Jones, Gayl 1949–
Gayl Jones 1949–
The brutal and stylistically breathtaking novels of Gayl Jones have brilliantly fused two great strands in the tradition of African–American writing: they explore the psychic scars of slavery as manifested in sexual abuse and other forms of violence, and they experiment with ways to imbue the written word with the qualities of oral storytelling. A notoriously reclusive writer, Jones is known to the public partially for several sensational episodes in which her personal life became the stuff of headlines. But her novels, poems, stories, and other writings have steadily gained greater and greater attention on their own merits.
The daughter of a restaurant cook father and a storytelling mother who wrote her own tales, Gayl Jones was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 23, 1949. She attended the once all–white Henry Clay High School in Lexington’s newly desegregated school system. Although she was extremely shy, several of her teachers noticed her talent for writing fiction, and one of them encouraged her to pursue an education at a small northeastern college where her gift could be nurtured. She attended Connecticut College, graduating in 1971 with a degree in English and going on for graduate studies in creative writing at Brown University. By 1975 she had earned her doctorate, learned to speak six languages, and seen her first play, Chile Woman, produced.
Despite these dazzling accomplishments, Jones seemed to be a lonely soul. “I never actually saw Gayl with anyone,” her high school English teacher Sue Ann Allen told the Boston Globe. But Jones’s pace only quickened after she took a job teaching writing at the University of Michigan in 1975. Her first novel, Corregidora, was published that year, and it was a sensation. With a Kentucky blues singer named Ursa Corregidora as its narrator, the novel tells the story of a line of women descended from a Brazilian Portuguese slaveholder, each reliving in her own way the psychic damage inflicted by the sexual violence he practiced. Corregidora was praised by writers as diverse as James Baldwin (to whom Jones was sometimes compared) and the patrician white novelist John Updike.
With a year, Jones had published her second novel, Eva’s Man —a story focusing on a woman, imprisoned for murder, who tells the story of her own largely abusive sexual life. By the time another year had passed, Jones had published a book of short stories, White Rat The speed and sheer virtuosity of Jones’s writing, combined with the uncompromisingly dark focus on America’s violent secrets, made Jones the talk of the literary world. “Her books were quite striking, and shook people up,” novelist John Edgar Wideman told the Boston Globe. “Actually, I think she scared people.”
Indeed, Jones avoided the literary limelight and withdrew into a cocoon–like existence with her boyfriend and later husband Bob Higgins, who eventually took the name Bob Jones. Higgins, a veteran of several clashes with police, was, some claimed, a paranoid personality. In 1983 he was arrested after threatening
At a Glance…
Born November 23, 1949, in Lexington, KY; married Bob Higgins, who later took name Bob Jones (deceased). Education: Connecticut College, BA, 1971; Brown University, MA, 1973; Brown University, doctoral degree, 1975.
Career: Professor of English, University of Michigan, 1975–83; published first novel, Corregidora, 1975; published novel Eva’s Man, 1976; lived in Europe, 1983–88; returned to live and write in Lexington, 1988; novel The Healing published, 1996; novel Mosquito published, 1999.
Selected awards: fiction award, Mademoiselle magazine, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1976.
Addresses: Home—Lexington, KY; Publishers —Lotus Press, P.O. Box 21607, Detroit, MI 48221; Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
a participant in a Michigan gay rights demonstration with a shotgun, and he and Jones fled the country. Jones resigned her position at Michigan with an angry letter that charged the administration with racism and, according to the New York Times, contained the sentences “Do what you want. God is with Bob and I’m with him.”
The couple spent time in France and perhaps Sweden over the next five years, and Jones continued to write. Three books of her poetry were published by Detroit’s Lotus Press, but that arrangement came to an end after Jones’s editor there, against her wishes, revealed her location in Europe to a film–company agent. In 1988 Jones and her husband, now far from the spotlight, returned quietly to the United States and moved in with Jones’s mother back in Lexington. They rarely spoke or interacted with their neighbors.
