November 23, 1949 |
|Occupation||novelist, poet, playwright, professor, and literary critic|
|Alma mater||Connecticut College
|Notable works||Corregidora, Eva's Man, The Healing|
Jones was born on November 23, 1949, to Franklin and Lucille Jones. She grew up in Speigle Heights, a neighborhood of Lexington, Kentucky, in a house with no indoor toilet. Her father was a restaurant cook and her mother, who wished to be a writer, stayed at home. Young Gayl grew up in a storytelling family: Her grandmother wrote plays for her church, and her mother constantly made up stories to entertain the children and other family members. As Gayl recalls, "I began to write when I was seven, because I saw my mother writing, and because she would read stories to my brother and me, stories that she had written". Although described as painfully shy, many of Jones's elementary school instructors recognized her writing skills and encouraged her talent to grow
Jones is a 1971 graduate of Connecticut College, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree in English. While attending the college she also earned the Frances Steloff Award for Fiction. She then began a graduate program in creative writing at Brown University, studying under poet Michael Harper and earning a Master of Arts in 1973 and a Doctor of Arts in 1975.
Jones's mentor, Michael Harper, introduced her work to author Toni Morrison. Morrison was an editor at Random House at the time and was so impressed after reading Jones's manuscript once wrote, "that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this". In 1975, Jones published her first novel Corregidora at the age of 26. That same year she was a visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan, which hired her the following year as an assistant professor. She left her faculty position in 1983 and moved to Europe, where she wrote and published Die Vogelfaengerin (The Birdwatcher) in Germany, and a poetry collection, Xarque and Other Poems. Jones's 1998 novel The Healing was a finalist for the National Book Award, although the media attention surrounding her novel's release focused more on the controversy in her personal life than on the work itself. Her papers are currently housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Jones currently lives in Lexington, Kentucky, where she continues to write.
Jones has described herself as an improvisor, and her work bears out that statement: like a jazz or blues musician, Jones plays upon a specific set of themes, varying them and exploring their possible permutations. Though her fiction has been called "Gothic" in its exploration of madness, violence, and sexuality, musical metaphors might make for a more apt categorization.
While studying at the University of Michigan, Jones met a politically active student, Robert Higgins, who would eventually become her husband. At a gay rights parade in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the early 1980s, Higgins claimed to be God and that AIDS was a form of punishment. After being punched by a woman at the parade, he returned with a shotgun and was arrested with a charge that carried four years in jail. Instead of appearing in court to face charges, Jones and Higgins fled the United States to Europe, and Jones resigned from the University of Michigan with a note addressed to President Ronald Reagan that read: "I reject your lying racist [expletive], and I call upon God. Do what you want. God is with Bob and I'm with him." Some have debated the authorship of the note. In 1988, Jones and Higgins returned to the United States, but kept their identities hidden.
In the late 1990s, Jones's mother was diagnosed with throat cancer, and in 1997, Higgins objected to a medical procedure for his mother-in-law, but was banned from the hospital room after a psychological evaluation on Jones's mother found she was "inappropriately manipulated by family--especially son-in-law." Jones and Higgins wrote up a document about the incident called "Kidnapped/Held Incommunicado," which was sent to the national press, and on March 3, 1997, was forwarded to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. On March 20, Jones's mother died, igniting Higgins to start a campaign against the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center, which had been the defendant in several civil rights cases in the recent past. During this time, Jones's novel The Healing was in the process of being released. Higgins began to bombard the Lexington police, calling them and writing them multiple times a day. A letter that arrived to the police station on February 20, 1998, indicated a bomb threat, and police figured out that Higgins, who at the time was using the alias Bob Jones, was previously wanted for arrest. After a standoff with police at their residence, Higgins committed suicide and Jones was put on suicide watch. Since then, Jones only talks to family and Harper and has refused several requests for interviews.
- Corregidora (novel) (1975)
- Eva's Man (novel) (1976)
- White Rat (short stories) (1977)
- The Healing (novel) (1998)
- Mosquito (novel) (1999)
- Song for Anninho (1981)
- The Hermit-Woman (1983)
- Xarque and Other Poems (1985)
- Chile Woman (play) (1974)
- Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (criticism) (1991)
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Jones's first novel, Corregidora (1975), anticipated the wave of novels exploring the connections between slavery and the African-American present. Its publication coincided with the peak of the Black Arts Movement and concepts of "Africanism." It was precursor to the Women's Renaissance of the 1980s, often identified by its acknowledgement of the multiplicity of African-American identities and renewed interest in history and slavery. Authors associated with the Black Women's Movement include Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, among others.
