“I’m going to name a character in my next book after you.” That’s what Tayari Jones said in conversation with me the first time we met. It was May of 2011 at the Fancy Hat Literary Luncheon, an event created and hosted by my Aunt Jennie in honor of Mama Francina’s G.U.I.L.D., our family book club. Tayari’s book Silver Sparrow was the selection for that year’s event and she was our surprise guest. She sat in the audience, quietly hidden behind a hat my aunt had given her that day so she wouldn’t have to fly with a hat box. The guests had no idea she was the author of the book we’d read. She had the rare opportunity to hear an audience, untethered by concern for her feelings, react to her writing.
The event ended and the people dispersed. There I stood, fan-girling on the inside as we waited for the final guests to leave. I’d really enjoyed the book, particularly Tayari’s writing style and I was inspired by meeting someone who was doing the thing I most wanted to do with my life. When she said those words to me, I was flattered. I’ve had many reactions to my name, but no promises of it being immortalized. I smiled and said, “That would be really cool.” It was a response for which I would later kick myself. I assumed she was probably just being nice and making conversation.
Tayari was not just being nice and making conversation. The book became An American Marriage, in which the main character is indeed named Celestial. When my aunt called and told me she had received an advanced copy, I couldn’t believe Tayari had actually followed-through. I began wondering if I really wanted to read the book. What if I didn’t like my character? What if the book didn’t live up to my expectations of her writing? I decided I would wait to read the book. I had no idea what I was waiting for, but I would wait nonetheless.
Months later the book was announced as an Oprah Book Club selection and then a New York Times Best Seller. Shortly after the announcement was made, U.S. G.I.R.L.S. book club (of which I am an honorary member) discovered Tayari would be speaking at the Savannah Book Fest and decided to go as a group. We caught up with her before her presentation. Again, I had nothing profound to say as we all chatted with her and snapped pictures with the book in hand. I still could not bring myself to read the book, even after hearing how the story itself had come about. That was in 2018.
Fast forward two years… it’s 2020, we are in the midst of a pandemic, and I still had not read An American Marriage for one reason or another. Then, on a Sunday morning at about two a.m., I couldn’t sleep. I opened my Kindle app and chose the book from my list of novels to read. I was immediately whisked away into the lives of Celestial, Roy, and Andre. Celestial, the character and myself, both have mothers named Celeste and both sing, but that was pretty much where the similarities stopped. When Celestial was faced with some hard decisions and made choices I didn’t necessarily agree with, I struggled with whether I liked her or not. Funny enough, it mirrored how I treat myself sometimes. I eventually came to understand and respect her as I have myself.
The book was so engrossing that I finished it by five p.m. the same day, only stopping to tend to my dog, use the restroom and feed myself quickly, as to not waste too much time away. It was beautifully written and constantly hit me with those lines that make me emote audibly; those lines I have to stop and reread because they have changed me, made me instantly see life differently. When I finished the book I felt spent. I sat in the quiet, marveling at how masterfully Tayari crafted the story. I texted my friend who had read the book months before and we began exchanging those sentences which had most impacted us both.
The experience was surreal and it is one I am so happy to have had. Though I hope my name may be remembered because of my own merit, I know it will forever live on between the pages of a brilliantly written story by Tayari Jones. For that I am thankful.