Tayari Jones (b. 1970)

Tayari Jones is a writer whose stories and literary imagination center on Georgia and its capital city. Born and raised in Atlanta, Jones has written a number of short stories and articles but is best known for her novels, Leaving Atlanta (2002), The Untelling (2005), The Silver Sparrow (2011), and An American Marriage (2018).
Born to Mack and Barbara Jones in 1970, Jones spent most of her childhood in southwest Atlanta, with the exception of 1983, when her father, a Clark Atlanta University professor, took the family to Nigeria, West Africa, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In 1991 Jones completed her bachelor's degree in English from Spelman College in Atlanta; in 1994 she received a master's degree in English from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and in 2000 she completed an M.F.A. in fiction from Arizona State University in Tempe. Since then she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the Radcliffe Institute, and United States Artists, among others.
Leaving Atlanta, a story told primarily from the perspective of three children, centers on the Atlanta child murders that terrorized the city between 1979 and 1981. Jones was in fifth grade at Oglethorpe Elementary when thirty African American children from the neighborhoods near her home and school were murdered. Leaving Atlanta is, according to Jones, her effort to "record the events of [her] generation," focusing particularly on the Atlanta child murders while also highlighting Atlanta neighborhoods and considering the urban South and rising black middle class.The book won many awards, including the Zora Neale Hurston / Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award for Debut Fiction.
In her second novel, The Untelling, Jones presents a black family split by a tragedy that isolates the surviving members from each other and disrupts their secure middle-class life. The novel's main character, Aria, a twenty-five-year-old literacy advocate working and living among Atlanta's poor, helps to reveal the city's fault lines of race, class, and gender through her individual struggle with personal tragedy. Much of the novel is set in places familiar to Atlantans, including Mosley Park, Spelman College, and Windy Hill Road. By depicting her characters through several eras of Atlanta's development, Jones underscores the changes experienced by the city through time and how black life in the urban South has changed for the generation living in the post–civil rights era. In 2005 The Untelling won the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council).
Jones' third novel, Silver Sparrow, revisits suburban Atlanta in the 1980s to tell the story of a man's two families—one public, one secret—and their different but parallel lives. Narrated by his two teenage daughters, Dana and Chaurisse, the novel is fundamentally a portrayal of southern girlhood, with questions of legitimacy and class connecting each family's past to the present. In 2016 Silver Sparrow was added to the NEA Big Read library, which helped bring the book to reading communities across the country.
In her fourth novel, An American Marriage, Jones' explores the inequalities of the criminal justice system through its impact on a single family. Set in present-day Atlanta, the novel follows the diverging narratives of newlywed protagonists Roy and Celestial, whose upwardly-mobile, middle-class lives are upended when Roy is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Named an Oprah Winfrey book club pick, the novel quickly became a New York Times best seller.
Jones has published in a variety of periodicals and anthologies, including Tin House, The New York Times, The Believer, and Callaloo. She also served as editor of Atlanta Noir, a collection of short stories set in her hometown. Quietly negotiating the complicated social and political landscape of Atlanta, Jones has become a voice for her generation, expressing, as she says in interviews, the sense of "entitlement and empowerment" that her peers inherited from the civil rights movement.
Jones has held professorships at the University of Illinois, George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and Rutgers-Newark University in New Jersey. She is currently a professor of creative writing at Emory University.
In 2018 Jones was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame
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Cite This Article
Vasconcelos, Elizabete. "Tayari Jones (b. 1970)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 October 2018. Web. 14 November 2018.
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Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries