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–
Jones, Gayl 1949–
PERSONAL: Born November 23, 1949, in Lexington, KY; daughter of Franklin (a cook) and Lucille (Wilson) Jones; married Bob Higgins (later took the name Bob Jones; deceased). Education: Connecticut College, B.A., 1971; Brown University, M.A., 1973, D.A., 1975.
ADDRESSES: Home—Lexington, KY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award for best original production in the New England region, American College Theatre Festival, 1973, for Chile Woman; grants from Shubert Foundation, 1973–74, Southern Fellowship Foundation, 1973–75, and Rhode Island Council on the Arts, 1974–75; fellowships from Yaddo, 1974, National Endowment of the Arts, 1976, and Michigan Society of Fellows, 1977–79; Howard Foundation award, 1975; Fiction Award from Mademoiselle, 1975; Henry Russell Award, University of Michigan, 1981; National Book Award nomination, 1998, for The Healing.
Chile Woman (play), Shubert Foundation (New York, NY), 1974.
Corregidora (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Eva's Man (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1976.
White Rat (short stories), Random House (New York, NY), 1977.
Song for Anninho (poetry), Lotus Press (Detroit, MI), 1981, reprinted, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1999.
The Hermit-Woman (poetry), Lotus Press (Detroit, MI), 1983.
Xarque and Other Poems, Lotus Press (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (criticism), Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
The Healing (novel), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
Mosquito (novel), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1999.
Contributor to anthologies, including Confirmation, 1983, Chants of Saints, Keeping the Faith, Midnight Birds, and Soulscript. Contributor to periodicals, including Massachusetts Review.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Research on sixteenth-and seventeenth-century Brazil and on settlements of escaped slaves, such as Palmares.
SIDELIGHTS: Gayl Jones's novels Corregidora and Eva's Man, in addition to many of the stories in her collection White Rat, offer stark, often brutal accounts of black women whose psyches reflect the ravages of accumulated sexual and racial exploitation. In Corregidora Jones reveals the tormented life of a woman whose female forebears—at the hands of one man—endured a cycle of slavery, prostitution, and incest over three generations. Eva's Man explores the deranged mind of a woman institutionalized for poisoning and sexually mutilating a male acquaintance. And in "Asylum," a story from White Rat, a young woman is confined to a mental hospital for a series of bizarre actions that, in her mind, protests a society she sees as bent on her personal violation. "The abuse of women and its psychological results fascinate Gayl Jones, who uses these recurring themes to magnify the absurdity and the obscenity of racism and sexism in everyday life," commented Jerry W. Ward, Jr., in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. "Her novels and short fictions invite readers to explore the interior of caged personalities, men and women driven to extremes." Keith Byerman elaborated in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.: "Jones creates worlds radically different from those of 'normal' experience and of storytelling convention. Her tales are gothic in the sense of dealing with madness, sexuality, and violence, but they do not follow in the Edgar Allan Poe tradition of focusing on private obsession and irrationality. Though her narrators are close to if not over the boundaries of sanity, the experiences they record reveal clearly that society acts out its own obsessions often violently."
Corregidora, Jones's first novel, explores the psychological effects of slavery and sexual abuse on a modern black woman. Ursa Corregidora, a blues singer from Kentucky, descends from a line of women who are the progeny, by incest, of a Portuguese slaveholder named Corregidora—the father of both Ursa's mother and grandmother. "All of the women, including the great-granddaughter Ursa, keep the name Corregidora as a reminder of the depredations of the slave system and of the rapacious natures of men," Byerman explained in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "The story is passed from generation to generation of women, along with the admonition to 'produce generations' to keep alive the tale of evil." Partly as a result of this history, Ursa becomes involved in abusive relationships with men. The novel itself springs from an incident of violence. After being thrown down a flight of stairs by her first husband and physically injured so that she cannot bear children, Ursa "discharges her obligation to the memory of Corregidora by speaking [the] book," noted John Updike in the New Yorker. The novel emerges as Ursa's struggle to reconcile her heritage with her present life. Corregidora "persuasively fuses black history, or the mythic consciousness that must do for black history, with the emotional nuances of contemporary black life," Updike continued. "The book's innermost action … is Ursa's attempt to transcend a nightmare black consciousness and waken to her own female, maimed humanity."
