American author Tayari Jones has won this year's £30,000 Women's Prize for Fiction for her "heartbreaking" fourth novel An American Marriage (Oneworld).
2019 chair of judges, Professor Kate Williams presented the author with the £30,000 prize and the ‘Bessie’, a limited edition bronze figurine at an awards ceremony hosted by novelist and Prize founder Kate Mosse in Bedford Square Gardens, central London tonight (Wednesday 5th June).
Jones, who was the bookies' fifth favourite to win at odds of 8/1 on Monday, triumphed over frontrunner and Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns who was in the running for her third novel Milkman (Faber).
Judges praised Jones' timely commentary on modern American life. Williams called An American Marriage, which follows newlyweds Celestial and Roy as their lives are derailed when Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit, an "exquisitely intimate portrait of a marriage shattered by racial injustice".
“It is a story of love, loss and loyalty, the resilience of the human spirit painted on a big political canvas – that shines a light on today’s America. We all loved this brilliant book. It’s heartbreaking and so moving but there’s hope as well. We all loved it. It’s a really unforgettable book. We just hope that everyone reads it,” said Williams. “It’s really beautiful, it’s really luminous and the voices are very immediate. She also uses the letter form to quite dramatic effect.”
Professor Kate Williams presents Tayari Jones with the award
The novel, which has sold 14,310 copies across all editions and is the first US winner since 2013, got a sales boost when it was shortlisted but Williams said her role as chair of the judges was to make sure factors including sales and the winner’s own star endorsements did not play a part.
An American Marriage marks Oneworld's first ever Women's Prize for Fiction win. Juliet Mabey at Oneworld won the UK and Commonwealth rights (excluding Canada and Australasia) rights to An American Marriage in a five-way auction last April for a five-figure sum.
Oprah Winfrey named An American Marriage an Oprah Book Club selection last year. Barack Obama said the novel was "a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple" and selected it as one of his 2018 summer reads. Last month US actress and "Insecure creator" Issa Rae optioned the film rights to Jones' third novel Silver Sparrow. Jones said: “An American Marriage is my breakout book, Silver Sparrow is my heart.”
Mabey said: "We have a reputation for finding these voices and fighting for them. We brought her over here and arranged a full programme for her, she did Channel 4 news, Brixton Prison, Five Live, Channel 4 news podcast. We do like to try and build profiles because obviously you don't know if you're going to win. I was really pleased for her because she's managed to encapsulate the universal within the personal and that's always very effective. In the same way that Paul Beatty used satire to flag use issues of race in America, she's used a situation that could happen to anybody, in a way we could all identify with."
Speaking to The Bookseller, Jones said: "I'm very pleased as an American to be awarded a prize on the international stage. So often, American literature is critiqued for being too insular and I feel incarceration is a global issue and I'm glad it was recognised as such tonight. I think women publish the majority of books but we do not win the majority of awards."
Commenting on the representation of women's voices, Jones said that despite the Women's Prize, "we do have a way to go".
"This award is so well respected which says a lot about the changing esteem of women's writing. It's not seen as a niche award, it's seen as an international award. I think we do have a way to go. There's an idea that if women like it, it must not be rigorous and I think we fight against that, or the idea that women's lives are not the subject of significant literature unless it's a literature of suffering, but I think we are pushing back against that," said Jones. "Did you see the shortlist, did you see the diversity of ideas, styles. That shortlist, in my opinion, bodes very well for the future. I was thrilled to be on the shortlist and of course I'm delighted to win, but I was humbled to be included."
Published by indie Algonquin in the US, Jones praised indies for championing diverse literature and thanked booksellers for stocking her prize-winning book."I do think indie publishers follow their heart, they don't follow market trends, they look at a book and they think 'this is a book that should be in the world', more so than, 'this is a book we can sell a lot of copies of'. They are invested in literature as an agent of change. I'm thrilled and over the moon to be with Oneworld," said Jones. "One thing I would say to booksellers and publishers, I know we get a lot of negative news that the book is dying, they tell you the novel is dying, they tell you a kindle is going to come and drown you in the bathtub, I feel like if you're black, they're like a racist kindle is going to drown you in the bathtub. But literature endures. Booksellers and publishers are the ones who have weathered the storm and I'm so grateful to them."
Last year’s winner, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury), jumped over 201% in volume week on week after the prize announcement last June, and has gone on to sell 71,136 copies in total.
Waterstones fiction buyer Bea Carvalho said the "important" book will spark conversations for a long time to come. She said: “The strength of this year’s shortlist reflects how outstanding a year it has been for women’s writing: it can’t have been easy for the judges to pick a winner, but we are thrilled that they have chosen Tayari Jones’ astonishingly moving novel. A masterclass in characterisation – An American Marriage manages to be deeply intimate and personal, while also drawing an unflinching portrait of modern American society as a whole. This is an important book which is sure to spark conversations for a long time to come: we’re delighted that winning the 2019 Women’s Prize will help to further the conversation, and look forward to the opportunity to share this excellent book with many more of our customers.”
Journalist and critics Arifa Akbar, author and columnist Dolly Alderton, campaigner and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein and digital entrepreneur Sarah Wood joined author and historian Williams on the judging panel. Williams said the “passionate” judging lasted well over four hours, and the panel did not hold back in sharing their opinions. “They’re all winners and there was a lot of passion for all of them,” she said. All the books on shortlist were very different but Williams said the judges found a common thread in asking what it means to be free and to engage in a shared history.
Jones, who serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers and holds degrees Spelman College, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa, becomes the fifth woman of colour to win the prize, after Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury) in 2018, and Andrea Levy’s Small Island (Headline), Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (Penguin) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun (HarperCollins) winning between 2004 and 2007.
Burns' Milkman (Faber) missed out on the award alongside shortlisted Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton), debut author Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (Atlantic), Ordinary People by Diana Evans (Chatto & Windus) and previous winner Madeline Miller with Circe (Bloomsbury).
In addition to the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner announcement, aspiring novelist Helen Rogers was named as the winner of the Women’s Prize/Grazia First Chapter Competition for unpublished writers.
The prize was supported by three sponsors - Baileys, Fremantle and NatWest - after adopting a new sponsorship model, opting for a family of sponsors from different sectors rather than a partnership with a single company.