Tayari Jones Proves Good Drama Doesn't Need Trauma in 'Half Light'
Sisterly love, spousal revenge, and one priceless piece of art star in this clever, mischievous Audible Original short story by the best-selling author of 'American Marriage.'
By Abby West
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Abby West: Hi, this is your Audible Editor, Abby West. And I'll be talking with best-selling author Tayari Jones, whose enrapturing novel, An American Marriage, was an Oprah book pick breakout hit just a few years ago, winning a treasure trove of awards. Today, we're talking about her Audible Original,Half Light, a short story about adult identical twins who embark on a caper of deep personal significance, which takes a fun and interesting turn. Welcome, Tayari.
Tayari Jones: Thank you.
AW: Your fourth novel, An American Marriage is ostensibly your most well-known one. And that looked at wrongful incarceration, which plays into part of the current police reform conversation, and the vagaries of love. With Half Light, you look at both familial love, sister love specifically, and romantic love, as Camilia and Amelia set about reclaiming a prized family heirloom from Amelia's ex-husband. What drew you to telling this particular story?
TJ: Well, I was really interested in the idea of Black people owning priceless works of art. When I was researching An American Marriage, I was at Harvard University at the Radcliffe Institute, and there was a show of Romare Bearden paintings. All of the paintings in the show had not come from museums, they had come from people's homes.
TJ: I was really stunned that there were so many people with Beardens in their living rooms. Since then, I knew that I wanted one day to write about people who have priceless works of art in their houses. So that's when I had the idea of a woman who lost her mother's beloved artwork in her divorce, and what she'd be willing to do in order to get it back.
AW: I love that you made the family—they're not highfalutin, they're normal folks who just own and appreciate this amazing piece of artwork, which again, just sort of democratizes it.
TJ: Here's the thing, a lot of times people buy art early in an artist's career before you know that the person's going to be famous. You just buy it because it speaks to you. And in this case, the piece of art in question, the artist saw her mother in a cafe and asked if he could paint her. And so it has significance because it is a priceless work of art, but it's also deeply personal.
...Black people's lives, just like anyone else's lives, are interesting just because of the personalities. I mean, being divorced is interesting. You don't need to have some major wrecking ball hit your life in order to make that an interesting idea.
AW: I love everything that implies about their mama. How badass she must've been to just catch his eye, and then go sit for him in such a provocative space.
TJ: Part of becoming an adult is realizing that your mother is a person. When you're a little kid, you don't really realize that your parents are a couple exactly. You kind of think they came with the house. You don't understand that they have an independent identity. And this memento from their mother's past… this painting was painted just before the girls were born, when their mother thought, “This was the last time that I was myself before I was your mother.”
AW: I love that. They're identical twins who you make very clear their distinction, both personality-wise and visually now. What was it about writing about twins and that dichotomy? Do you have twins in your life? Where did that come from for you?
TJ: I do not have twins in my life. I was originally writing about them just as sisters, and it just didn't have enough get-up-and-go when they were only sisters. There's this thing in writing sometimes that my writing teacher, when I was in graduate school, he would say, "Bring in the walls and lower the ceiling." And by that he meant make this conflict more personal, more intense. Box them in a little more.
And so the sisters are identical twins. And now that they're in middle age, they look alike again. When they were children, one sister just did not like being considered half of something. And so she deliberately changed her appearance. She deliberately gained a lot of weight so that she wouldn't look like her sister, but still she was always the pretty one because, as the other sister says, that “Cam was the lovely round one and I was the brittle, skinny one,” or something like that. But now that they're older, one had kids, one didn't. So one got skinnier, one got chubbier, and now they're the same again.
AW: Can't outrun it. You also really beautifully pack in emotion and shared history, but no big trauma, which is something I've come to appreciate more and more. Whenever I listen to or read stories about Black people, it's just nice to have a normal flow of interesting grist and no huge emotional trauma. Did you set about that way deliberately, or did the story just unfold for you in this way?
TJ: For me, the default, when thinking about a story, is no major trauma. Because I think that Black people's lives, just like anyone else's lives, are interesting just because of the personalities. I mean, being divorced is interesting. You don't need to have some major wrecking ball hit your life in order to make that an interesting idea. Two identical twin sisters going to commit a breaking and entering to recover their mother's heirloom. I think that's enough.
