Naylor, Gloria 1950-
NAYLOR, Gloria 1950-
PERSONAL: Born January 25, 1950, in New York, NY; daughter of Roosevelt (a transit worker) and Alberta (a telephone operator; maiden name, McAlpin) Naylor; divorced. Education: Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, B.A., 1981; Yale University, M.A., 1983.
ADDRESSES: Office—One Way Productions, 638 Second St., Brooklyn, NY 11215. Agent—Sterling Lord Literistic, 65 Bleecker St., New York, NY 10012-2420.
CAREER: Missionary for Jehovah's Witnesses in New York, North Carolina, and Florida, 1968-75; worked for various hotels in New York, NY, including Sheraton City Squire, as telephone operator, 1975-81; writer, 1981—; One Way Productions, New York, NY, president, 1990—. Writer in residence, Cummington Community of the Arts, 1983; visiting lecturer, George Washington University, 1983-84, and Princeton University, 1986-87; cultural exchange lecturer, United States Information Agency, India, 1985; scholar in residence, University of Pennsylvania, 1986; visiting professor, New York University, 1986, and Boston University, 1987; Fannie Hurst Visiting Professor, Brandeis University, 1988. Senior fellow, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, 1988; executive board, Book of the Month Club, 1989-94; producer, One Ways Productions, 1990; visiting scholar, University of Kent, 1992; playwright, Hartford Stage Company, 1994.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, National Writers Union, Book of the Month Club (executive board member, 1989-94).
AWARDS, HONORS: American Book Award for best first novel, 1983, for The Women of Brewster Place; Distinguished Writer Award, Mid-Atlantic Writers Association, 1983; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1985; Candace Award, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, 1986; Guggenheim fellowship, 1988; Lillian Smith Book Award, Southern Regional Council, 1989, for Mama Day; New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, 1991; Brooklyn College President's Medal, 1993; D.H.L., Sacred Heart University, 1994; American Book Award, New Columbus Foundation, 1998, for The Men of Brewster Place.
The Women of Brewster Place (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1982.
Linden Hills (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1985.
Mama Day (novel), Ticknor & Fields (New York, NY), 1988.
Bailey's Cafe (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1992.
(Editor) Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1995.
The Men of Brewster Place (novel), Hyperion (New York, NY), 1998.
Maxine Montgomery, editor, Conversations with Gloria Naylor, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 2004.
Also author of stage adaptation of Bailey's Cafe, produced in Hartford, CT, 1994, and of a children's play, Candy. Author of unproduced screenplay adaptation of The Women of Brewster Place, for American Playhouse, 1984, and of an unproduced original screenplay for Public Broadcasting System's "In Our Own Words," 1985.
Contributor of essays and articles to periodicals, including Southern Review, Essence, Ms., Life, Ontario Review, and People. Contributing editor, Callaloo, 1984—. "Hers" columnist for New York Times, 1986.
ADAPTATIONS: The Women of Brewster Place was adapted as a miniseries, produced by Oprah Winfrey and Carole Isenberg, and broadcast by American Broadcasting Co. (ABC-TV) in 1989; it became a weekly ABC series in 1990, produced by Oprah Winfrey, Earl Hamner, and Donald Sipes.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A sequel to Mama Day, about Cocoa and Saphira Wade.
SIDELIGHTS: Gloria Naylor won critical and popular acclaim for her first published novel, The Women of Brewster Place. In that book, as in her successive novels, including Linden Hills, Mama Day, and The Men of Brewster Place, Naylor gave an intense and vivid depiction of many social issues, including poverty, racism, homophobia, discrimination against women, and the social stratification of African Americans. Vashti Crutcher Lewis, a contributor to the Dictionary of Literary Biography, commented on the "brilliance" of Naylor's first novel, derived from "her rich prose, her lyrical portrayals of African Americans, and her illumination of the meaning of being a black woman in America." In The Women of Brewster Place and her other novels, Naylor focuses on "themes of deferred dreams of love (familial and sexual), marriage, respectability, and economic stability, while observing the recurring messages that poverty breeds violence, that true friendship and affection are not dependent on gender, and that women in the black ghettos of America bear their burdens with grace and courage," stated Lewis.
