Authors: Gloria Naylor

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories, 1982

Linden Hills, 1985

Mama Day, 1988

Bailey’s Café, 1992

The Men of Brewster Place, 1998

Edited Text:

Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present, 1995

Biography

In the 1980’s, Gloria Naylor became the newest voice in a tradition of black American woman writers that had begun with Zora Neale Hurston and later included Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Naylor was one of three daughters of Roosevelt Naylor, a subway conductor, and Alberta McAlpin Naylor, a telephone operator. Her parents, always hardworking, had been cotton sharecroppers in Robinson, Mississippi, before coming north to New York. After living for many years in Harlem, they eventually acquired a modest home in Queens. In 1968, when she was eighteen, Naylor turned down a college scholarship and left New York to travel throughout the rural South as a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. For the next seven years, she went door-to-door preaching and distributing Bibles, as well as beginning to write.{$I[AN]9810000830}{$I[A]Naylor, Gloria}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Naylor, Gloria}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Naylor, Gloria}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Naylor, Gloria}{$I[tim]1950;Naylor, Gloria}

Gloria Naylor

(Kimberly Dawson Kurnizki)

Returning to New York City in 1975, Naylor took an assortment of odd jobs, mostly on hotel switchboards, to pay for her tuition at Brooklyn College. She married in 1980 and earned a B.A. in English in 1981. At one point she held down three switchboard jobs while taking classes and writing. Her stories began to appear in such magazines as Essence and Ms. As a result of friends having shown Naylor’s work to a secretary who worked for Cork Smith, then an editor for Viking Press, The Women of Brewster Place was published in 1982. The book, which was awarded the American Book Award for best first novel, was translated into at least five languages and adapted for television.

The Women of Brewster Place tells the story of several black women who live on a dead-end street in a housing project in an unnamed northern American city. The women include young and old, liberal and conservative, mothers and daughters, straight and gay. All, however, are poor, all suffer (many through the violence or neglect by the men in their lives), and all, through their strength, survive. Like other fiction by black women writers of the period, The Women of Brewster Place was criticized for presenting no positive male characters, but the criticism in this case was mild; clearly Naylor’s purpose in this work was to show the oppression and strength of women, and any male characters were secondary to that purpose.

Shortly before the book came out, Naylor began graduate studies at Yale University and completed a master’s degree in African American studies in 1983. While at Yale, she completed her second novel, Linden Hills, which deals with a black upper-middle-class neighborhood (the neighborhood in which one of the characters in The Women of Brewster Place had been reared). The structure of the novel parallels that of Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320), and the circular streets of the housing development represent the circles of Dante’s Hell. Linden Hills follows four days in the lives of two young poets, young men, who take odd jobs with the residents of the community to earn Christmas money. As they work their way down to the center of the community, to the home of Linden Hills’ founder Luther Nedeed (the name is an inversion of “de Eden”), the residents are revealed to be lost souls who have given up everything important within them to pursue outward success.

Linden Hills was widely praised for its evocative language and vivid characters and for the risks the author takes. Her didactic purpose, to show why the American Dream is an especially dangerous trap for African Americans, was admired and discussed widely. By this time in her life, Naylor had put money worries behind her; after 1981, she was able to support herself with her writing. She occasionally taught at colleges and universities, serving as a writer-in-residence at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for the 1983-1984 academic year.

Mama Day, published in 1988, deals with a black community living on the paradisiacal island of Willow Springs, somewhere off the southeast coast of the United States, connected to the dangers of greed and racism on the mainland by a bridge. The title character is a magician, Miranda Day, more than one hundred years old, never married, wise, and strong. Her daily life among the island’s eccentric characters is set against a romance that develops in New York City. In this work, Naylor concerns herself more with plot than with characterization, a disappointment to those who considered her creation of complex characters to be her greatest strength. The novel’s reliance on themes and images, from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611) and Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596), adds a note of mythic grandness to the everyday characters and plots.

