Welcome to 'The books that shaped me' - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from Tayari Jones, the internationally bestselling author of four novels, most recently An American Marriage, winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019. Jones is the recipient of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a United States Artist Fellowship, NEA Fellowship and a Radcliffe Institute Bunting Fellowship. She is also a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Born in Atlanta, Jones is a graduate of Spelman College, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. She is currently professor of Creative Writing at Emory University and an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.
How have books impacted your life?
Since childhood, I have adored books. When I say this, people sometime assume that this means I was a lonely child, seeking friends between the pages. However, I grew up in a warm and lively home. I just loved reading and considered my relationship with fictional characters to be an extension of my social and emotional life.
The childhood book that's stayed with you...
Charlotte’s Web moved me profoundly when I was about eight years old. I identified so closely with Wilbur, the little pig who learns life’s hard lessons. (This is when I, too, came to understand the origins of bacon!) For years afterwards, I chanted the magical words that Charlotte employed to save Wilbur’s life as a charm against danger in my own life: “Some Pig, Terrific, Radiant, Humble.” This was my first inkling of the power of words. Charlotte wasn’t just a spider, she was a writer.
Your favourite book of all time...
Maya Angelou led such an extraordinary life that her memoir spanned seven volumes, but the first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is the true masterpiece. Set in the rural American south during Jim Crow, Angelou is unflinching in her depiction of the injustices endured by her family, but she illustrates the many ways that they stand their ground and preserve their dignity. Every person she meets is what old folks call “a real character” but they never become caricatures. Her narration is witty, quotable and profound. I particularly like her insights on girlhood. “I believe most plain girls are virtuous because of the scarcity of opportunity to be otherwise.” Guilty as charged.
The book you wish you'd written...
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison is as close to perfect as a novel can be. The very first chapter is the entire narrative miniaturised, but you can’t realise that until you have completed the entire book. Morrison’s true gift, which is on full display in Song of Solomon, is that she takes the lives of ordinary people and raises them to the level of myth. The real magic is that she transforms them, but she doesn’t make them unrecognisable. After reading a Morrison novel, I look at everyday folks on the street and I wonder what secrets hide behind their eyes. When I write I remember this lesson, that every life tells an incredible story.
The book you wish everyone would read...
Everyone should read The Street by Ann Petry that has recently been re-issued. Written in the 1940s to great acclaim, it has sort of fallen off the radar, but is enjoying a comeback. This book examines the life of a young Black woman who seeks to raise her son alone in Harlem, and has aged beautifully. It reads not like a look back in time, but as an urgent warning for the future.
The book that's got you through a hard time...
When times are hard, I turn to The Color Purple. There are dark moments in the story – child abuse, family separation, systemic racism – but there is also great joy and resistance woven throughout the story. The last few chapters are that rare beast – a genuine happy ending. The sisters are reunited; Celie has shaken loose her terrible marriage and somehow turned her ex-husband into a feminist. She finds her niche as an entrepreneur and has discovered her true roots. Alice Walker shows that the world is a place of great pain, but she offers a roadmap to happiness.
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones is published by Oneworld.
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