Gayl Jones Essay - Critical Essays

Jones, Gayl (Vol. 131)

Introduction

Gayl Jones 1949–-

American novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Jones's career through 1998.

A highly regarded and innovative voice of African-American women, Jones shot to literary fame in the 1970s with the publication of her critically acclaimed novels Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976). After a twenty-year hiatus, Jones published two additional novels, The Healing (1998), which was nominated for the National Book Award, and Mosquito (1999). In her first person accounts, Jones describes the sexual and racial violence perpetrated against African-American women, chronicling these female characters' varied responses. She is credited as one of the first writers to focus extensively on sexual violence and its relationship to African-American women. While her perceived focus on feminism over racism and the brutality of her subject matter have sparked negative responses in some readers, Jones has earned the praise of fellow writers such as Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and John Updike. Jones is also known for her poetry.

Biographical Information

Jones was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on November 23, 1949. She credits her mother's aspirations to be a writer with her own career choice. As a shy student in high school, she earned the praise and respect of her teachers, one of whom helped Jones secure a scholarship to Connecticut College. After graduating in 1971, she earned an M.A. in 1973 and a D.A. in 1975 from Brown University. While there, Jones published her first novel, Corregidora, under the tutelage of Toni Morrison, at that time an editor at Random House Publishers. The novel earned Jones instant critical acclaim. The following year she published Eva's Man, which cemented her reputation as an innovative and dramatic new literary voice. A very shy person, Jones was uncomfortable with the publicity and fame that accompanied her status as a rising literary star. She accepted a teaching position in the English Department at the University of Michigan, where she led a quiet life encouraging student writers. While in Ann Arbor, Jones began an association with Bob Higgins, who was convicted in 1983 of weapons charge after he threatened gay rights advocators. The couple fled the country before the trial, but Higgins was convicted in absentia. Five years later, the couple, who had married, returned quietly to the United States to care for Jones's ailing mother. The publicity from the publication of Jones's third novel, The Healing, served as the catalyst for a showdown between Lexington Police and the couple in 1998. As a result of a book review, the police determined the true identity of Higgins, who had once again been making threats against members of the community. In an attempt by police to serve the original warrant, Higgins killed himself and Jones attempted suicide. The author was institutionalized. Subsequent reviews of her novels The Healing and Mosquito were read against the dramatic events of her own life, despite her lifetime efforts to distance her life from her writing.

Major Works

Jones's novels center upon strong and articulate African-American females. She writes in the first person, often in a nonsequential order. Jones claims that her first two novels were based on the blues form with an emphasis on the wrongs men commit against women and the ways in which women suffer. Corregidora is the story of Ursa Corregidora, a blues singer and descendant of women raped and enslaved by a Portuguese slave owner in Brazil. Her ancestors carried down the tradition that their lives must be living testimonies to the violence, incest, and brutality that they suffered. In the novel, Jones explores the limitations that this type of victimization creates as well as the negative consequences Ursa suffers upon trying to break free of the perpetuated victimization. In her next novel, Eva's Man, Jones continues to explore these themes. The novel consists of the unordered and, at times, inconsistent ramblings of Eva Canada, who has been institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital for the strange poisoning and dismemberment of her lover. Jones discusses the varied ways in which Eva and other women respond to extreme sexual and racial violence. In her collection of short stories White Rat (1977) and her volumes of poetry published through the first half of the 1980s, Jones discusses and describes the many aspects of sexism and racism from a woman's perspective, coloring all with a dark and disturbing tone. However, Jones stated with the release of her third novel, The Healing, that she intended to depart from her earlier form. Her tone is happier and more hopeful, the book ends on a positive note, and the characters make choices to pursue avenues out of their victimization. In her novel Mosquito, Jones creates a strong, personable character in truck driver and illegal immigrant smuggler Sojourner Johnson, allowing her to explore a stable and healthy relationship with the kind-hearted and gentle philosopher Ray.

Critical Reception

From the publication of her first novel, Jones earned extensive critical and public attention, much of it positive. Writers such as John Updike and James Baldwin praised her first groundbreaking novels; Toni Morrison championed her. Scholars have credited Jones with being one of the first writers to focus on the violence of sexism and racism from a feminist perspective. Her attention to brutality and its effect on the identity of African-American women has earned her the reputation of a distinct and important literary voice. Critics note that her use of first person narrative is reminiscent of slave accounts and that her use of vernacular language and speech patterns is outstanding. However, some readers have objected to her description of intense violence and brutality, arguing that it is gratuitous. In addition, critics have charged that her writing remains outside the Black Aesthetics Movement objectives and, that by focusing on the divisions between African-American men and women, that she has diverted attention from the more important issue of racism. However, critics responded to The Healer positively, praising her positive ending, her focus on timely events, and her superb character development. As Jill Nelson writes “Jones's ability to create bizarre yet believable characters is magical, requiring a subtle act of faith between writer and reader.”

