Authors: Gayl Jones

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and poet

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Corregidora, 1975

Eva’s Man, 1976

Die Vogelfängerin, 1986 (in German)

The Healing, 1998

Mosquito, 1999

Short Fiction:

White Rat: Short Stories, 1977

Poetry:

Song for Anninho, 1981

The Hermit-Woman, 1983

Xarque, and Other Poems, 1985

Drama:

Chile Woman, pr. 1973

Nonfiction:

Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, 1991

Biography

Although not as popular as some of her contemporaries such as Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones is a significant African American author whose works brilliantly experiment with the psychology of language while addressing powerful issues of race, class, and gender. The daughter of Lucille (Wilson) and Franklin Jones, a cook, she grew up with the love of language instilled in her early by her mother and grandmother. Her mother, who had also begun writing at a young age, wrote stories to entertain her children, and her grandmother wrote plays for church performances. Jones heard these stories read aloud before she herself could read, and she became a natural student of dialect. Jones attended public schools in Lexington, which were segregated until she reached tenth grade. She began writing at the age of seven or eight. Apart from the encouragement of her fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hodges, school offered her little. Instead, Jones gained her education from a rich oral tradition of family history and stories.{$I[AN]9810001814}{$I[A]Jones, Gayl}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Jones, Gayl}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jones, Gayl}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Jones, Gayl}{$I[tim]1949;Jones, Gayl}

In 1971 Jones earned her B.A. in English from Connecticut College, where she also received prizes for her poetry. She earned her M.A. (1973) and her D.A. (1975) in creative writing from Brown University, where she studied with Michael S. Harper and William Meredith. In 1973 her play Chile Woman won the award for best original production at the New England Regional American College Theatre Festival. In 1975, while attending Brown, she published her first novel, Corregidora.

In her works Jones incorporates black speech as an aesthetic device. She uses its rhythms and structure to develop individual characters and to enhance conflicts within the plots. In her book-length critical work Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature Jones argues that black authors cannot develop a genuine literary identity until they set aside dominant white models and adopt the rich forms of their own oral and musical traditions. Her own writing has a lyric quality; she has called her poem “Deep Song” (1979) a “blues poem” and her novel Corregidora a “blues novel.” Although she has also written poetry and drama, she is best known for fiction.

Jones’s novels and stories address the human capacity for redemption and regeneration. Corregidora is a chilling exploration of a black woman’s family history. Consumed with hatred, despite being physically and psychologically abused by her husband, Mutt, Ursa feels the responsibility to have children (what Jones calls “making generations”) to bear witness and keep alive the story of the nineteenth century Brazilian slavemaster who had fathered both her mother and grandmother. Jones’s second novel, Eva’s Man is a fragmented psychological exploration into the mind of a brutally abused and sexually tormented black woman, whose fear of pain and loss keep her from forging genuine human relationships. Locked in a mental hospital after killing her tyrannical lover, Eva gradually reveals her traumatic life story to doctors, other patients, and herself. In White Rat, a collection of twelve stories, the protagonist of the title story is a light-skinned black man caught between hating his own race and hating whites. Written when she was seventeen, the story “The Return: A Fantasy” is about a prophetic schizophrenic; this work foreshadows her later interest in psychology. The lesbian themes of “Persona,” in which a female teacher is attracted to a female student, also suggests themes found in Corregidora and Eva’s Man.

Jones taught creative writing and African American literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from 1975 to 1983, and she has received several awards, including a Shubert Foundation playwriting grant (1973-1974), a Southern Fellowship Foundation grant (1973-1975), a Yaddo Artists’ Conference Fellowship (1974), a Rhode Island Council of the Arts grant (1974-1975), a Howard Foundation award (1975), a Mademoiselle fiction award, a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship (1976), a Michigan Society of Fellows Fellowship (1977-1979), and a Henry Russell Award from the University of Michigan (1981).

In addition to pursuing her study of oral tradition in African American literature and culture, Jones spent several years gathering information about sixteenth and seventeenth century Brazil and settlements of escaped slaves, such as Palmares. She subsequently published nonfiction articles on Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, and various other literary topics. She also began working on a book-length essay titled The Quest for Wholeness, an excerpt from which appeared in Callaloo in 1994.

While teaching at the University of Michigan, Jones fell in love with a white student named Bob Higgins, a man with an erratic temper and a paranoid personality who took Jones’s last name when they married. He was arrested in 1983 for threatening an AIDS rally with a shotgun; the couple fled the country before he was convicted in absentia. Jones’s writing slowed to a trickle as she devoted herself to her life with her husband. The couple returned to the United States in 1988 to care for Jones’s mother, dying of cancer. When Lucille Jones died in 1997, Bob Jones became convinced that she had been kidnapped and killed as part of a racist conspiracy on the part of the hospital. Over the next year, the Joneses formed a foundation dedicated to exposing this “wrongful death” and Bob Jones began making increasingly violent threats to the doctors and officials he blamed for it. In the midst of this, Jones published The Healing, which garnered many reviews and much publicity as her first novel in almost twenty years. An assistant to the district attorney being threatened by Bob Jones happened to read a review in Newsweek and realized that there was an outstanding arrest warrant on Jones from the Michigan incident. The police went to the Jones residence to arrest Bob Jones, but he slit his throat before they could arrest him.

Although Gayl Jones was committed to a mental institution as a result of her suicidal despair at her husband’s death, she also began writing again. The Mosquito is the story of a female African American truck driver who becomes involved in the “new underground railroad” transporting Mexicans into the United States. The novel garnered mixed reviews depending on the reviewer’s tolerance for the aggressively “oral” nature of Jones’s first-person narration.

BibliographyAshraf, H. A. “‘Relate Sexual to Historical.’” African American Review 34, no. 2 (2000): 273-297. Analyzes the roles of race, resistence, and desire in Corregidora.Barksdale, Richard K. “Castration Symbolism in Recent Black American Fiction.” College Language Association Journal 29, no. 4 (1986): 400-413. Considers Eva’s Man an example of fiction depicting men whose sexual insensitivity and violence merit their castration.Bell, Bernard. “The Liberating Literary and African American Vernacular Voices of Gayl Jones.” Comparative Literature Studies 36, no. 3 (1999): 247-258. Reviews The Healing and Liberating Voices, focusing on contrasting registers of Jones’s narrative voice.Coser, Stelamaris. Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. Analysis focusing on the authors’ representations of women, sex roles, and African Americans.Robinson, Sally. Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. Jones is discussed along with Angela Carter and Doris Lessing in a study of feminist psychology in literature. One of the few studies that compares Jones with non-African American contemporaries.Wilcox, Janelle. “Resistant Silence, Resistant Subject: (Re)Reading Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man.” Genders 23 (1996): 72-96. Discusses the link between knowledge and power in discourse in Jones’s novel.Yukins, Elizabeth. “Bastard Daughters and the Possession of History in Corregidora and Paradise.” Signs 28, no. 1 (2002): 221-247. Uses the novels by Jones and Toni Morrison as a springboard for discussing the “ownership” of traumatic memories and their transmissibility.
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