Naylor's parents left Mississippi, where they worked as sharecroppers, to seek new opportunities in New York City. Gloria was born there in 1950. A quiet, precocious child who loved to read, she began writing prodigiously even before her teen years, filling many notebooks with observations, poems, and short stories. After graduating from high school, she worked as a missionary for the Jehovah's Witnesses in the city and in the South. In 1981, she entered Brooklyn College, majoring in English. It was at that time that she read Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye, which was a pivotal experience for her. She began to avidly read the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, and other black women novelists, none of which she had been exposed to previously. She went on to earn an M.A. in African-American studies at Yale University; her thesis eventually became her second published novel, Linden Hills.
Publication of some short fiction in Essence magazine led to her first book contract. The Women of Brewster Place is made up of seven interconnected stories, involving seven black women who live in a dreary apartment complex that is isolated from the rest of the city. Though they are from widely varying age groups and social backgrounds, and have very different outlooks and approaches to life, the women become a strong support group for each other as they struggle with the pain and frustration of finding their dreams constantly thwarted by the forces of racism and sexism. Naylor's work won the prestigious American Book Award for the best first novel in 1983.
Reviewing The Women of Brewster Place in the Washington Post, Deirdre Donahue wrote: "Naylor is not afraid to grapple with life's big subjects: sex, birth, love, death, grief. Her women feel deeply, and she unflinchingly transcribes their emotions…. Naylor's potency wells up from her language. With prose as rich as poetry, a passage will suddenly take off and sing like a spiritual….Vibrating with undisguised emotion, The Women of Brewster Place springs from the same roots that produced the blues. Like them, her book sings of sorrows proudly borne by black women in America." Lewis described The Women of Brewster Place as "a tightly focused novel peopled with well-delineated, realistically portrayed African-American women. Naylor's use of authentic African-American vernacular and precise metaphors are hallmarks."
One of the characters in Brewster Place is a refugee from Linden Hills, an exclusive black suburb. Naylor's second novel spotlights that affluent community, revealing the material corruption and moral decay that would prompt an idealistic young woman to abandon her home for a derelict urban neighborhood. Though Linden Hills, as the book is called, approaches the Afro-American experience from the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum, it is also a black microcosm. This book "forms the second panel of that picture of contemporary urban black life which Naylor started with in Women of Brewster Place," wrote Times Literary Supplement contributor Roz Kaveney. "Where that book described the faults, passions, and culture of the good poor, this shows the nullity of black lives that are led in imitation of suburban whites."
Naylor was more ambitious in structuring her second novel. Linden Hills has been described as a contemporary allegory with gothic overtones, structurally modeled after Dante's Inferno. Among its many accomplishments, Dante's Italian masterpiece describes the nine circles of hell, Satan's imprisonment in their depths, and the lost souls condemned to suffer with him. In Naylor's modern version, "souls are damned not because they have offended God or have violated a religious system but because they have offended themselves. In their single-minded pursuit of upward mobility, the inhabitants of Linden Hill, a black, middle-class suburb, have turned away from their past and from their deepest sense of who they are," wrote Catherine C. Ward in Contemporary Literature. To correspond to Dante's circles, Naylor uses a series of crescent-shaped drives that ring the suburban development. Her heroes are two young street poets—outsiders from a neighboring community who hire themselves out to do odd jobs so they can earn Christmas money. "As they move down the hill, what they encounter are people who have 'moved up' in American society … until eventually they will hit the center of their community and the home of my equivalent of Satan," Naylor told Publishers Weekly interviewer William Goldstein. Naylor's Satan is one Luther Nedeed, a combination mortician and real estate tycoon, who preys on the residents' baser ambitions to keep them in his sway.