Jones’s next book was a work of literary criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. It took up a theme that, Jones had said in an interview appearing in the book Sturdy Black Bridges, also had animated her fictional efforts: “One of things I was consciously concerned with was the technique from the oral storytelling tradition that could be used in writing.” The experimental re–creation of oral storytelling on the printed page also played a key role in Jones’s next novel, The Healing, which appeared in 1998; the central character in that book, a faith healer, recounts in reverse chronological order her experiences as a rock music star’s manager, the lover of an African–German horse breeder, the wife of a medical anthropologist, and a beautician.
At about this time, the lives of Jones and her husband reached a crisis point when Jones’s mother was stricken with cancer. The couple became convinced that the hospital was using her secretly in medical experiments and removed her from the hospital against doctors’ orders. Lucille Jones died on March 20, 1997, and Bob and Gayl harassed hospital administrators and local law enforcement officials but stayed clear of committing any actual crime. When Gayl Jones’s story surfaced in connection with the positive reviews The Healing had been receiving, however, Lexington police connected Bob Jones with an outstanding arrest warrant issued in connection with the 1983 gay–rights march incident in Michigan.
On February 13, 1998, police went to the Jones house to serve the warrant but found the door bolted and smelled gas. Gayl Jones, according to the Boston Globe, dialed 911 and screamed, “The state of Kentucky is damned. Get these cops out of here! The U.S. is damned. If you go to Iraq, I hope they destroy you. If you try to take my husband you’ll have to kill me. You killed my mother, you’ll have to kill me as well.” Officers entered the house and succeeded in restraining Gayl Jones, who was subsequently held in a Kentucky mental hospital for 17 days. Bob Jones slashed his own throat all the way through to the spinal cord and died instantly. “I’m sure you realize my brother–in–law was insane,” Gayl Jones’s brother Frank was quoted as saying in the New York Times.
Released from the hospital, Jones remained in Lexington and resumed her secluded existence. Her next novel, Mosquito, was published in 1999. That book featured as its central character an African–American truck driver from south Texas, named Sojourner Nadine Jane Nzhingha Johnson and nicknamed Mosquito, who becomes involved in a sort of modern Underground Railroad—an operation that gives sanctuary to illegal immigrants. The novel unfolds its story in the form of a series of reflections from Johnson on a great variety of topics; it was another narrative told in a highly detailed and stylized version of oral African–American storytelling. Library Journal called the book “by turns exhausting and exhilarating”—a description that might apply to most of Jones’s other writings, and, indeed, to her tumultuous life.
Chile Woman, play, 1974.
Corregidora, novel, 1975.
Eva’s Man, novel, 1976.
White Rat, short stories, 1977.
Song for Anninho, poetry, 1981.
The Hermit–Woman, poetry, 1983.
Xarque and Other Poems, poetry, 1985.
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, criticism, 1991.
The Healing, novel, 1998.
Mosquito, novel, 1999.
Bell, Roseanne P. et al, eds., Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Anchor, 1979.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James, 1999.
Boston Globe, March 22, 1998, p. Al.
The Guardian (London, England), November 16, 1998, p. 8; February 3, 1989; March 4, 2000, p. 10.
Library Journal, January 1999, p. 152.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 31, 1999, p. Cue–11.
New York Times, March 2, 1998, p. All.
The Times (London, England), April 1, 2000, Features section.
Washington Post, February 27, 1998, p. B1.
Contemporary Authors Online, 2002; reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2002 http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC.
Voices from the Gaps, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/authors/gayljones.html
—James M. Manheim
"Jones, Gayl 1949–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-gayl-1949
"Jones, Gayl 1949–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-gayl-1949
Nationality: American. Born: Lexington, Kentucky, 23 November 1949. Education: Connecticut College, New London, B.A. in English 1971; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, M.A. 1973, D.A. 1975. Career: Member of the Department of English, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1975-83. Awards: Howard Foundation award, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976. Address: c/o Lotus Press, P.O. Box 21607, Detroit, Michigan 48221, U.S.A.
