CAREER: Writer, memoirist, and educator. New School University, New York, NY, educator.
AWARDS, HONORS: Harry Guggenheim Foundation grant.
Born Fi' Dead: A Journey through the Jamaican Posse Underworld, Holt (New York, NY), 1995.
Off-White: A Memoir, Soho Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Nation and Spin. Contributor to books, including The Stories That Shape Us: Twenty Women Write about the West, edited by Teresa Jordan and James R. Hepworth, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
SIDELIGHTS: Author and memoirist Laurie Gunst, the daughter of a wealthy southern Jewish family, grew up in Virginia during the racially tense days of Jim Crow and segregation. She was raised, in all practical terms, by Rhoda Lloyd, a black woman who had been her grandmother's maid. Gunst relates her childhood experiences and intensely close relationship with Lloyd, and the evolution of her own attitudes toward race, in Off-White: A Memoir. Gunst's childhood was troubled, and she came to view Lloyd as more than a mother, finding in her the one source of unshakable stability Gunst needed during her childhood and early adulthood.
In her book Gunst relates the barely functional relationship she had with her parents while growing up. She was overweight as a child, and was treated unkindly by her mother, whose insults included discouraging Gunst from attending the college she desired by saying she wasn't "Radcliffe material." Her philandering father drank too much and dwelled on her physical imperfections. Her grandparents' and great-grandparents' lives included a variety of scandals. While studying at Harvard University, Gunst herself became a cocaine addict. Further troubling was the racial hatred in her family's past. Some of her ancestors had been involved in racially divisive acts, including helping the Klan encourage a race riot. Despite her troubles past and present, Gunst found a kinship beyond race with Lloyd. Lloyd remained her closest ally, advisor, and confidante, transcending the role of nurse and nanny to become a thoroughly loved, genuinely cherished family member. Even after Lloyd died in 1986, Gunst still felt her presence, and reported that she frequently conversed with her ghost.
In Off-White, Gunst "has a compelling story, especially for readers willing to suspend disbelief from a high, high branch," commented a Kirkus Reviews critic. Library Journal contributor Janet Ingraham remarked that "Gunst's soul-baring scrutiny of a complicated interracial relationship is compelling, and the coda, in which she searches out Rhoda's kin, is deeply satisfying." Reviewer Deborah Aubespin, writing in the Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, observed that "Like all of us, Gunst is a product of her time; however, she is able to grow and learn from her experiences." Aubespin concluded that the book is "is a triumph of the spirit."
An historian with a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University, Gunst is also an expert on Jamaican posses, or violent drug gangs. These groups have had a devastating effect on the Caribbean island since the early 1980s and are the subject of her book Born Fi' Dead: A Journey through the Jamaican Posse Underworld. Originally, the posses existed as groups of mercenary street fighters converted to serve as political enforcers and intimidators. However, in the early 1980s, many posse members came to the United States where they put their efforts into developing and expanding a crack cocaine trade between the United States and Jamaica. The posses then became emblematic of the drug-related activities that have driven cities such as Kingston, Jamaica, into poverty and violence.
Gunst's book is based on first-hand interviews with the people she met while conducting her research in Kingston, people who refer to themselves as "sufferers," victims of decades of political turmoil as well as of the violence and poverty that follow the posses and their drug trade. Gunst's tale "is a bitter one, full of blameless death, misery and wasted opportunity," remarked reviewer Chris Martin in Geographical.
Brought up on violent American Western films, kung-fu movies, and action thrillers, the posse members often derive their attitudes from unrealistic media sources. The book's title refers to the credo of the posse members, that they are "born to die," probably early in life, most likely violently, and that survival depends on following the rule of kill or be killed. A preference for state-of-the-art military weaponry have sealed the posses' pact with violence and death.
Martin called Born Fi' Dead "a chilling read; a savage incantation of a people without hope." Gunst's bleak analysis of the prevalent culture of drugs and violence in Jamaica, noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "shows just how ill-fated the island has become."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Gunst, Laurie, Off-White: A Memoir, Soho Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), August 21, 2005, Deborah Aubespin, "Very Special Kinship Explored in Off-White."
Geographical, September, 1999, Chris Martin, review of Born Fi' Dead: A Journey through the Jamaican Posse Underworld, p. 71.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2005, review of Off-White, p. 575.
Library Journal, July 1, 2005, Janet Ingraham, review of Off-White, p. 94.
Publishers Weekly, January 23, 1995, review of Born Fi' Dead, p. 53.