Tayari Jones (b. 1970)
Tayari Jones, born and raised in Atlanta, has written a number of short stories and articles but is best known for her two novels, Leaving Atlanta (2002) and The Untelling (2005). Although she has not lived in her hometown for almost a decade, her stories and literary imagination center on Georgia and its capital city.
Born to Mack and Barbara Jones in 1970, Jones spent most of her childhood in southwest Atlanta, with the exception of 1983, when her father, a Clark Atlanta University professor, took the family to Nigeria, West Africa, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In 1991 Jones completed her bachelor's degree in English from Spelman College in Atlanta; in 1994 she received a master's degree in English from the University of Iowa in Iowa City, and in 2000 she completed an M.F.A. in fiction from Arizona State University in Tempe. Since then she has received fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Corporation of Yaddo, Le Château de Lavigny (Switzerland), and the MacDowell Colony.
Leaving Atlanta, a story told primarily from the perspective of three children, centers on the Atlanta child murders that terrorized the city between 1979 and 1981. Jones was in fifth grade at Oglethorpe Elementary when thirty African American children from the neighborhoods near her home and school were murdered. In interviews, she described the novel as a documentation of that particular moment of her childhood. Her protagonists' points of view contrast the sweetness of a recollected girlhood with the terror of facing an unknown killer. Leaving Atlanta is, according to Jones, her effort to "record the events of [her] generation," focusing particularly on the Atlanta child murders while also highlighting Atlanta neighborhoods and considering the urban South and rising black middle class.
The book won many awards, including the Zora Neale Hurston / Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, and was named "Novel of the Year" by Atlanta Magazine and "Best Southern Novel of the Year" by Creative Loafing Atlanta. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called Leaving Atlanta an "impressive first novel to explore one of the most hateful periods in the recent history of the City Too Busy to Hate" and listed the book as one of the best novels of 2002, as did the Washington Post. Publishers Weekly proclaimed the novel a "strongly grounded tale [that] hums with the rhythms of schoolyard life." Reviewers also complimented Jones's ability to render the child's perspective.
In her second novel, The Untelling, Jones presents a black family split by a tragedy that isolates the surviving members from each other and disrupts their secure middle-class life. The novel's main character, Aria, a twenty-five-year-old literacy advocate working and living among Atlanta's poor, helps to reveal the city's fault lines of race, class, and gender through her individual struggle with personal tragedy. Much of the novel is set in places familiar to Atlantans, including Mosley Park, Spelman College, and Windy Hill Road. By presenting her characters through several eras of Atlanta's development, Jones underscores the changes experienced by the city through time and how black life in the urban South has changed for the generation living in the post–civil rights era. In 2005 The Untelling won the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council).
Jones has also published in a variety of periodicals and anthologies, including Catalyst, Crab Orchard Review, Figdust, Gumbo, Langston Hughes Review, Proverbs for the People, 64, and Sou'wester. Quietly negotiating the complicated social and political landscape of Atlanta, Jones has become a voice for her generation, expressing, as she says in interviews, the sense of "entitlement and empowerment" that her peers inherited from the civil rights movement.
Jones taught and coordinated a developmental reading program at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, was the Geier Writer in Residence at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, and has held professorships at the University of Illinois and George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is currently an assistant professor at Rutgers-Newark University in New Jersey.