Corregidora was described as a novel of unusual power and impact. "No black American novel since Richard Wright's Native Son in 1940," wrote Ivan Webster in Time, "has so skillfully traced psychic wounds to a sexual source." Darryl Pinckney in New Republic called Corregidora "a small, fiercely concentrated story, harsh and perfectly told…. Original, superbly imagined, nothing about the book was simple or easily digested. Out of the worn themes of miscegenation and diminish-ment, Gayl Jones excavated the disturbingly buried damage of racism." Critics particularly noted Jones's treatment of sexual detail and its illumination of the central character. "One of the book's merits," according to Updike, "is the ease with which it assumes the writer's right to sexual specifics, and its willingness to explore exactly how our sexual and emotional behavior is warped within the matrix of family and race." In the book's final scene, Ursa comes to a reconciliation with her first husband, Mutt, by envisioning an ambivalent sexual relationship between her great-grandmother and the slavemaster Corregidora. Corregidora is a novel "filled with sexual and spiritual pain," wrote Margo Jefferson in Newsweek; "hatred, love and desire wear the same face, and humor is blues-bitter…. Jones's language is subtle and sinewy, and her imagination sure."
Jones's second novel, Eva's Man, continues her exploration into the psychological effects of brutality, yet presents a character who suffers greater devastation. Eva Medina Canada, incarcerated for the murder and mutilation of a male acquaintance, narrates a personal history that depicts the damaging influences of a sexually aggressive and hostile society. Updike described in the New Yorker the exploitative world that has shaped the mentally deranged Eva: "Evil permeates the erotic education of Eva Canada, as it progresses from Popsicle-stick violations to the witnessing of her mother's adultery and a growing awareness of the whores and 'queen bees' in the slum world around her, and on to her own reluctant initiation through encounters in buses and in bars, where a man with no thumb monotonously propositions her. The evil that emanates from men becomes hers." In a narrative that is fragmented and disjointed, Eva gives no concrete motive for the crime committed; furthermore, she neither shows remorse nor any signs of rehabilitation. More experimental than Corregidora, Eva's Man displays "a sharpened starkness, a power of ellipsis that leaves ever darker gaps between its flashes of rhythmic, sensuously exact dialogue and visible symbol," according to Updike. John Leonard noted in the New York Times that "not a word is wasted" in Eva's narrative. "It seems, in fact, as if Eva doesn't have enough words, as if she were trying to use the words she has to make a poem, a semblance of order, and fails of insufficiency." Leonard concluded that "Eva's Man may be one of the most unpleasant novels of the season. It is also one of the most accomplished."
Eva's Man was praised for its emotional impact, yet some reviewers found the character of Eva extreme or inaccessible. June Jordan in the New York Times Book Review called Eva's Man "the blues that lost control. This is the rhythmic, monotone lamentation of one woman, Eva Medina, who is nobody I have ever known." Jordan explained that "Jones delivers her story in a strictly controlled, circular form that is wrapped, around and around with ambivalence. Unerringly, her writing creates the tension of a problem unresolved." In the end, however, Jordan found that the fragmented details of Eva's story "do not mesh into illumination." On the other hand, some reviewers regarded the gaps in Eva's Man as appropriate and integral to its meaning. Pinckney in the New Republic called the novel "a tale of madness; one exacerbated if not caused by frustration, accumulated grievances" and commented on aspects that contribute to this effect: "Structurally unsettled, more scattered than Corregidora, Eva's Man is extremely remote, more troubling in its hallucinations…. The personal exploitation that causes Eva's desperation is hard to appreciate. Her rage seems never to find its proper object, except, possibly, in her last extreme act." Updike likewise held that the novel accurately portrays Eva's deranged state, yet he pointed out that Jones's characterization skills are not at their peak. "Jones apparently wishes to show us a female heart frozen into rage by deprivation, but the worry arises, as it did not in Corregidora, that the characters are dehumanized as much by her artistic vision as by their circumstances."
