Verdelle, A. J. 1960–
A. J. Verdelle 1960–
A. J. Verdelle burst upon the literary scene in 1995 with The Good Negress, a coming-of-age story that became one of the most acclaimed novels of the 1990s. Until then, Verdelle had pursued a career as a statistics consultant that seemingly gave few hints of what was to come. In fact, Verdelle drew heavily upon her own life experiences in the book. Written mostly in southern African American dialect, The Good Negress brought to life the linguistic divide in the African American community between speakers of different forms of the English language, and contained powerful reflections on the conflicts that education might set in motion in the life of a brilliant, but uneducated young African American woman.
Verdelle was born in Washington, D.C., in 1960 to A. Y. Jones and Patricia Howell Jones. Verdelle was the middle name of her maternal grandmother. Her family had lived in Washington, D.C. for three generations, but as a child Verdelle often visited relatives in Detroit, the setting for The Good Negress. When a male cousin in Detroit was jailed, Verdelle told a Chicago Tribune interviewer, she “nearly had a nervous breakdown.” When she asked her mother what they could do, her mother replied that “[t]his ’do anything,’ that’s for white people who have money. I’m paying for your school and I need you to calm down and study.” Verdelle personally experienced racism early on in grade school. When her white schoolmates were assigned to wash blackboards, she was sent to clean toilets—an episode that found its way in revised form into The Good Negress.
Verdelle attended a private Catholic girls’ high school in Washington, D.C, and her parents instilled in her a sense of the value of education and a belief in her own capabilities. “I was raised to be a superwoman,” she told the Tribune. “My mother raised me to believe I could do everything.” However, it was an education of a practical kind that her parents sought. As Verdelle told the Tribune interviewer, “I felt shut up. I felt shut up a lot. When I was nine I said I wanted to be a writer. My mother told me I had to grow up and figure out how to put food on the table. I did exactly what my mother said.”
After finishing high school, Verdelle enrolled at the University of Chicago, perhaps the most purely bookish and intellectual of the nation’s elite colleges and universities. Though she had been labeled rambunctious by her high school administration and had never really fit in—“That school was not ready for a smart African-American girl, especially not such a dark one,” she told the Tribune —Verdelle had come to a sense of her own intellectual abilities. At the University of Chicago, however, she found herself struggling academically. Disoriented and lost, she refused to quit, although it took her until her senior year to earn her first A grade.
Verdelle graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1982 and went on for an master’s degree at the University of Chicago. After earning her master’s degree in 1986, she took her mother’s practical admonitions to heart and embarked upon a career quite distant from her own creative aspirations. Verdelle had studied statistics
Born 1960 in Washington, DC; daughter of A. Y. and Patricia (Howell) Jones; took middle name of maternal grandmother for last name. Education: University of Chicago, B.A., 1982; University of Chicago, M.A., 1986; Bard College, M.F.A., 1993.
Career: Novelist and essayist. Statistics consultant specializing in minority concerns, Brooklyn, NY, 1988-95; freelance writer, 1995-; novel The Good Negress published by Algonquin Books, 1995; Bunting fellow in creative writing, Radcliffe College, 1996; lecturer in-creative writing, Princeton University, late 1990s.
Awards: Finalist in first fiction category, Los Angeles Times book prizes, PEN/Faulkner finalist, cited among Books of the Year, New York Public Library, VursellA-ward, American Academy of Arts and Letters, all for The Good Negress, 1995; WhitingWriters Award, 1996.
and, after a move to Brooklyn, New York, founded her own statistics consulting firm in 1988. She also joined the American Statistical Association and the American Women’s Economic Development Corporation, and devoted herself to the task of making a living. The firm is devoted to research that explores the situations faced by women and minority groups.
It didn’t take long for Verdelle to get back to writing, however. She enrolled in a graduate writing program at Bard College, where she would eventually earn a masters in fine arts degree in 1993. Verdelle set to work on what would become The Good Negress, rising early in the morning every day for 14 months to work on the book. The novel went down several blind alleys. At one point she tossed a two-thirds-completed draft into the trash, dissolved into tears, and began again. The Good Negress eventually went through six complete drafts, with Verdelle crediting her training as a statistician for the discipline needed to complete it. “Life is hard work,” she observed in an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican. Verdelle may have been her own severest critic, but there were hurdles to overcome before the novel could be published. A key feature of the book is its use of contrasts between different linguistic levels, and Verdelle found that publishers were put off by the book’s use of dialect. One editor told her to rewrite the main character’s stream of consciousness into standard English. Verdelle did so, but couldn’t live with the results—they went counter to the book’s core. “I was trying to write about how smart you could be in a language that is not considered standard English,” she told the Chicago Tribune.
Verdelle succeeded brilliantly at conveying the intelligence of her novel’s central character, Denise Palms. Palms, who is 12-years-old in 1963, is raised in the country in Virginia by her grandmother, but comes to live with her pregnant mother and her two older brothers in Detroit. Against the backdrop of her brothers’ struggles against the circumscribed identities available to African American men in the 1960s, Palms comes into contact with a Detroit teacher, Gloria Pearson. Pearson recognizes her intelligence, tries to divert her away from manual work, and endeavors to teach her standard English. Verdelle used a complex narrative structure in the novel, jumping backward and forward in time and employing transitions between levels of language in order to show the development of Denise’s unique identity.
The Good Negress was a technical tour de force, and won wide acclaim for its author. Most encouraging of all were the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who called the book “truly extraordinary”. Morrison’s comment, emblazoned on the cover of the book’s paperback edition, attracted many readers to the book. Verdelle joined Morrison as a faculty member at Princeton University’s prestigious writing department, and the novel won several awards, including the Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and the Whiting Writers Award, a $30,000 grant given to developing writers of exceptional talent, the following year. The Good Negress was also a finalist for a PEN/Faulkner award.
Verdelle and her companion, the concert producer Alexa Birdsong, divide their time between New Orleans and New York City. In both cities, Verdelle immersed herself in libraries and historical archives, compiling material for a new novel. The new novel is a sprawling historical work about African American cowboys who made their way to the American West in the years before the Civil War. Provisionally titled Meanwhile Back at the Ranch, the novel is slated for publication in 2000 or 2001. “I was interested in understanding the propertied perspective of both the African-American and the horse, the breadth and expanse of the nation, and the march toward the end of the century,” Verdelle told In Review, a website devoted to the current activities of Princeton faculty. “And the notion of African-American psychology underpins it all.”
The Good Negress, Algonquin, 1995.
Contemporary Authors, volume 152, Gale, 1997.
Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1995, p. Tempo-1.
Detroit Free Press, April 12, 1995, p. E3.
The Nation, January 27, 1997, p. 5.
Publishers Weekly, November 4, 1996, p. 10.
Santa Fe New Mexican, November 27, 1998.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.princeton.edu/~paw (current activities of Princeton faculty)
—James M. Manheim
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