Corregidora. New York, Random House, 1975; London, Camden, 1988.
Eva's Man. New York, Random House, 1976.
The Healing. Boston, Beacon Press, 1998.
Mosquito. Boston, Beacon Press, 1999.
White Rat. New York, Random House, 1977.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Almeyda," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Winter 1977.
"Ensinança," in Confirmation, edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka. New York, Morrow, 1983.
Chile Woman. New York, Shubert Foundation, 1975.
Song for Anninho. Detroit, Lotus Press, 1981.
The Hermit-Woman. Detroit, Lotus Press, 1983.
Xarque. Detroit, Lotus Press, 1985.
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1991.*
Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction by Sally Robinson, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1991; Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paula Marshall, Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones by Stelamaris Coser, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994.* * *
Gayl Jones's first novel, Corregidora, focuses on the lingering effects of slavery in black America—specifically on its sexual and psychological manifestations in the life of Ursa Corregidora, a Kentucky blues singer. The great granddaughter of a Portuguese plantation owner who fathered not only her grandmother but also her mother, and who used his progeny both in the fields and in his own whorehouse, Ursa is unable to free herself of painful and obsessive family memories. In each personal relationship she finds yet again the sickness of the master-slave dynamic. Her short-lived first marriage is convulsive with desire, possessiveness, humiliation, and violence; her second, safer, marriage fails as she cannot forget the first. In relating Ursa's story, Jones shows the difficulty of loving when abusive relationships have been naturalized by cultural continuity, when so much has been taken that one's only dignity is in withholding. Her taut and explicit idiom, sometimes plainly narrative, sometimes wildly stream-of-consciousness, captures the nuances of a tormented sexuality that is both specific to black experience and symptomatic of our troubled gender system. "I knew what I still felt. I knew that I still hated him. Not as bad as then, not with the first feeling, but an after feeling, an aftertaste, or like an odor still in a room when you come back to it, and it's your own." The book's ending, almost unbearably intense but strangely hopeful, suggests that we may begin to heal ourselves only as we confront the deep sexual hatred that pervades our lives.
Whereas Corregidora allows us to perceive the construction of personality as historical process, Eva's Man offers a very different kind of experience, one that many readers have found profoundly disturbing. Eva Canada, the main character of the novel, tells her tale from an institution for the criminally insane, where she has been imprisoned for a hideous sexual crime of murder and dental castration. Like Ursa, Eva has been damaged by abuse and by a legacy of violence; unlike the protagonist of Corregidora, she has no sense of how her past motivates her present. As she speaks her disjointed narrative, an ugly story disrupted by flashes of recalled nastiness, she remains alien to us, a personality beyond promise or repair.
I put my hand on his hand. I kissed his hand, his neck. I put my fingers in the space above his eyes, but didn't close them. They'd come and put copper coins over them. That's why they told you not to suck pennies. I put my forehead under his chin. He was warm. The glass had spilled from his hand. I put my tongue between his parted lips. I kissed his teeth.
In Eva's Man, Jones takes us into the pathological mind, and we do not find ourselves there. As the tidy reader-protagonist identification is denied us, we are left with the horror of what we can't sympathetically imagine. Jones's unflinching violation of our strongest taboos—made all the more chilling by her starkly controlled prose—raises a number of questions about the roles of writers, readers, and cultural conventions. Beyond shock value, what does a writer achieve in presenting the truly sordid? Is our understanding necessarily dependent upon the protagonist's understanding? What do disturbing books demand of us that comforting ones do not? How must we see the world in order to change it? The stories that make up White Rat suggest that Jones is intent on keeping those questions before us. The majority of these pieces ("Legend," "Asylum," "The Coke Factory," "The Return," "Version 2," "Your Poems Have Very Little Color in Them") are about madness or extreme psychic alienation. Some ("The Women," "Jevata") address the painful complications of desperate sexual arrangements. The most attractive, of course, are those few ("White Rat," "Persona," "The Roundhouse") that hint at successful human connection despite overwhelming odds. Like Eva's Man, most of the stories in White Rat challenge our notions of what fiction should do.