Jordan raised a concern in New York Times Book Review that the inconclusiveness of Eva's Man harbors a potentially damaging feature. "There is the very real, upsetting accomplishment of Gayl Jones in this, her second novel: sinister misinformation about women—about women, in general, about black women in particular." Jones commented in Black Women Writers (1950–1980) on the predicament faced in portraying negative characters: "To deal with such a character as Eva becomes problematic in the way that 'Trueblood' becomes problematic in [Ralph Ellison's] Invisible Man. It raises the questions of possibility. Should a Black writer ignore such characters, refuse to enter 'such territory' because of the 'negative image' and because such characters can be misused politically by others, or should one try to reclaim such complex, contradictory characters as well as try to reclaim the idea of the 'heroic image'?" Jones elaborated in an interview with Claudia Tate for Black Women Writers at Work: "'Positive race images' are fine as long as they're very complex and interesting personalities. Right now I'm not sure how to reconcile the various things that interest me with 'positive race images.' It's important to be able to work with a range of personalities, as well as with a range within one personality. For instance, how would one reconcile an interest in neurosis or insanity with positive race image?"
Although Jones's subject matter is often charged and intense, a number of critics have praised a particular restraint she manages in her narratives. Regarding Corregidora, Updike remarked, "Our retrospective impression of Corregidora is of a big territory—the Afro-American psyche—rather thinly and stabbingly populated by ideas personae, hints. Yet that such a small book could seem so big speaks well for the generous spirit of the author, unpolemical where there has been much polemic, exploratory where rhetoric and outrage tend to block the path." Similarly, Jones maintains an authorial distance in her fiction which, in turn, makes for believable and gripping characters. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Byerman commented, "The authority of [Jones's] depiction of the world is enhanced by [her] refusal to intrude upon or judge her narrators. She remains outside the story, leaving the reader with none of the usual markers of a narrator's reliability. She gives these characters the speech of their religion, which, by locating them in time and space, makes it even more difficult to easily dismiss them; the way they speak has authenticity, which carries over to what they tell. The results are profoundly disturbing tales of repression, manipulation, and suffering." Reviewers have also noted Jones's ability to innovatively incorporate Afro-American speech patterns into her work. In Black Women Writers (1950–1980), Melvin Dixon noted that "Gayl Jones has figured among the best of contemporary Afro-American writers who have used Black speech as a major aesthetic device in their works. Like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Sherley Williams, Toni Cade Bambara, and such male writers as Ernest Gaines and Ishmael Reed, Jones uses the rhythm and structure of spoken language to develop authentic characters and to establish new possibilities for dramatic conflict within the text and between readers and the text itself." In her interview with Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, Jones remarked on the importance of storytelling traditions to her work: "At the time I was writing Corregidora and Eva's Man I was particularly interested—and continue to be interested—in oral traditions of storytelling—Afro-American and others, in which there is always the consciousness and importance of the hearer, even in the interior monologues where the storyteller becomes her own hearer. That consciousness or self-consciousness actually determines my selection of significant events."
In 1977 Jones published a collection of short stories called White Rat. A number of critics noted the presence of Jones's typical thematic concerns, yet also felt that her shorter fiction did not allow enough room for character development. Diane Johnson commented in the New York Review of Books that the stories in White Rat "were written in some cases earlier than her novels, so they confirm one's sense of her direction and preoccupations: sex is violation, and violence is the principal dynamic of human relationships." Mel Watkins wrote about Jones's short fiction in the New York Times: "The focus throughout is on desolate, forsaken characters struggling to exact some snippet of gratification from their lives…. Although her prose here is as starkly arresting and indelible as in her novels, except for the longer stories such as 'Jeveta' and 'The Women,' these tales are simply doleful vignettes—slices of life so beveled that they seem distorted." While Jones's writing often emphasizes a tormented side of life—especially regarding male-female relationships—it also raises the possibility for more positive interactions. Jones pointed out in the Tate interview that "there seems to be a growing understanding—working itself out especially in Corregidora—of what is required in order to be genuinely tender. Perhaps brutality enables one to recognize what tenderness is." Some critics have found ambivalence at the core of Jones's fiction. Dixon wrote that "Redemption … is most likely to occur when the resolution of conflict is forged in the same vocabulary as the tensions which precipitated it. This dual nature of language makes it appear brutally indifferent, for it contains the source and the resolution of conflicts." Dixon also noted, "What Jones is after is the words and deeds that finally break the sexual bondage men and women impose upon each other."
