Tayari Jones takes Emory president to a podcast creative writing class

Tayari Jones is one of the most accomplished novelists working today. She is the author of four books, including the best-selling, “An American Marriage,” which was an Oprah’s Book Club Official Selection in 2018. Jones received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction and was also a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

In the latest episode of his podcast, One Big Question, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves interviews Jones, who is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing at Emory University. On the podcast, Fenves sits down with authors, inventors, researchers, Emory alumni and more to learn about their experiences and areas of expertise. The first episode featured an epidemiologist and a social media star Laurel Bristowand the next episode will feature an Emory College alumnus Christophe Mimswho writes the Wall Street Journal’s technical column, Keywords.

During the interview with Jones, Fenves begins by asking, “Why, an acclaimed novelist with audiences around the world, do you dedicate your teaching time to Emory undergraduates, and especially students who are in disciplines that, at least on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with writing?

Jones laughs before responding to Fenves, then continues, “Well, in my opinion, the undergraduate classroom is really where the magic happens. When I was young, I took a creative writing course. And one, I was amazed to find out that you could actually take a course in creative writing.

The class Jones is referring to was taught by Pearl Cleage at Spelman College. Two decades before Jones’ success with her novel, Cleage’s book “What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day” was Oprah’s Book Club pick of 1998.

During conversation hosted by Emory Libraries Three years ago, Jones admitted that she forged her adviser’s signature so she could take Cleage’s class as a freshman. Like Jones, Cleage is a former student of Spelman who grew up in southwest Atlanta. Both use Atlanta and its history as a backdrop for their stories.

In “An American Marriage”, a young newlywed couple – Roy and Celestial – find their forever happiness shattered when Roy is wrongfully incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. When he is finally freed, he discovers that the world and the woman he left behind are very different. Jones was inspired to write the novel after overhearing a couple arguing at Lenox Square Mall. She heard the woman say, “You wouldn’t have waited for me for seven years.

On One Big Question, Fenves asks Jones, “How do you teach your students to relate to their own experience and then express that in a character that may be very different from who they are?”

To which Jones responds in part: “One thing people do when they start writing is they say, ‘Oh, I want to write about someone so different from me. I think it’s partly because examining yourself is the hardest thing… I ask them, “What’s the story behind your name? Because when you can say how you got your name, it tells us a lot about who you are. It tells us about your parents’ ambition for you, what kind of culture you come from.

During the episode, Fenves and Jones try this exercise.

Fenves: If you gave me this mission, the story of my name, it would be about two or three sentences. How do you get students to think deeper than just the surface of who they are?

Jones: Give me those two or three sentences. I’m ready.

Fenves: OK. Let’s see. My mother called me Gregory because… well, in the 1950s, I think it was a common name. That’s all I know.

Jones: Well, that’s a lot to know. It means your mom wanted you to have a name that wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. She wanted you to get along with other people. She wanted you to have a legible name. That was in the 1950s when that kind of legibility was a big part of the culture. So that tells us there, a bit of context.

If you take my name, Tayari, which is Swahili, which means “she’s prepared”, you can tell straight away that I was born in 1970 and my parents were part of this kind of African-American cultural recovery movement. , and they didn’t. pay attention that I had a name that no one could spell or pronounce. So it’s really the opposite impulse.

Fenves: Oh my God. I have to take your course.

Listen to the full conversation between Jones and Fenves now. The next episode of One Big Question will be released on September 28.

In his new podcast series, President Gregory L. Fenves asks Emory experts big questions about society, the challenges we face, and the unexpected, bold, ambitious, and courageous solutions they’ve discovered.

The first three episodes will be released every other Wednesday starting August 31.

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