Naylor's third novel, Mama Day, is named for its main character—a wise old woman with magical powers whose name is Miranda Day, but whom everyone refers to as Mama Day. This ninety-year-old conjurer made a walk-on appearance in Linden Hills as the illiterate, toothless aunt who hauls about cheap cardboard suitcases and leaky jars of preserves. But it is in Mama Day that this "caster of hoodoo spells … comes into her own," according to New York Times Book Review contributor Bharati Mukherjee. "The portrait of Mama Day is magnificent," Mukherjee wrote. Mama Day lives on Willow Springs, a wondrous island off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina that has been owned by her family since before the Civil War. The fact that slaves are portrayed as property owners demonstrates one of the ways that Naylor turns the world upside down, according to Rita Mae Brown. Another, Brown stated in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is "that the women possess the real power, and are acknowledged as having it." When Mama Day's grandniece Cocoa brings George, her citified new husband, to Willow Springs, he learns the importance of accepting mystery. "George is the linchpin of Mama Day," Brown said. "His rational mind allows the reader to experience the island as George experiences it. Mama Day and Cocoa are of the island and therefore less immediately accessible to the reader." The critical point in the story is the moment when George is asked not only to believe in Mama Day's power, but to act on it. A hurricane has made it impossible to summon a doctor from the mainland, but Cocoa is critically ill. Mama Day gives George a task to do in order to help save Cocoa's life, but he fails to do it because he only uses his rational thinking. George does ultimately save Cocoa, but doing so demands a great personal sacrifice.
The plot twists and thematic concerns of Mama Day have led several reviewers to compare the work to that of Shakespeare. "Whereas Linden Hills was Dantesque, Mama Day is Shakespearean, with allusions, however oblique and tangential, to Hamlet, King Lear, and, especially, The Tempest," wrote Chicago's Tribune Books critic John Blades. "Like Shakespeare's fantasy, Naylor's book takes place on an enchanted island…. Naylor reinforces her Shakespearean connection by naming her heroine Miranda." Mukherjee also believed that Mama Day "has its roots in The Tempest. The theme is reconciliation, the title character is Miranda (also the name of Prospero's daughter), and Willow Springs is an isolated island where, as on Prospero's isle, magical and mysterious events come to pass."
Naylor's ambitious attempt to elevate a modern love story to Shakespearean heights "is more bewildering than bewitching," according to Blades. "Naylor has populated her magic kingdom with some appealingly offbeat characters, Mama Day foremost among them. But she's failed to give them anything very original or interesting to do." Mukherjee also acknowledged the shortcomings of Naylor's mythical love story, but added, "I'd rather dwell on Mama Day's strengths. Gloria Naylor has written a big, strong, dense, admirable novel; spacious, sometimes a little drafty like all public monuments, designed to last and intended for many levels of use."
Naylor's fourth novel, Bailey's Cafe, also had its inspiration in a literature classic, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. Like Wharton's novel, Bailey's Cafe focuses on women's sexuality and the ways women are defined by society's perceptions of them. With this book, Naylor hoped to deconstruct the Judeo-Christian thinking about women. To achieve this, she took women characters from the Bible and placed them in the twentieth century to relate their stories. Eve runs a boardinghouse and has a reputation for healing troubled women. Eve was banished naked from her father's house, and her place now is suspected by many of being a bordello. Eve's boarders include Sadie, Sweet Esther, Mary, and Jesse Bell, modern women whose stories parallel those in the Bible. "The novel sings the blues of the socially rejected," stated Lewis, "who arrive at Bailey's struggling to find some measure of solace from a brutal American environment filled with racial and sexual stereotypes." The book was a critical success, and was adapted by Naylor as a stage play.
Naylor revisited her first success in 2000 with The Men of Brewster Place. Male characters were very marginal in her first novel, functioning mainly as people who wreaked havoc upon the lives of the women of Brewster Place. In The Men of Brewster Place, the author fills in the background of those characters, giving insight into their actions. The ten chapters in the book discuss seven individuals known as the sons of Brewster Place: Basil, Eugene, Maxine Lavon Montgomery, Ben, Brother Jerome, Moreland T. Woods, C. C. Baker, and Abshu. Ben, a character who died in the earlier book, is brought back in creative and magical ways. He functions as a sort of Greek chorus, overseeing the events and giving otherworldly perspective.