In 1991, Jones published her first book of literary criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Here Jones argues that all literatures, not just African-American, develop in relation to and must come to terms with their own culture's oral storytelling practices. With this point in mind, she compares the poetry, short fiction, and novels of African-American authors—including Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Amiri Baraka, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison—with the works of longstanding canonical authors from a wide variety of historical eras and cultures, from Chaucer and Cervantes to Joyce. M. Giulia Fabi, in American Literature, called this a "daring and insightful study."
In 1998, Jones's first novel in twenty years was published and garnered a National Book Award nomination. In The Healing, Jones chooses to tell the story of Harlan Jane Eagleton backwards, "a feat accomplished with deceptive ease," noted Veronica Chambers in Newsweek. "Each section of the story happens further back in the past until we end at the beginning of the tale." Although the reader first sees Eagleton as a faith healer, Eagleton's life soon unfolds in reverse as the stories of her stints as the manager of an unbearable woman rock star, a beautician, and a racetrack gambler unfold until the reader arrives at the beginning of Eagle-ton's life. "And oh, what a beginning it is—surprising, romantic and wholly satisfying," wrote Chambers. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented, "From the opening pages we know we're in the presence of a masterly writer whose life experiences have sharpened her edges rather than softened them." Dianna Moeller, writing in Library Journal, commented, "Jones, who has created her own tradition of writing as oral storytelling, presents a powerful and unforgettable, story of transformation and hope."
In her 1999 follow-up novel, Mosquito, Jones tells the tale of Nadine Jane Johnson, an African-American truck driver nicknamed "Mosquito." As she drives around the Texas border, Mosquito expounds upon a variety of topics, from border towns to cactus to, as noted by Eleanor J. Bader in Library Journal, "theories about family, gender, imperialism, love, race, and platonic relationships." As the story progresses, Mosquito finds a pregnant woman hiding in her truck and becomes involved the a new type of "underground railroad," which serves as a sanctuary to Mexican immigrants. Bader commented, "By turns exhausting and exhilarating, Mosquito is a stunning glimpse into one woman's search for her place in the cosmos." Tamala M. Edwards, writing in Time, was disturbed by the novel's "muddled tangents" but noted, "Still, in rare moments, Jones' virtuosity grins up at us." A Publishers Weekly contributor commented, "Here … Jones has written a powerfully hopeful 'jazz novel'; improvisations, repetitions and syncopies round out the free-form genius of her fractured tale."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 37, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Coser, Stelamaris, Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paula Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1995.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers after 1955, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Anchor Press/Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1984.
Robinson, Sally, Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction, State University of New York Press (Albany, NY), 1991.
Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum (New York, NY), 1986.
African American Review, winter, 1994, p. 559; spring, 1994, p. 141; summer, 1994, p. 223; summer, 2000, Candice M. Jenkins, review of The Healing, p. 365, Laurie Champion, review of Mosquito, p. 366.
American Literature, June, 1993, M. Giulia Fabi, review of Liberating Voices: Oral Traditions in African American Literature and The Healing.
Artforum International, March, 1998, Jacqueline Wood-son, review of The Healing, p. S24.
Belles Lettres, summer, 1992.
Black World, February, 1976.
Booklist, February 1, 1998, review of The Healing, p. 899.
Book World, February 22, 1987.
Canadian Literature, winter, 1992.
Choice, November, 1991.
College Literature, February, 1992.
Comparative Literature Studies, summer, 1999, Bernard W. Bell, reviews of Liberating Voices: Oral Traditions in African American Literature and The Healing, p. 247.
Esquire, December, 1976.
Essence, February, 1998, Lise Funderburg, review of The Healing, p. 76.
Guardian, November 16, 1998, Michael Ellison, review of The Healing, p. T8.