Principal Works

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 (essays) 1991

The Healing (novel) 1998

Mosquito (novel) 1999

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Criticism

Trudier Harris (essay date October 1982)

SOURCE: “A Spiritual Journey: Gayl Jones's Song for Anninho,” in Callaloo, Vol. 5, No. 3, October, 1982, pp. 105-11.

[In the following essay, Harris outlines the plot and themes in Jones's narrative poem Song for Anninho.]

In Gayl Jones's long poem, Song for Anninho, Almeyda, whose narrative voice we hear, undergoes a spiritual journey which highlights both theme and character. In her explorations of memory and history, Almeyda moves beyond her individuality to represent the destiny of the African descendants who were brought to Brazil in the seventeenth century. Through Almeyda's sights and values, we come to see the strength of her people,...

(The entire section is 2356 words.)

Jerry W. Ward Jr. (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “Escape from Trublem: The Fiction of Gayl Jones,” in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press, 1984, pp. 249-57.

[In the essay below, Ward discusses the importance of the characters’ thoughts and acts of thinking in White Rat, Eva's Man, and Corregidora.]

In the American penal system, female prisoners are often subjected to more psychosexual abuse than their male counterparts. The same condition obtains, according to our most perceptive writers, in American society outside the prison walls. The abuse of women and its psychological results fascinate Gayl Jones, who uses these recurring...

(The entire section is 3933 words.)

Claudia Tate (interview date 1986)

SOURCE: “Gayl Jones,” in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1986, pp. 89-99.

[In the interview below, Jones discusses her writing method, her intent in writing, and the differences between men and women writers.]

Gayl Jones was born in 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky where she lived until she attended Connecticut College and Brown University. Her first novel, Corregidora (1975), appeared when she was twenty-six years old. It is a bizarre, romantic story exposing the intimate family history of three generations of black women in rural Kentucky from early to mid-twentieth century. Eva's Man (1976) is a young Woman's...

(The entire section is 4260 words.)

Sven Birkerts (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Writing Black,” in American Energies, William Morrow and Co., 1992, pp. 168-73.

[In the following excerpt, Birkerts argues that while Jones raises interesting questions about the distinctive form of African-American writers, her theories are flawed and she fails to take into account the issue of authority.]

The basic premise of Gayl Jones's Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature is as follows: that modern African-American writers did not begin to realize their true literary identity until they either rejected the dominant modes of the European American tradition, adopting instead the forms and approaches suggested by their...

(The entire section is 2227 words.)

Amy S. Gottfried (essay date Winter 1994)

SOURCE: “Angry Arts: Silence, Speech, and Song in Gayl Jones's Corregidora,” in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 559-70.

[In the following essay, Gottfried posits that Jones addresses an unusual topic for an African-American woman author by examining the roles of power in sexual ownership and political empowerment.]

Gayl Jones's Corregidora (1975) painfully, often brutally, explores rigid definitional boundaries of the self. Dealing with four generations of black Brazilian-American women who are strictly defined initially by a slaveholder/procurer and then by themselves, the novel challenges us to think about how the system...

(The entire section is 7002 words.)

Gay Wilentz (review date Spring 1994)

SOURCE: “Gayl Jones's Oraliterary Explorations,” in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 141-45.

[In the following review of Liberating Voices and White Rat, Wilentz states that while Jones's academic writing may be flawed, her commitment to first-person narrative has allowed her to discuss aspects of identity and experience perviously unexplored.]

Gayl Jones is one of the most forceful voices in contemporary African American literature, but until recently her major works were out of print. Her violent use of language and sexual/scatological images have challenged notions of what women write, and when first published, critical...

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E. Patrick Johnson (essay date Spring-Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “Wild Women Don't Get the Blues: A Blues Analysis of Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man,” in Obsidian II, Vol. IX, No. 1, Spring-Summer, 1994, pp. 26-46.

[In the essay below, Johnson develops the thesis that Jones employs Blues structure and content in Eva's Manas a means of describing problems particular to African-American women.]

When I was a little girl, only twelve years old
I couldn't do nothing to save my doggone soul
My mama told me the day I was born
She said sing the blues, chile, sing from now on
I'm a woman
I'm a rushing wind
I'm a woman
Cut stone with a pen
I'm a woman
I'm ball of fire
I'm a woman
Make love to a crocodile
Spelled W-O-M-A-N...

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Adam McKible (essay date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “‘These Are the Facts of the Darky’s History’: Thinking History and Reading Manes in Four African American Texts,” in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 223-35.

[In the following essay, McKible analyzes the definitions of power and identity in the context of naming in Jones's Corregidora, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and Sherley Anne Williams’s Dessa Rose.]