Bailey’s Café is a story sequence with multiple narrators, both female and male. The café in Brooklyn attracts assorted weary and abused clientele, all black, whose stories of loss, disillusionment, and exploitation are told mostly in their own voices, intertwined with the proprietor’s tale of his own painful life. Bailey’s Café presents Naylor’s first positive models of masculinity, and it compresses the Shakespearean allusions of the earlier novels into a concluding image. Naylor’s comic imagination and masterful characterization, especially of the more aberrant figures, make the book a favorite of critics.

Naylor returned to Brewster Place in 1998 with The Men of Brewster Place, giving readers the opportunity to revisit the male characters and to see them in a different light. Passages reprinted from the first novel provide further continuity. Naylor also introduces new characters such as Brother Jerome, a retarded child with a gift for playing the piano. With The Men of Brewster Place, Naylor seemed to be acknowledging that there may be more than one side to a story.

Naylor’s work provides a strong voice for women, especially for urban black women. Her works deal, at least in part, with the ways in which black women have struggled through slavery, poverty, abandonment, neglect, confusion, and lost dreams and the ways in which they have drawn on one another for support. Although she would prefer to be known not as a black writer or a woman writer but simply as a writer, the black female experience in America continues to be her main focus.

BibliographyBraxton, Joanne M., and Andrée Nicola McLaughlin, eds. Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afro-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. This wide-ranging collection of critical articles brings the cultural history of black women’s writing up to the 1980’s. Barbara Smith’s article “The Truth That Never Hurts: Black Lesbians in Fiction in the 1980’s” discusses the section of The Women of Brewster Place entitled “The Two,” but other articles also bear indirectly on important themes in Naylor.Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993. An excellent source for reviews and essays.Kelley, Margot Anne, ed. Gloria Naylor’s Early Novels. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. A good study of Naylor’s early works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Montgomery, Maxine Lavon. “Authority, Multivocality, and the New World Order in Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Café.” African American Review 29, no. 1 (Spring, 1995): 27. Montgomery discusses Bailey’s Café as a woman-centered work that draws on black art forms and biblical allusions. Though she fails to recognize the true identity of Mariam’s child (George of Mama Day), Montgomery otherwise provides a valid reading of Bailey’s Café, commenting on the “more mature voice” with which Naylor addresses the concerns of her earlier novels.Naylor, Gloria. “An Interview with Gloria Naylor.” Interview by Charles H. Rowell. Callaloo 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 179-192. Rowell discusses a range of topics with Naylor, including her educational background, her feelings about writing, the genesis of The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Café, and her feelings about the novel she is intending to write, which turns out to be The Men of Brewster Place.Naylor, Gloria, and Toni Morrison. “A Conversation.” The Southern Review 21 (Summer, 1985): 567-593. Naylor visits Morrison, whose novel The Bluest Eye (1970) had the deepest influence on Naylor. Their conversation ranges over men, marriage, the inspiration for their various books, how they wrote them, and their characters. Naylor tried in The Women of Brewster Place not to depict men negatively and thinks that she succeeded.Puhr, Kathleen M. “Healers in Gloria Naylor’s Fiction.” Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 518. Puhr discusses the healing powers of Naylor’s female characters, principally Mattie Michael (The Women of Brewster Place), Willa Nedeed (Linden Hills), and Miranda (Mama Day), as well as Naylor’s healing places, particularly the café and Eve’s garden in Bailey’s Café. She also discusses Naylor’s works in terms of African American ancestry, generational conflicts, and broken dreams.Rowell, Charles H. “An Interview with Gloria Naylor.” Callaloo 20, no. 1 (Winter, 1997): 179-192. Charles H. Rowell discusses a range of topics with Naylor, including her educational background, her feelings about writing, the genesis of The Women of Brewster Place and Bailey’s Café, and her feelings about the novel she is intending to write, which turns out to be The Men of Brewster Place.Stave, Shirley A., ed. Gloria Naylor: Strategy and Technique, Magic and Myth. Newark: Delaware University Press, 2001. A collection of essays focusing on Mama Day and Bailey’s Café. Stave argues for an elevation of Naylor in the American literary canon.Whitt, Margaret Earley. Understanding Gloria Naylor. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. A thoughtful book of criticism of Naylor’s novels.
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