Journal of American Folklore, winter, 1993.
Kliatt, spring, 1986.
Library Journal, December, 1997, Dianna Moeller, review of The Healing, p. 152; January, 1999, Eleanor J. Bader, review of Mosquito, p. 152.
Literary Quarterly, May 15, 1975.
Massachusetts Review, winter, 1977.
Michigan Quarterly Review, spring, 2001, Arlene R. Keizer, review of Mosquito, p. 431.
Modern Fiction Studies, fall, 1993, p. 825.
Nation, May 25, 1998, Jill Nelson, review of The Healing, p. 30.
National Review, April 14, 1978.
New Republic, June 28, 1975; June 19, 1976.
Newsweek, May 19, 1975; April 12, 1976; February 16, 1998, Veronica Chambers, review of The Healing,p. 68.
New Yorker, August 18, 1975; August 9, 1976.
New York Review of Books, November 10, 1977, Diane Johnson, review of White Rat.
New York Times, April 30, 1976; December 28, 1977.
New York Times Book Review, May 25, 1975; May 16, 1976; March 15, 1987; May 10, 1998, Valerie Say-ers, review of The Healing, p. 28.
Publishers Weekly, January 19, 1998, review of The Healing, p. 76; November 23, 1998, review of Mosquito, p. 57.
Time, June 16, 1975, Ivan Webster, review of Corregi-dora; February 8, 1999, review of Mosquito, p. 72
Times (London, England), April 1, 2000, Scott Brad-field, review of The Healing, p. 22, February 8, 1999, Tamala M. Edwards, review of Mosquito, p. 72.
Washington Post, October 21, 1977.
Women's Review of Books, March, 1998, Judith Grossman, review of The Healing, p. 15, March, 1999, Deborah McDowell, review of Mosquito, p. 9.
Yale Review, autumn, 1976.
Voices from the Gaps, http://voices.cla.umn.edu/ (August 2, 2003), "Gayl Jones."
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
Born 23 November 1949, Lexington, Kentucky
Daughter of Franklin and Lucille Jones
Gayl Jones grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, a setting that is clearly influential in her novels. She earned a B.A. in English from Connecticut College in 1971. While there, she received the college's award for the best original poem in both 1969 and 1970 and the Frances Steloff Fiction award for "The Roundhouse," a short story that establishes the themes that dominate Jones' work—the problems and possibilities of relationships between black men and women, the uniqueness of women, and the complexities of communication. Jones received graduate degrees in creative writing from Brown University.
Corregidora (1975, reprinted 1988) is a lean book narrated by Ursa, the descendant of slaves and their Portuguese owner, in a dialogue style that Jones describes as "ritualized." Despite the spareness of its presentation, the story is complex. At one level, it is an account of Ursa's matrilineal heritage and her relationship to a line of female ancestors who are preoccupied with perpetuating, and perhaps redeeming, their oppressive history in new generations. This background illuminates Ursa's attempts to create a constructive and loving relationship with a man despite centuries of misunderstanding between the sexes accentuated by profound social and economic injustice. Because an accident early renders Ursa incapable of producing her generation of children, the blues she sings and the tale she tells become her testimonial—her "generation"—for ultimately the novel itself passes the story on.
Jones has said Corregidora is a "Blues Novel" and in doing so compared it to her moving poem "Deep Song." Stylistically, the book depicts the black female experience in terms of the unique language and oral tradition of the blues. Jones defines "Blues Art" as that which expresses the simultaneity of good and bad feelings; she says that she often creates "blues relationships" between men and women. Critics have praised her for her skill in adapting the linguistic, cultural, and emotional perspective of the black woman to the form of the traditional novel.
Eva's Man (1976, 1987), Jones's second novel, is the story of Eva Medina Canada, a so-called "savage woman" who murders her lover by dental castration. Eva narrates the story from her cell in a psychiatric prison. Although the novel shares much in theme and setting with Corregidora, the emphasis here is more social than personal, as it points to the terror and squalor of Eva's past, the destructiveness inherent in male-female relationships, and the violent nature of sexuality. Relationships between men and women in Corregidora mingle tenderness and brutality, but cultural and emotional brutality triumph in Eva's Man. Jones says, "In many ways, Eva's Man is a horror story. It really is.… Their ritual isn't a blues ritual. I don't know what it is."