The novel moves across different geographic spaces, from Brazil, to a moment in St. Louis, but is predominantly set in Kentucky. Ursa Corregidora, the novel's protagonist, is a blues singer searching for "a song that would touch me, touch my life and theirs ... A song branded with the new world" (59). Ursa's search reflects her struggle to construct selfhood amidst the traumatic stories told by her great-grandmother and grandmother of their experiences at the hands of the Portuguese Brazilian slaveholder Simon Corregidora. Ursa's matrilineal line—great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother—make it their lives' purpose to keep alive the history of their abuse and torture, and by extension that of African slaves in the New World. From the age of five onward, Ursa inherits the duty to "make generations" that can testify to the brutal crimes of slavery. But the Corregidora women's obsession with the past burdens Ursa, who struggles, as a singer, to find her own purpose in life. Even as she attempts to do so, she herself is trapped in abusive relationships.
When Ursa and her husband Mutt get into a physical altercation regarding her refusal to stop singing, she falls (or is pushed) down a flight of stairs, loses her unborn baby, and has an emergency hysterectomy. The year is 1948. Unable to birth the generations necessary to pass down the Corregidora narrative, Ursa loses any fragile sense of self she previously had. She divorces Mutt, unwilling to forgive him for taking away her sole purpose in life, and attempts to heal under the watchful eyes of her friends Tadpole McCormick (owner of Happy's Café, where Ursa sings) and Catherine Lawson (bisexual hairstylist, who lives across the street from Happy's). Ursa moves in with Cat briefly after realizing her stay at Tad's is forcing romantic relations with him. However, at Cat's, Ursa receives unwanted sexual attention from a young girl Jeffy, who she realizes is Cat's lover. Confronted with their lesbianism, Ursa promptly returns to Tad's, and the two marry shortly thereafter. Yet, Ursa and Tad's marriage fails to be any different from the abusive, possessive relationship with Mutt. Ursa finds Tad in bed with another woman and moves out. Jones succinctly renders the destructive romantic relationships between Black men and women, a lingering effect of the patriarchal slave system where Black bodies were abused and consumed.
In order to heal, Ursa seeks out her mother's story, a tale overshadowed by Great Gram and Gram's experiences in Old Man Corregidora's plantation-brothel. Mama, similarly taught to associate sex with violence, has only slept with one man, Ursa's father Martin, on one occasion. Despite his willingness to marry her and move in with her, Mama was unable to reciprocate a romantic relationship and eventually caused Martin to hate her. Martin returned the humiliation he felt when Mama visited him after the birth of Ursa. After smacking Mama around, Martin ripped her clothes and made her walk through the streets like a "whore." Mama and Martin's relationship exemplifies what could happen to Ursa if she doesn't find a way to live her own life, rather than just rehearsing that of her foremothers. With this new knowledge, Ursa redoubles her efforts in blues singing and begins to heal. When she reunites with Mutt, 22 years after their divorce, the two attempt to reconcile. During an act of fellatio, Ursa decides not to repeat her great-grandmother's secret act in which she bit the penis of Old Man Corregidora. Critics have interpreted this ending very differently: some seeing Ursa's refusal to repeat the past a sign of a disruption of the obliterating cycle and indicative of her reconciliation with Mutt, while others argue Ursa fails to resist abusive heterosexual relationships and therefore becomes a passive, unrealized heroine.
Incest is a major theme in a novel, and a recurring trope in the works of other prominent African-American writers at the time, including: Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Maya Angelou's (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), Alice Walker's (The Child Who Favored Daughter), and James Baldwin's (Just Above My Head). Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, in her book Against the Closet: Identity, Political Longing, and Black Figuration, discusses incest as a "central trope through which black female identity and black familial dilemmas are figured in African American women's writing in the period after black Americans were purportedly granted equal rights before the law". In her close readings of late twentieth century African-American literary texts, Abdur-Rahman's argues that writing about the trope of incest in black women's literature illuminates the continuing impact of slavery on the formation of black families in the post-civil rights period. Abdur-Rahman sees the incest motif as a site to "critique society for its egregious neglect of black women and children." By focusing on the time period of the late twentieth century, when Corregidora was written, Abdur-Rahman reads the employment of the incest motif as a critique on the masculinity inherent in black nationalism and its impact on the formation of black families. She writes, "I argue that representing incest allows black American women writers to highlight he effects of civil rights retrenchment and the waning popularity of a largely masculinist black nationalist agenda on black families in the late twentieth century."