AW: Agreed. That covers it. I like the different ways you discussed people truly being seen. From the sisters themselves to... Oh, and now I'm forgetting her name. The ex-husband's new girlfriend.
TJ: That little girl.
AW: Yes. But you wrote her with compassion. Where mostly you would expect the sister to just side-eye her, there's a lot of just like, "Oh, girl. Okay, let's have a moment and let's clue you in."
TJ: Melanie is so much younger than they are, and she's a sweet young lady. When they meet her their sense of a larger sisterhood kicks in. And also, when you think about it, Leah, she has a daughter, two daughters herself. And so this becomes about the community of women more so than the ex-husband. He's just a shadowy feature. She doesn't want him back. She just wants her painting. And she also wants Melanie to be okay.
It's a lot of fun, about the twins breaking in to try to steal that painting back, but also ribbonning through it is the idea of Black people owning fine art, [which] hints at the idea that Black people have been denied access to it.
AW: Yeah, yeah.
TJ: I feel like the sisters are… they're very generous. They bicker, they have their conflict, but at heart, they're generous.
AW: That definitely comes through. We talked a little earlier offline about the difficulties of writing in this COVID age. But also you had to write something in the COVID age, and write for audio, which is an interesting space to be. What has that been like for you, writing for audio specifically?
TJ: Well, part of my process is, once I write the draft, I read the whole thing aloud to myself. I feel that if I write a sentence that I cannot read easily aloud, it's a garbled sentence, because storytelling is initially an oral art. So I didn't have to make a big change in my process to make a story that's suited to being read aloud.
However, writing in the age of COVID, this story is kind of fun. It's a caper. I loved when you called it a caper. And right now, when we are dealing with—talk about trauma—we're dealing with a national and international trauma. It was a pleasure for me to lose myself in the world of Cam and Leah and this heirloom, and those pound cakes and all of that.
Sometimes the world would pull me out of what I was writing, and I would feel like, “Oh, I'm back in the world again. And how does what I'm experiencing in the world now affect this fictional world I am creating?” And it was very difficult sometimes. I almost wanted to make my characters suffer more because everyone around us now is suffering more, but I stayed true to the story. I began this story in December, so I began the story before COVID, before the civil unrest. So that's not the world my characters live in. And I think, as a reader, as a listener, we all would appreciate just a moment to exit what we're dealing with right now.
AW: To have a true escape, right?
AW: Do you think that moving forward, you're going to feel like you need to include this real world history in some context into future writing at all times, or just as the story fits?
TJ: No, I think we'll see. For me, I feel insecure in writing about a moment I don't entirely understand. So I know what I'm feeling right now in this age of this pandemic with all the social unrest. But every day brings something new. I'm sure we have all had the experience where you feel like you wake up to a different world than you went to bed in. If I was to have it in a fictional world, I wouldn't feel that I have the grip on the situation enough to write the story yet. There are some writers who are very good at writing hot takes right in the moment, but that isn't me.
AW: And it doesn't always serve a narrative necessarily, right?
TJ: I think narratives people are going to be writing in 10 years will talk about this moment, and it will serve that narrative. But I do think that some of the other issues… okay, the pandemic came out of nowhere so it doesn't show up in my work. But the civil unrest and the struggle for racial justice: that's not new. I do feel that that kind of ribbons through the story, even in small ways, in Half Light. It's a lot of fun, about the twins breaking in to try to steal that painting back, but also ribbonning through it is the idea of Black people owning fine art, [which] hints at the idea that Black people have been denied access to it. Or the idea that their mother posed as Ophelia.Even though that is just a detail of the painting, it's also an ordinary family pushing back against Shakespeare, pushing back against the canon. So these things kind of naturally… they fold themselves into the story, even though the spotlight isn't necessarily shining on it.
AW: Absolutely. Now, I don't know if you've had a chance to hear your narrator, Bahni Turpin, doing this book, but she's amazing. She's also—
TJ: She is the best. The best.
TJ: I was so delighted that it was assigned to her. Delighted.