In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it. … Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past...

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Madhu Dubey (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “‘Don't You Explain Me’: The Unreadability of Eva's Man,” in Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic, Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 89-105.

[In the following excerpt, Dubey examines Eva's Man in light of the prescribed writing structures of the Black Aesthetics movement, arguing that Jones's focus on gender issues over racial inequality led to unfavorable reviews of the novel.]

Unlike Corregidora, Gayl Jones's Eva's Man (1976) cannot be even partially recovered into the Black Aesthetic critical mode. Each of the novel’s salient thematic and formal features, such as its treatment of castration and...

(The entire section is 9623 words.)

Madhu Dubey (essay date Winter 1995)

SOURCE: “Gayl Jones and the Matrilineal Metaphor of Tradition,” in Signs, Vol. 20, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 245-67.

[In the essay below, Dubey analyzes Jones's use of a matrilineal structure to achieve meaning in her novels Corregidora and Song of Anninho.]

Since the publication of Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens in 1974, black feminist literary critics have recurrently used the metaphor of matrilineage to authorize their construction of a black feminine literary tradition. Essays such as Dianne Sadoff’s “Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston,” Marjorie Pryse’s “Zora Neale Hurston,...

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Biman Basu (essay date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: “Public and Private Discourses and the Black Female Subject: Gayl Jones’ Eva's Man,” in Callaloo, Vol. 19, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 193-208.

[In the essay below, Basu discusses the political motivations behind critical reaction to Jones's work and argues that Eva's Man differs from other African-American writings.]

In the past two decades at least, we have witnessed an increasing politicization of literature in the academy. The text has been dislocated from the fixed and autonomous position it occupied in New Critical theory and made to participate in the larger machinery of cultural production. Such a move may, in general, have the effect...

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Naomi Morgenstern (essay date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: “Mother’s Milk and Sister’s Blood: Trauma and the Neoslave Narrative,” in Differences, Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 101-26.

[In the following essay, Morgenstern discusses the role of trauma and repetitive accounts in Jones's Corregidora and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.]

In “Negotiating Between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery After Freedom—Dessa Rose,” Deborah McDowell poses a question: “Why the compulsion to repeat the massive story of slavery, in the contemporary African-American novel, especially so long after the empirical event itself?” (144). In referring to repetition compulsion, the name given to a psychic and...

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Janelle Wilcox (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Resistant Silence, Resistant Subject: (Re)Reading Gayl Jones's Eva's Man,” in Bodies of Writing, Bodies in Performance, edited by Thomas Foster, Carol Siegal, and Ellen E. Berry, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 72-96.

[In the following essay, Wilcox, a professor at Washington State University, applies Michel Foucault’s theories on discourse to analyze Jones's use of silence in Eva's Man.]

In an interview conducted in the spring of 1975, just after the publication of Gayl Jones's first novel, Corregidora, Michael S. Harper asks Jones if any of her work was autobiographical. Jones responds with an acknowledgment that despite her...

(The entire section is 10426 words.)

Valerie Boyd (review date 1 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Faith in Herself,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 28, No. 5, March 1, 1998, p. 9.

[In the following review of The Healing, Boyd remarks favorably on the novel’s characters and plot but argues that Jones fails to provide enough details.]

Like a bright idea, Gayl Jones first beamed onto the American literary landscape in the mid-1970s, when Toni Morrison—then an editor at Random House—introduced Jones's first two novels. Corregidora and Eva's Man both earned glowing reviews.

James Baldwin called Corregidora “the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Judith Grossman (review date March 1998)

SOURCE: “Love’s Reward,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XV, No. 6, March, 1998, pp. 15-6.

[In the following review of The Healing, Grossman states that the book differs from Jones's earlier works but that her humanistic romance is as moving as her previous novels.]

The appearance of this novel by Gayl Jones, the first since her powerful debut in the 1970s with Corregidora and Eva's Man, is a notable event indeed. As her publishers report it, by the end of that decade Jones had abandoned her successful career as a fiction writer and teacher at the University of Michigan following “an incident of racial injustice.” Exiling herself to...

(The entire section is 1448 words.)

Jill Nelson (review date 25 May 1998)

SOURCE: “Hiding from Salvation,” in The Nation, Vol. 266, No. 19, May 25, 1998, pp. 30-32.

[In the review below, Nelson praises the language, character development, and message of The Healing.]

There was a time, not all that long ago, when writers could choose to be private people. People who spoke through words on a page, identifiable by the way they used language, a turn of phrase, a subject often written about, more obviously by their name on a title page. There was a time, I think, when most writers preferred it that way. But those days are long gone, swallowed up by television, the grind of book tours, the gobbling up of small publishing houses by...

(The entire section is 1373 words.)