Jones has published excerpts from another novel and a collection of short stories, White Rat (1977, 1991). Her powerful title story, "White Rat," is being included in collections of short fiction. Jones, a versatile and prolific writer, has also written several plays and numerous poems, but her major works are the two novels. Although her writing is neither polemical nor explicitly political, it reveals a central concern with the issues of racism and feminism. Admirers of Jones' novels of the 1970s assert that her construction of black women questions the "naturalness" of racist and sexist attitudes. Others, however, have faulted what they see as her lack of positive images of African American characters, especially of black men.
In the 1980s, Jones' work changed substantially, although it is unclear whether the transformation stemmed from criticism of her novels. Her three collections of poetry have received little attention. Still interested in the slave history of colonial Latin America, Jones continues to use mutilation themes as well as the richness of the oral tradition to create accounts of female subjectivity and the continuity of history. Set in 17th-century Brazil, Song for Anninho (1981, reissued 1999) tells of the atrocities committed by the Portuguese in their attacks on Palmares, an independent settlement of escaped African slaves. The poem is told by a young African woman who also relates others' stories. Similarly, the title poem in Xarque and Other Poems (1985) weaves the voices of three women into a history told by a single female, the granddaughter of Almeyda from Song for Anninho. Thus tales of survival and oppression become a matrilineal heritage that finds its voice in song.
The Hermit-Woman: Poems (1983), which also develops voices from colonial Brazil, includes two self-referential pieces. One of these, "Stranger," closes the book with a couple's love-making, "fierce / strong / soaring," so that the joy of sexual union heals an African past of sundered relationships. The theme of tenderness in all three books is a departure from the brutality between black women and black men that critics had objected to in her fiction. While that tenderness exists often only in memory and is experienced through the pain of recollection, it closes the gap between women and men and locates violence in racist atrocities. By exploring memory's painful burden as a necessity for the survival of the African race, Jones alters the feminist polemic many had noted in her novels to a dialogue of racial unity.
Jones has received a number of literary awards, including fellowships from Yaddo (1974) and from the National Endowment for the Arts (1976), and the Henry Russell Award from the University of Michigan (1981), where she was professor of English from 1975 to 1983. In the later 1990s, Jones continued to write and travel.
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991). The Healing (1998). The Healing; Corregidora; Eva's Man (bound together, 1998). Mosquito (1999).
Allen, D. E., "The Role of the Blues in Gayl Jones' Fiction" (thesis, 1993). Baker, H. A., and P. Redmonds, eds., Afro-American Literary Study in the 1990s (1989). Bell, R. P., et al., eds., Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature (1979). Bloom, H., Black American Women Fiction Writers (1995). Bloom, H., Contemporary Black American Fiction Writers (1995). Broome, L. J., "Sex, Violence, and History: Images of Black Men in the Selected Fiction of Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison" (thesis, 1990). Burwell, S. L., "The Soul of Black Women: The Hermeneutical Method of Analysis as Applied to the Novel Corregidora " (thesis reissue, 1981). Coser, S., Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones (1995). Dubey, M., "Winged, But Grounded: A Contextual Study of the Fiction of Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones" (thesis, 1989). Flora, J. M. and R. A. Bain, Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook (1993). Fossett, J. J., and J. A. Tucker, Race Consciousness: African-American Studies for the New Century (1997). Gottfried, A. S., "Confessions and Accusations: Violence and Redemption in Contemporary U.S. Women's Fiction" (thesis, 1994). Intemann, C., "The Blues Ache in Corregidora " (thesis, 1988). Kerr, L. A., "You Are My Face; You Are Me: Kristeva's Semiotic as Site of Self-Erasure in Gayl Jones' Corregidora and Toni Morrison's Beloved " (thesis, 1995). Kester, G. T., "Writing the Subject Structure, Tropes, and Doubleness in Five African-American Novels" (thesis, 1991). McKoy, S. S., "Insanity and Creativity: The Psychic Trauma of Women in Texts by Gayl Jones and Gloria Naylor" (thesis, 1991). Murphy, C. M., "Shaping Space: Quilting Aesthetics and Black Feminist Writers" (thesis, 1990). Porter, S. D., "The Search for Wholeness is Completed: Gayl Jones' Corregidora as a Rewriting ofJean Toomer's Cane " (thesis, 1991). Richards, C. S., "The Empowerment of Orality in the Novels of Gayl Jones" (thesis, 1992). Robinson, S., Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction (1991). Stallings, L., "Creating a Bodily Text: Orality and Sexuality as Means of Empowerment in Gayl Jones' Corregidora and Eva's Man (thesis, 1998). Tate, C., ed., Black Women Writers at Work (1983). Walker, S., Stories from the American Mosaic (1990). Wilcox, J., "Constructed Silences: Voice and Subjectivity in the Resistant Texts of Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara" (thesis, 1995).