Throughout the novel, Ursa must navigate relationships of control over her body and sexuality imposed by different characters. Her relatives (Great-Gram, Gram and her mother) need her body to serve as a tool of procreation (make generation) and produce a child that represents material evidence of the horrors of incest and rape they experienced during slavery at the hands of Simon Corregidora. The rape and incest that occurs between Great Gram, Gram and Simon can be read as complicating the notions of love and hate, desire and danger. Similarly, Ursa's relationship with her husband Mutt also straddles the line between the two sentiments. Mutt seeks to restrict Ursa's sexuality only for his enjoyment and pushes her down the stairs at the beginning of the novel because of his jealousy at other men staring at her on-stage performance while she sings the Blues. Her second husband, Tad, seeks to engage with Ursa's sexuality in a normative manner that illustrates his ability to provide sexual pleasure for her, despite her hysterectomy and modified sexual desire. Jones complicates notions of sexuality by showing how desire can exist in undesirable circumstances. Or as Ursa sees it, "Two humps on the same camel? Yes. Hate and desire both riding them" (102).
Sparse in language, relying on terse dialogue and haunting interior monologues, the novel stands in the naturalist tradition as it shows individuals fighting with historical forces beyond their control. However, the end of the novel justifies its status as a "blues" narrative exploring both the pain and the beauty of relationships by implying that psychological struggle and an unsparing confrontation of the past may lead to recovery.
When asked about the relationship between literate and oral traditions in Corregidora Jones said, "Ursa in Corregidora tells her own story in her own language and so does Eva in Eva's Man. I was interested in having their language do everything that anybody's language used as a literary language can do. But once after I gave a talk on Corregidora, a professor (I should say a white professor) expressed surprise that I didn't talk like Ursa. That my vocabulary wasn't like hers. The implication of course was that I was more "articulate," at least within an accepted linguistic tradition. So because of that and because of other things—other comments about my language in those books—I've been wondering about my own voice—my other voice(s) and how it (they) relate to the voices of those women. I trust those voices, but always with black writers there's the suspicion that they can't create language/voices as other writers can—that they can't invent a linguistic world in the same way."
Eva's Man (1976), Jones's second novel, expands on the pain between African American women and men, but it does so with an even greater sense of hopelessness. Like Corregidora, Eva's Man relies on minimalist dialogue and on interior monologues, but the latter play an even more important role in Jones' second novel, letting the reader see Eva Medina Canada's past and her descent into mental illness, indicated through repetition of key scenes with variations, implying that Eva's memory disintegrates. The reader encounters Eva in a prison for the criminally insane at the beginning of the story, to which she has been committed for poisoning and castrating her lover. Her flashbacks reveal a life of relentless sexual objectification by men, starting with Freddy, a neighborhood boy who wants to play doctor, to Tyrone, her mother's lover who molests her, to her cousin, who propositions her. The men she encounters regard her as sexual property and react with violence if she rejects their approaches. Davis, the lover she kills, epitomizes this tendency by imprisoning her in a room to which he only comes to sleep with her. By killing him, she rebels against male tyranny, but her descent into insanity indicates that she is unable to construct a new role for herself.
The stories in Jones' short story collection White Rat (1977), written between 1970 and 1977, deal largely with the same themes as her novels-communication or the lack of it, insanity, and difficult relationships. Song for Anninho (1981), a long narrative poem, covers new ground. Situated in 17th-century Brazil, the poem tells the story of Almeyda, the narrator, and her husband Anninho, who are residents of Palmares, a historical settlement by fugitive slaves, when it is overrun by Portuguese soldiers, separating husband and wife. Though Almeyda can only find her husband through memory and through art once they are separated, the poem focuses on desire as a positive theme, and it shows the possibility of love.
- Manso, Peter (July 19, 1998). "Chronicle of a Tragedy Foretold". The New York Times.
- "Gayl Jones". www.BookRags.com. Retrieved October 21, 2015.
- Jones, Gayl (Amanda). (2000). In African-American Writers: A Dictionary. ISBN 978-0874369595
- Grazier, Julie; Farrell, Misty (2001). "Gayl Jones". Voices From the Gaps, University of Minnesota: 242. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
- "Gale Contemporary Black Biography: Gayl Jones". Answers.com.
- Ghansah, Rachel (April 12, 2015). "What Toni Morrison Saw". The New York Times. Lexis Nexis Academic. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
- Plummer, William (March 16, 1998). "Beyond Healing". People.
- "Voices from the Gaps". umn.edu. Retrieved October 21, 2015.
- Byerman, K., "Black Vortex: The Gothic Structure of Eva's Man", Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 7 (1980): 93–101.
- Don Edwards, Sarah A. Webster and Brian Bennett (February 24, 1998). "Noted writer resurfaces in a tragedy – Author: Gayl Jones, once heralded by Maya Angelou, turns up in a bloody confrontation in Kentucky". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved October 21, 2015.
- Abdur-Rahman, Aliyyah. Against the Closet: Identity, Political Longing, and Black Figuration. Duke University Press: 2012, 117.
- Abdur-Rahman, 2012, 118.
- Rowell, Charles H., "An Interview with Gayl Jones". Callaloo, no. 16, 1982, pp. 32–53.