Jones's later novels, The Healing and Mosquito, press the limits of the novel in an entirely different direction, by evoking the sound and form of oral storytelling. The narration in both novels is idiomatic and non-linear, following the syntax and associative logic of the spoken word. And though both novels are written in the first-person, they incorporate multiple voices through free indirect discourse, and through a technique in which the narrator responds to the implied questions of her audience, creating a dialogic, multi-voiced narrative. In Mosquito, the narrator expressly comments on this form, suggesting that she's creating a jazz narrative in which the readers can join in and improvise as they will.
This new dialogic narrative form corresponds to a greater emphasis on the beneficial possibilities in human interaction. The narrator of The Healing is a faith healer who can cure afflictions of both the body and mind; the narrator of Mosquito is an African-American woman truck driver in south Texas who becomes involved in the new Underground Railroad, transporting illegal immigrants and providing sanctuary. Both of these narrators experience transformation and a change of consciousness, yet the narratives' non-linear forms suggest that these changes are neither sudden nor isolated, but instead interconnected with the narrators' histories.
Harlan Jane Eagleton, the narrator of The Healing, for instance, tells her tale backwards. She moves from her experience as a faith healer to her previous career as the manager of the rock star, Joan "the bitch" Savage, her affairs with Joan's husband and with an African-German horse breeder, her brief marriage to a medical anthropologist, and her first career, as a beautician. As a faith healer, Harlan continues to promote natural beauty products and to listen to Joan's music. The bodyguard of her horse-breeder lover is her "witness," so that all of the experiences of Harlan's life inform her contemporary identity as a healer. Harlan's ability to heal is never explained; instead, the retrospective narrative stands in for the explanation, suggesting that Harlan's increasing independence and ability to "manage herself" eventually leads to her ability to heal herself, and then to heal others.
African-American women's independence is a major theme in Mosquito as well. Mosquito herself (aka Sojourner Jane Nadine Johnson) is an independent truck driver who refuses to join the union and who eventually forms the worker-owned Mosquito Trucking Company. Her childhood friend, Monkey Bread, joins the "Daughters of Nzingha," an African-American women's group that pursues womanist philosophy and advocates economic independence for its members. This emphasis on independence complements rather than contradicts the novel's other main theme, of interdependence. It is because Mosquito remains independent from the union that she can carry immigrants in the back of her truck and thereby discharge her social obligations to the immigrants that she understands to be the contemporary versions of fugitive slaves. Thus in this novel as well, history (both personal and cultural) informs the main character's change of consciousness.
Jones's skillful control of African-American idiom, use of parody, and ability to subtly signify on everything from the CIA's illegal activities to movie stars' hair color in Mosquito has led reviewers to compare Jones's work to that of Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Ishmael Reed. In fact, Jones's more recent work draws on both the traditions of the African-American vernacular and on the forms of postmodern literature, creating novels that layer many forms and provide commentary on the state of the novel. Both Mosquito and The Healing are replete with references to, and analysis of, other novels from Invisible Man to Huckleberry Finn. Much of Jones's brilliance lies in her ability to use the colloquial voice of working-class African-American women to provide not only extensive social commentary but also intriguing metafictional discourse on the nature of narrative, or, in the words of The Healing 's narrator, "confabulatory truth."
—Janis Butler Holm,
updated by Suzanne Lane
"Jones, Gayl." Contemporary Novelists. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-gayl
"Jones, Gayl." Contemporary Novelists. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/jones-gayl