Black American Writers Past and Present (1975). Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches (1989). DLB (1984). FC (1990). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). Who's Who in Black Americans (1992).
American Poetry Review (Sept.-Oct. 1976). Ariel (1992). Callaloo (Winter 1984). CLAJ (1984, 1986). MELUS (Winter 1980). MR (1977). New Republic (28 June 1975, 19 June 1976). Studia Africana (1977). YR (1976).
—JUDITH P. JONES,
UPDATED BY JOELLEN MASTERS
November 23, 1949
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, novelist, poet, and critic Gayl Jones grew up listening to the African-American oral tradition that is prominent in her narratives. Storytelling, both oral and written, was a part of her family experience. Her grandmother wrote religious dramas, and her mother composed stories to entertain the children. Jones herself began writing fiction when she was seven or eight. She received several prizes for poetry while an English major at Connecticut College. She then studied creative writing at Brown University under William Meredith and Michael Harper. She published her first novel while still a graduate student. She taught creative writing and African-American literature at the University of Michigan until 1983; since then she has lived primarily in Paris and Lexington.
Jones's early novels focus on women driven to or over the edge of madness by the abuses they endure. The originality of her work lies in allowing these women to speak for themselves. Corregidora (1975), Eva's Man (1976), and the stories in White Rat (1977) are narrated by characters whose racial and sexual experiences are rendered in voices that are simultaneously obsessive in their concerns and ordinary in their idiom. Her later narratives are poems that present the history of blacks in the New World, including Brazil. Song for Anninho (1981), The Hermit-Woman (1983), and Xarque and Other Poems (1985) continue the focus on the suffering of black women but without the obsessive voices. Her work of criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991), explores folk traditions in the major writers of poetry and fiction. Two later novels, The Healing (1998) and Mosquito (1999), move in a more positive direction by depicting strong, articulate women capable of telling their own stories and creating meaningful relationships despite the difficulties of life. These works continue Jones's practice of being highly experimental in the ways these stories are told.
Bramen, Carrie Tirado. "Speaking in Typeface: Characterizing Stereotypes in Gayl Jones's Mosquito." Modern Fiction Studies 49, no. 1 (2003): 124–154.
Byerman, Keith E. "Beyond Realism: The Fictions of Gayl Jones and Toni Morrison." In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986, pp. 171–184.
Dubey, Madhu. "Gayl Jones and the Matrilineal Metaphor of Tradition." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 20, no. 2 (1995): 245–267.
Ward, Jerry W. "Escape from Trublem: The Fiction of Gayl Jones." Callaloo 5 (1982): 95–104.
keith e. byerman (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
JONES, Gayl. American, b. 1949. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Plays/Screenplays, Poetry. Career: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, member of the English Dept., 1975-83. Publications: Corregidora (novel), 1975; Chile Woman (play), 1975; Eva's Man (novel), 1976; White Rat (short stories), 1977; Song for Anninho (poetry), 1981; The Hermit-Woman (poetry), 1983; Xarque (poetry), 1985; Die Uogel fangerin: novel (German translation of The Birdcatcher), 1986; Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, 1991; The Healing, 1998; Mosquito, 1999. Address: c/o Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108, U.S.A.