“An American Marriage”

June 19, 2019  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield introduced 2019 Aspen Words Literary Prize winner Tayari Jones at the 2019 Aspen Words Summer Benefit on June 19, 2019 in Aspen, CO. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

First, I’d like to thank all who prepared and served this meal. Second, I’d like to thank the great Aspen Words team and our inspiring leader, Adrienne Brodeur, whose memoir Wild Game will be published on October 15, when all clocks will stop in admiration. And finally, on behalf of Aspen Words, thank you all for being here.

I’m Dan Porterfield, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and I’m honored to introduce you to Tayari Jones, author of the remarkable novel, An American Marriage, who is joined here tonight by her exceedingly proud mom and dad.

Ms. Jones is this year’s recipient of the 2019 Aspen Words Literary Prize, which recognizes one work of fiction that, above all others, illuminates a vital contemporary issue and demonstrates the transformative power of literature on thought and culture. This beautiful engraved trophy is the creation of Michael Lorsung of Anderson Ranch.

For 70 years, the Aspen Institute has worked to create a free, just, and equitable society so that all humans can flourish. This regard for human dignity, which all share equally, lies at the heart of the Aspen Words Literary Prize.

The prize is based on the premise that great literature invites us into the others’ minds and sensibilities, allowing us to see the world from more perspectives than our own. If the ability to imagine someone else’s inner life is where compassion begins, then storytelling is the art that kindles that fire.

An American Marriage does just that, showing the devastating consequences of racial bias and wrongful incarceration on a marriage. Simultaneously sweeping and intimate, the novel portrays a society where racism still persists in our minds, our myths, our structures, and our systems. It is a stirring love story, full of well-drawn characters, whose circumstances show us, in the words of Aspen Institute trustee Anna Deveare Smith, that “we can learn a lot about a person in the very moment that language fails them.”

Indeed, language does fail the characters Roy and Celestial—and from within that predicament they still try to do their best. I find the unjustly imprisoned Roy to be especially haunting—not simply because of what happens to him, but because what happens to him could happen to anyone born Black in our country.

Ms. Jones, we are deeply grateful to you for all the hours and weeks and months that you spent writing and editing An American Marriage—as well as your three earlier highly-acclaimed novels.

It’s inspiring to see how much recognition your latest creation is receiving. In addition to winning this prize, An American Marriage won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and an NAACP Image Award, was a finalist for the National Book Award, was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, and was highlighted by cultural commentor-in-chief Barack Obama on his summer reading list.

Please join me in welcoming Tayari Jones to the stage.