AW: Are you an audiobook listener? Do you listen—?
TJ: Are you kidding me? I'm all about the audiobooks.
AW: Any specific genres, or favorite escape routes?
TJ: My favorite genre in audio… I really like audiobooks that have a lot of plot. I like thrillers. And I'm an Audible subscriber. I've been a subscriber for years. My dad re-ups my subscription for my birthday every year.
AW: That's lovely.
TJ: But I end up getting more than just the one, what is it, my one credit? I always ended up getting more. Did you hear Attica Locke's Bluebird, Bluebirdon audio?
AW: Yes. Yes.
TJ: Delish. Whoever does her audiobooks, just fantastic.
AW: There's so much that rests on the right narrator for a title. And Bahni again, amazing across the board on almost every realm, but what she does so well here is give the nuance of the two sisters and their banter, which I love the writing—their banter back and forth with each other because it's very sibling—and the heart and the love and the feeling that went behind it, and the ability to see and hear each other. And the things that weren't said. I think Bahni hits those notes in just the right way, which I can imagine is what you were hoping for.
TJ: I've been delighted with all my audiobooks. I love the audiobook also for An American Marriage, and the audiobook for Silver Sparrow. There's so much amazing voice talent out there. And the thing about voice talent is you could have a favorite narrator and not even know that's your favorite narrator because you're not looking at them. But sometimes when you go look at the books you've enjoyed, you'll be like, “Oh my God, it's the same narrator.”
AW: Yeah. The great ones, you get lost in the story so much, you're not realizing that it's the same person doing all these different voices. You're just like, “Oh, these are all different characters and I'm just sucked in.”
TJ: Yes. I am so happy that more and more people are listening to audiobooks. My nana, who is 94, is in an audio book club. And it is the pleasure. They listened to my book An American Marriage, and I got all dressed up to go visit the book club. I wanted to look nice because you know how nanas are. So I was all dressed up, everything: shoes, hair, bag, everything together. And Nana saw me and she said, "You're dressed up." And I thought, maybe she didn't like my clothes because sometimes she does not. And I said, "Oh, you don't like my hair?" She says, "No, honey. This is a book club for the visually impaired." And I said, "Huh?" She said, "Nobody can see you, baby."And I said, "Well, you can see me, Nana. And that's important."
AW: I love that.
TJ: They listen to an audiobook every month.
AW: That's great. And then have a big conversation. Since you are a fan, and I know you're working on another Audible Original, can you share anything about that one as you're coming along?
TJ: I will say this. It is a story about a woman who works as a mover. She packs for a moving company. She's kind of down on her luck. She went to a for-profit university because she thought she could become a nurse. And then she found out that she didn't really have a nursing license. So she works with this packing company, and she goes on a gig. It's a short gig. She didn't want to go. Her son is home from college, because she managed to send her son to college, she's really proud of that. And he's home for a long weekend.
Anyway, she goes to pack up this house, and she thinks she's going to pack up rich people's houses because that's what she does usually. But she finds out that she's packing up an eviction. It's a story about her, who's packing up someone else's belongings to throw them out, and the person whose house it is. They have a moment. So it's really about, again, a story about women and different positions in the world, and what they do to try to save this woman's stuff.
AW: Wow, okay. I'm in. And I want it immediately. Put it in my ear.
TJ: I like all the people. I'm taken with the characters. And I was really moved because I actually, in real life—we'll probably talk about this more when it comes out—but I witnessed an eviction, and I ended up helping the person.
AW: Oh wow.
TJ: I was just minding my business, walking, and I saw a young woman, all her stuff on the lawn. I said, "What happened?" and she just started crying. I had a flight the next morning at 8am, and it was 9pm when this happened. I looked at her stuff, and I looked at her. I called Delta, because I knew I wasn't going to be on nobody's flight. And we stayed. I called people. And we found safe harbor for all her things.
TJ: I've been thinking about her ever since, and that's how I came to write this other story.
AW: Okay. That is brilliant. And that is what great storytellers do. They take those moments of actual human connection and see the potential. I cannot wait to hear this. So thank you for that. Get back to writing now. Tayari, thank you so much for talking to us today about Half Light, which is your new Audible Original, available on Audible now.