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Friday, June 22, 2018

Topical Fiction at Bryant Park

This week at the Bryant Park Reading Room, the subject was topical fiction with authors Tayari Jones and Lisa Ko discussing their books, An American Marriage and The Leavers, respectively.
Lisa Ko and Tayari Jones

I got a copy of Jones' An American Marriage at last year's Book Expo and devoured it when I got home. She has such a way with language and her characters, I think she is one of the best writers in America today.

Lisa Ko thinks so too; she introduced Tayari Jones by saying that as she read Jones' Silver Sparrow, she had a notebook by her side, decoding the structure of the novel to discover how Jones wrote it. (I agree with her, Silver Sparrow is brilliant.)

Tayari Jones introduced Lisa Ko by congratulating her on getting nominated for a National Book Award for her debut novel The Leavers. Ko also won the Bellwether Award before the book was even published. That is a lot to live up to!

Jones read a scene from her book, the one where Roy has just been sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Listening to her words wash over the crowd was mesmerizing.

An American Marriage is about Roy and Celestial, married for just 18 months when he is sent to prison. Their marriage is not perfect, but what does a separation like that do to a marriage? Although the story deals with the issue of incarceration (Jones mentions that 1 in 6 women in this country have a loved one incarcerated- a husband, son, brother- and how that disrupts gender expectations).

But at it's heart, it's the story of a marriage and what happens when the husband is gone. Can a marriage survive that? Read An American Marriage to find out.

Jones also discussed getting a phone call from Oprah, hearing that her book had been chosen for Oprah's Book Club and what that meant to her. She also talked about trying to figure out how to write the story in the first person. Telling it from just Celestial's point of view wasn't the whole story, so she added Roy's story. When she included the point of view of Celestial's childhood Andre, it became an animated love story.

The Leavers couldn't be more topical. Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to work one day at a nail salon in New York City and never comes home. Her eleven-year-old son Deming is all alone until he is adopted by a white couple, moved upstate, and renamed David.

The story is told from the point of view of both Polly and Deming, and tells how they tried to find their way back to each other. Given the recent events this week on the US/Mexican border, this is a story that will resonate with anyone who watches the news.

The Leavers is about "finding a sense of belonging when it's taken away", according to Ko. She reads a piece to the audience about Polly's journey to the United States, and the $47,000 she has to repay the smugglers who got her out of China.

Both authors talked about people finding things in their books that they had not intended, and how different audiences react to their books. Jones says that some white people who have read her book ask her if Roy is guilty (and it is very clear in the book that he is not guilty). She said she thinks "You can't even trust a hypothetical black man?" when she hears that comment.

Ko said that people read from their own personal perspective, and she stated that some white adoptive parents have told her that they don't like how she wrote the adoptive parents in her book.

Jones said that it's not necessarily race, but proximity to the issue that affects how people react. She met white people in Tennessee who had loved ones incarcerated, and they could relate to her book very well. I found that to be very insightful.

When asked what books they enjoyed as children, Ko liked the Choose Your  Own Adventure series, and Jones loved Charlotte's Web because she felt unappreciated like Wilbur the pig.

An audience question about how the authors write was interesting. Jones writes on an old-fashioned typewriter. (Anyone who follows her on Twitter has seen her collection of typewriters). Ko keeps many notebooks, and never leaves home without one to jot down ideas. She writes in longhand in the park, uses her Notes app on her phone, and edits on her computer, printing it out and writing on the paper to edit.

An American Marriage is one of the best novels I read this year, I was pleased to buy Jones' first novel Leaving Atlanta, and have it autographed.  She was very excited to see the new edition of her book, it was the first time she had seen it. I also bought a copy of Ko's The Leavers as it has been on my radar for a long time.
Tayari Jones

It was such an interesting conversation, thanks to Bryant Park for hosting these terrific author events. More information about their events can be found here.

My review of An American Marriage is here.
My review of Silver Sparrow is here.

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