Tayari Jones on her literary lineage and choosing Atlanta

The acclaimed author talks about growing up in post–civil rights Atlanta, why Black women are important literary communities, and the reverse migration back South

Tayari Jones on her literary lineage and choosing Atlanta
Tayari Jones

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Tayari Jones—author, professor, and griot of the American South—has a lot on her plate. She teaches a creative writing class at Emory University, she has book blurbs due and forewords to file, and she has words in a just-released craft book, How We Do It, where her Emory colleague Jericho Brown gathered Black writers to explain “how they go about making what they make.” “I know I have a novel,” Jones writes, “when I have a question to which I don’t know the moral/ethical answer.” She is also putting the finishing touches on her fifth and forthcoming novel, Old Fourth Ward, which is set squarely in Black Atlanta’s centers of gravity: the historic neighborhood adjacent to downtown Atlanta (and the book’s namesake) and Cascade Heights (her old stomping grounds).

It’s been five years since her last novel, An American Marriage, a story about wrongful incarceration and its repercussions, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club. She penned three more novels before that—Leaving Atlanta (2002), The Untelling (2005), and Silver Sparrow (2011)—and edited Atlanta Noir (2017). All of Jones’s work focuses on Southern Black life after the formal civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s her embrace of flawed but humane Black characters that keeps her novels and writing on my bookshelf and in my classroom: I teach Leaving Atlanta regularly as part of my Southern hip-hop courses to add depth and nuance to our discussions of the Atlanta Child Murders and the ensuing fallout in Atlanta’s Black communities.

In the following conversation, Jones talks about growing up in post–civil rights Atlanta, why Black women are important literary communities, and the reverse migration back South.

Talk about your childhood growing up in Atlanta. What influence did it have on your writing?

Well, I love to tell people I was born in downtown Atlanta. I was born in 1970 in Hughes Spalding Hospital, which is an annex of Grady. I was born right after the civil rights movement, when there was this optimism that the children are the future. And when I think about it, it’s one reason I like to write child characters. No child is walking around feeling like the future. You feel like yourself. And that was one of the things I really had to lean on, particularly in my first novel, Leaving Atlanta, about growing up during the Atlanta Child Murders. When I was a child, I did not understand myself as having a historically significant experience. I understood myself as a child, wanting to go to school, wanting to be invited to parties, and being frustrated that we were so surveilled by our parents during the time of the murders. Parents were more worried than we were because parents have historical memory. They looked at these child murders happening, and they were connecting it to Emmett Till and other anti-Black violence. But as children, we didn’t know any of that. We felt like we were the only people to whom this had ever happened.

How did attending Spelman College influence your development as a writer?

I went to Spelman College when I was 16 years old. Going to Spelman College was the greatest gift of my life, and I cannot overstate what Spelman College did for my worldview and my understanding of who I was. When I went to Spelman College, two things happened to me. One, I met Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole. She was the first Black woman president of Spelman College—1987. Spelman had been in existence 106 years and did not have a Black woman president, but there she was. I met her, and she says, “What are you interested in?” I said, “I want to be a writer.” I don’t know where it came from, just the sight of her made me reach higher. I thought of writing like singing. Some people could, some people couldn’t. I signed up for a creative writing class. I did not know creative writing could be a class. I feel tearful just thinking of that moment. My teacher was Pearl Cleage. She took me up under her wing and I’ve been under there ever since. She modeled for me what it looks like to be a writer.

Who do you feel is part of your genealogy as a Southern Black woman writer?

You want to hear something crazy? I feel like I discovered my long-lost literary auntie recently. Her name is Diane Oliver. She’s passed away but she went to the University of Iowa in the 1960s. She wrote a couple stories and was given an O. Henry Prize. She died when she was hit by a car while riding her bike. Her stories are collected in a book called Neighbors. I’m writing the introduction to it now. I cannot believe the profundity of her work, and the way she fits in with the tradition even though she didn’t know she was fitting in with the tradition. I was like, How could I be influenced by this lady, even though I’m just reading her today? She was so far ahead of me that I feel like she was paving the way.

I think of myself as a descendant of Alice Walker. I feel like Alice Walker changed the game for Black women’s writing. I think she was more influential than Toni Morrison even, though Toni Morrison is a once-in-a-generation talent. But the reason I think Walker was more influential, is that Alice Walker made it acceptable for Black women to admit that patriarchy existed. It totally changed what Black women were writing about and how they endured. Pearl Cleage taught me that Black women’s everyday experiences are worthy of literature. She taught me that you don’t have to write your book about the effect of white people on yourself, that white people are not the only factor in your life to write about. There is a lot of pressure, I think, for Black people to write books about racism. And every now and then, a plot about racism, like An American Marriage, will cross my mind, but it’s not what I think about all the time.

Zora Neale Hurston taught us all how to write people the way they talk, in a way that is not condescending. Her writing feels like she witnessed it, and that she is part of that community. That is so important to me. I say that the greatest compliment you can ever get as a writer is for someone that has experienced what you’re writing about to say they recognized themselves. That’s the gift, that’s the point. If people who experienced it say what you’re writing is, pardon my French, is bullshit, then it is. The people you’re talking about have the right to veto that, and you just apologize and start over.

Why do you think that people have a problem with recognizing Black women as readers and writers?

I think one way that people judge writers is by your readership. Say you’re a white man and you have a very small but influential group of readers. They will say, “Oh, that’s impressive.” I just think people don’t respect Black women’s intellectual work. And I mean that as readers too, not just as writers. It is very important to me to always give respect to Black women. When my first book was first published, Black women came out to hear me read. They bought my book, they wrote me letters, and they supported me, because it took a long time for my career to take hold. I mean, it wasn’t until An American Marriage that I was even reviewed in the New York Times.

Nikki Giovanni said to me, “Take care of your Black women readers. They will nurture you, they will care for you.” She said, “The women in this room are going to come to your funeral.” That was one of the best pieces of advice she has given me. When I was writing Silver Sparrow, my publisher had kicked me to the curb, my poor little other books were taken out of print. I was working on my book, and was like, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? I’m not going to be able to publish this. A box came to my office. I opened it, and inside was a crocheted blanket from a reader who said, “I saw on Facebook that you have moved to New Jersey, and it is cold up there.” She said, “Put this over your lap when you write.” I put that blanket on my lap all the time. It stirred my spirit and let me know that someone out there wants to read what I write.

A lot of people have been talking about a reverse great migration of Black folks coming back South. How, if at all, does this idea of the reverse migration influence your writing?

I’m in favor of this reverse migration. Come on back home. I like it, and I like that so many people are choosing Atlanta. I love people asking me “Where are you from?” and I love saying, “Right here.” I think it’s worth saying that stories from the urban South are still Southern stories. There’s a hunger in the world for a kind of idea that the South is the part of the country that time left behind. One of the things important to me are modern, urban, but deeply Southern stories. In writing about Atlanta, I have had to confront stereotypes about Southern life, and there are people who don’t think that you can be Southern and a city person at the same time. Atlanta is changing. We’re a more cosmopolitan city. But we’re still the city we are—they can’t change us. They can join us, but they can’t change us.

This article appears September 2023 issue.