worked all my life at writing. I was serious about it although no one around me took it seriously. This allowed me to find my voice without wondering what anyone would think. I knew what they would think, they wouldn't care. Although it sort of hurt my feelings when I was a kid to be sort of invisible, it turned out to be the greatest gift of my life-- the privacy to develop.

: How will you describe your politics? How successful are you at keeping your politics out of your literature?

T.J. I don't try to keep my world view out of my work. At the same time, I don't try to inject it in my work either. Politics come from what a person understands to be true. If I tell a true story, my politics will be in there. Asking me if my politics are in my work is like asking me if my DNA is in a strand of my hair. Of course it is, and I didn't have to put it there.

I would describe myself politically as a leftist. I distrust government and I am always looking for ways to even out the playing field. My father is a political scientist who is very interested in African politics as well as American electoral politics. I know of lot of girls who came to love sports as a way to bond with their father. Well, to bond with my dad I became a news junkie and a lover of justice.

: Do you find yourself exercising any form of self-censorship when you write?

T.J. I used to say no, but lately as my subject matter is getting more toward sensitive issues in my family, I have been turning it down a notch. I think the writer has to decide whether or not telling a particular story is worth the fallout. I have found that when I am writing, I just let it all hand out, but when it comes time for editing, I sometimes turn down the heat. I try to be a compassionate writer. At the same time, sometimes you just have to write the truth. I take it on a case by case situation.

: How important is it for writers to get validation for their efforts in the form of awards? Are awards a true measure of success? Do they change you or your writing?

T.J. Awards are not a true measure of anything, but it is really nice to win awards, particularly when they come with money. Right now, I am taking a month at Martha's Vineyard. I am doing so because I won a cash award last year from the United States Artist Foundation. The award is allowing me to make 2009 my dream year for writing. I mean, I am relaxing in for the summer with no responsibility other than to write! That award made it possible and I can't poo-poo that.

On the other hand, that validation can be addictive. I know writers who have been driven insane by awards. I know one writer who researches who wins every writing award in the world. Then she agonizes over why she wasn't chosen. The crazy thing is that she has already won *so many* awards. But she wants them all and will not be satisfied until she gets them. I look at her as a cautionary tale.

I think that every writer knows a writer who is not as good as she is, who has won more awards. But at the same time, we all know someone who is better than us, who has gotten nothing. So you can be happy about the award you win, but you can't get too caught up. It's not exactly random but you're kidding yourself if you feel that it is a meritocracy..

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