Atlanta native Tayari Jones writes powerful, realistic stories of African-American life in the modern urban South. Critics have praised Jones’ sensitive novels of bourgeois black experience, especially her talent for authentically portraying the dynamic conflicts arising out of family, culture, and class. Her stories and characters are often located in Atlanta, where Jones grew up and attended Spelman College, and where she recently joined the creative writing faculty of Emory University.
Tayari Acio Jones’ parents are both distinguished academics and veterans of civil rights struggles in their youth. She has two brothers and two stepsisters. Jones’ mother, Barbara Ann Posey, was a fifteen-year-old leader of the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council in 1960, and she helped organize anti-segregation sit-ins at lunch counters in Oklahoma City nearly two years before the famous Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins took place. Jones’ father, Mack Jones, was a member of the “Southern University 16,” a group of Baton Rouge college students who were arrested and expelled, and then were banned by Louisiana authorities from finishing their degrees in the state, for having organized sit-ins against segregation in 1962. By the time Tayari Jones was born in 1970, her father, a political scientist, and her mother, an economist, were both professors at Clark College in Atlanta, which is where Jones would grow up.
After graduating from Benjamin Mays High School, Jones went to Spelman College, where she studied with Atlanta writer Pearl Cleage. Jones credits with guiding Cleage with igniting and guiding her career as a writer:
Pearl taught me to be a loving teller of the truth. This is the basis for my work as a writer and as a human being. If you are a person who loves the world, then you love your community, you love your family, and you love yourself. If you love them as they are, then you can write them as they are. Your humanity and theirs will rise to the top.[i]
Jones sold her first short story to the Fulton County Arts Council magazine Catalyst, which Cleage edited. After earning Jones earned her bachelor’s degree from Spelman in 1991, she earned master’s degrees in English and fiction writing, respectively, from the University of Iowa (1994) and Arizona State University (2000).
Leaving Atlanta, Jones first novel, drew upon her experience as a fifth grader at Atlanta’s Oglethorpe Elementary during the “Atlanta child murders” horror of 1979-1981, when thirty African American children from the neighborhoods near her home and school were murdered. Leaving Atlanta was awarded the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Foundation Legacy 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.
Jones’ second novel, The Untelling, followed a young woman’s struggle to come to terms with family tragedy over nearly two decades beginning in the late 1970s. Set in Atlanta neighborhoods such as Mosley Park, Spelman College, and Windy Hill Road, the novel revealed how Atlanta’s many changes in that period were felt by a generation of African-Americans coming of age in the post–civil rights era. The Untelling won the Southern Regional Council’s Lillian Smith Book Award for fiction for 2005.
Silver Sparrow (2011), set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta, was Jones’ development of an idea about “sisters and secrets,” which she mixed with “one of those stories you hear all the time about a man dies and two wives show up at the funeral.”[ii]
In An American Marriage (2018), Jones has written about a young upwardly mobile Atlanta man and woman for whom the pains of love and marriage are multiplied immeasurably when racism and chance cause his wrongful arrest and imprisonment. The critically acclaimed work won the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction in the United Kingdom, and has been optioned for film adaptation by Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Films.
Jones' fiction, essays and reviews have appeared widely, in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Progressive, McSweeney’s, Callaloo, O (The Oprah Magazine) among others, and she has been a commentator on National Public Radio. Her work has been selected for literary anthologies such as New Stories from the South, The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South, and Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing. She has also edited a collection of fiction set in the neighborhoods of Georgia’s capital, Atlanta Noir (2017).
Jones’ literary achievements have been recognized by entries in The Encyclopedia of African-American Writing, The Prentice-Hall Anthology of African American Women's Literature, and The New Georgia Encyclopedia. She has been awarded writing fellowships by the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, Le Château de Lavigny (Switzerland), and the MacDowell Colony.
She is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and a recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award in Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship, and the Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship.
A founding member of Rutgers-Newark University’s graduate program in creative writing, she spent 2017 as Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writing at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas’ Black Mountain Institute. In 2019, Jones was appointed an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-large at Cornell University.
--Portrait of Tayari Jones from an original photo by Nina Subin.
[i] “This Is Your Life.” Tayari Jones. Oxford American, Issue 100 (Spring 2018). “This Is Your Life.” p110-111.
[ii] “Silver Sparrow: Tayari Jones' Tale of Secret Sisters.” All Things Considered. May 19, 2011. https://www.npr.org/2011/05/19/136466056/silver-sparrow-tayari-joness-tale-of-secret-sisters. Viewed 15 August 2018.
The following works written or edited by Tayari Jones are held by the UGA Special Collections Libraries:
Leaving Atlanta. New York: Warner Books, 2002.
Leaving Atlanta. New York: Grand Central, 2002.
Leaving Atlanta. [Spanish ed.] Barcelona : El Cobre Edicions, 2005.
The Untelling. New York: Warner Books, 2005
LaKeisha and the Dirty Girl. San Francisco: McSweeney, 2008.
Silver Sparrow. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2011.
Atlanta Noir. Brooklyn, New York : Akashic Books2017.
An American Marriage. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2018.