African American Review writer Maxine Lavon Montgomery called Naylor "a skillful writer adept at creating a range of uniquely individual characters." The author's look at the plight of the black man is rendered "in such a way as to render a compelling fictional expose of his dilemma." Black Issues in Higher Education reviewer Jackie Thomas praised The Men of Brewster Place as "a profound work that explores the other side of the gender issue." He approved of Naylor's depiction of them as rational beings who "are able to think for themselves and who realize that they have problems they must solve" and concluded: "It is refreshing to see someone address the Black male character and explore him realistically. Certainly, this work should be an inspiration to all who read it, and it should also encourage other writers to explore Black male characters from similar vantage points." But Booklist contributor Donna Seaman felt "these characters remain flat, and their stories are cautionary tales, intriguing in terms of the issues they raise yet a touch too facile and melodramatic." Yet, Seaman added, "there are flashes of genuine insight, tragedy, and great warmth." A Publishers Weekly writer allowed that the stories "feature the familiar ills of the inner city," but added that "Naylor lends these archetypal situations complexity and depth."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
African-American Writers, Scribner (New York, NY), 1991.
Black Literature Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 28, 1984, Volume 52, 1989.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 173: American Novelists since World War II, Fifth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd edition, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Feminist Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Fowler, Virginia C., Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary, Prentice-Hall, 1996.
Hall, Chekita T., Gloria Naylor's Feminist Blues Aesthetic, Garland, 1998.
Advocate, April 14, 1998, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 73.
African American Review, summer, 1994, p. 173; spring, 1995, pp. 27, 35; spring, 2000, Maxine Lavon Montgomery, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 176; spring, 2001, Christopher N. Okonkwo, "Suicide or Messianic Self-Sacrifice?: Exhuming Willa's Body in Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills," p. 117.
American Visions, April, 1996, Dale Edwyna Smith, review of Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present, p. 26.
Antioch Review, summer, 1996, Ed Peaco, review of Children of the Night, p. 365.
Black Issues in Higher Education, December 10, 1998, Jackie Thomas, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 31.
Booklist, December 1, 1995; January 1, 1996; March 1, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 1045; January 1, 1999, Barbara Baskin, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 900; November 1, 2001, Nancy Spillman, review of The Men of Brewster Place (audio version), p. 494.
Boston Herald, April 19, 1998, Judith Wynn, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 71.
Chicago Tribune Book World, February 23, 1983.
Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 1985.
Commonweal, May 3, 1985.
Contemporary Literature, Volume 28, number 1, 1987.
Detroit News, March 3, 1985; February 21, 1988.
Ebony, May, 1998, p. 14.
Emerge, May, 1998, Valerie Boyd, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 76.
English Journal, January, 1994, p. 81; March, 1994, p. 95.
Essence, June, 1998, p. 70; August, 2001, review of Mama Day, p. 62.
Houston Chronicle, June 9, 1998, Carol Rust, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 1.
Library Journal, June 1, 1998, p. 187.
London Review of Books, August 1, 1985.
Los Angeles Times, December 2, 1982.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 24, 1985; March 6, 1988.
Ms., June, 1985.
New Republic, September 6, 1982.
New York Times, February 9, 1985; May 1, 1990.
New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1982; March 3, 1985; February 21, 1988; April 19, 1998, Roy Hoffman, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 19.
People, June 22, 1998, p. 39.
Publishers Weekly, September 9, 1983; December 11, 1995, review of Children of the Night, p. 56; February 23, 1998, p. 49.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 3, 1998, Andrea M. Wren, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. E7.
San Francisco Review of Books, May, 1985.
Seattle Times, June 2, 1998, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. E1.
Tampa Tribune, May 31, 1998, review of The Men of Brewster Place, p. 4.
Times (London, England), April 21, 1983.
Times Literary Supplement, May 24, 1985.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), January 31, 1988.
Twentieth Century Literature, fall, 2002, Robin Blyn, "The Ethnographer's Story: Mama Day and the Specter of Relativism," p. 239.
Washington Post, October 21, 1983; May 1, 1990.
Washington Post Book World, March 24, 1985; February 28, 1988.
Women's Review of Books, August, 1985.
Writer, December, 1994, p. 21.
Unofficial Gloria Naylor Web site,www.lythastudios.com/gnaylor/ (January 21, 2004).*