Tayari Jones: ‘I can divide my life into before and after Morrison’s Beloved’

The novelist on a 1940s bestseller that deserves wider attention and how the ancient Greeks have inspired her work

The book I am currently reading
Brother by David Chariandy. I am only halfway through and I am stunned by the strength and beauty of his words.

The book that changed my life
I could divide my life into before and after Beloved by Toni Morrison. I was about 19 when I read it. I hate to use such a chilly word to describe an experience that was spiritual, emotional and intellectual, but Beloved made me feel contextualised. That is the only way I can explain it.

The book that is most underrated
I am dumbfounded as to why The Street by Ann Petry is not more widely read. (I am an evangelist on this matter.) Published in the 1940s, it was the first bestseller by a black American woman – and sold more than 1m copies. It was what we would now call a literary suspense novel. The plot twists are book club gold, but it also raises very challenging questions about race and motherhood.

The book that influenced me
Homer’s Odyssey. When I was in primary school I was assigned an independent curriculum that centred around children’s versions of the classics. I imprinted on those stories like a lost baby duck. As soon as I was old enough, I devoured The Odyssey and The Iliad. (The Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey is breathtaking. Such an accomplishment!) Every book I have written harks back to the Greeks, especially An American Marriage. My heroine, Celestial, is Penelope, only modern, independent and famous for her art.

The last book that made me cry
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward.

The last book that made me laugh
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
Shame is not allowed in my library! When the time is right, I will read all the books I am meant to read.

My earliest reading memory
When I was about six, I read Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears. The illustrations were gorgeous, but it wasn’t a picture book. (I was really eager to read books “all by myself” that had high word-to-art ratios). I pretended to be a teacher and read it aloud to my dolls.

My comfort reading
I love to unwind with a good mystery. Tana French and Louise Penny are my favourites. I like old-fashioned procedurals – no serial killers, please! Let’s solve the crime and find out that it was motivated by love or money, rather than stone-cold depravity. The best mysteries leave me feeling that a certain order has been restored.

The book I give as a gift
Sometimes I buy an assortment of children’s books and give them to the adults in my life. Everyone seems to love Little Sweet Potato by Amy Beth Bloom. Islandborn by Junot Díaz is also pretty popular.

• An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is published by Oneworld. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

Contributor

Tayari Jones

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