Jones, Gayl (Vol. 131)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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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, and we come to hope—with her—that they might one day establish a spiritual and physical unity which will withstand all oppressors.
Almeyda tells us of the Palmares settlement of Africans who escaped from slavery in Brazil in the 1690s and who, through non-violent raids upon slaveholders, rescued others who were either too timid or otherwise prevented from escaping. Almeyda had been brought to Palmares through such a raid. Jorge Velho, a Portuguese field-master, eventually leads a successful attack against Palmares, reenslaving most of the inhabitants and scattering the others through the hilly forests of Brazil. Among those to escape are Almeyda and her lover Anninho, who voluntarily came to Palmares because he could be...
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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 themes to magnify the absurdity and the obscenity of racism and sexism in everyday life. Her novels and short fictions invite readers to explore the interiors of caged personalities, men and women driven to extremes. Her intentions seem less analytic than synthetic, the strategies of her fictions themselves being indices of contemporary disorder as norm rather than deviation. Throughout Jones's fictions, prisons and asylums function as settings for problematic narratives and as clues for the interpretation of outsideness. In the very act of concretizing these fictions as aesthetic objects, readers find themselves caught. The pleasure of experiencing such irony, and of gradually coming to know how accurately it confirms our habitation of an...
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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 recollections of the events leading up to her confinement in a mental institution. A collection of short stories, White Rat (1977), depicts brief encounters with seemingly ordinary black people, also in rural Kentucky, Jones's latest work, Song for Anninho (1981), is an extended lyrical ballad about a slave revolt in eighteenth-century Brazil.
All of Jones's works are carefully wrought narratives developed from her determination to relay a story entirely in terms of the mental processes of the main character, without any authorial intrusion. While this has made many reviewers uneasy, Jones insists her task is to record her observations with compassion and understanding, but without judgment. Her style and...
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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 own oral and musical traditions, or else found ways to transform the received patterns through the deep incorporation of indigenous elements. Jones is highly discriminating in tracing the evolution of the various strategies of adoption and incorporation—of dialect speech, say, or the structures and idioms of blues, spirituals, and jazz—in the poetry, short fiction, and novels of isolated practitioners. Her discussions hew close to her chosen texts. She shows, for instance, the gradual liberation of dialect usage from Langston Hughes to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Sterling Brown to Sherley A. Williams, and the increasingly sophisticated implementation of musical modes from Jean Toomer to Ann Petry to Amiri Baraka. But her procedure of...
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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 of slavery reifies a concept of black women as hypersexual by regarding them as property. Great Gram Corregidora charges her family to “bear witness,” to have children who must memorize her old slavemaster CorregiDora's atrocities and recite them at Armageddon, “when the ground and the sky open up to ask them that question That's going to be ask” (41). Hence, sexual commodification is supplanted by a deliberate, political self-definition. But as Ursa (a childless blues singer and the youngest Corregidora) discovers, this political move has a double-edged drawback: The Corregidoras’ agenda severely limits their sexual identities, a limitation which in turn provokes domestic violence.
Marked by their family...
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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 reception was based on shock. Acceptance of the multivocal nature of Black women's experience as well as a poststructuralist age which is more open to the language of fragmentation have led to renewed interest in Jones's work in critical circles. And now her 1977 collection White Rat has been reissued by Northeastern University Press, joining her two novels, Corregidora (1975) and Eva's Man (1976), both of which were reprinted in 1986. In addition, Harvard University Press has recently published a work of her criticism written in 1982. Unlike the collection of short stories, which is as impressive as when it was first published, the critical collection Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American...
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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 That means I'm grown
—“I'm a Woman,” Koko Taylor
In amazement, I watched blues singer Koko Taylor perform the preceding song in a small nightclub several years ago. Belting every note, Taylor never faltered: she performed each verse as if for the first time and as if she had lived the life about which she sang, for this was the celebratory side of the blues—a Black Woman's blues.
Today when I think about Taylor’s performance, I often wonder if the audience, who were mostly White, really understood the message of her song. Did they comprehend the significance of a Black woman singing “I'm a Woman” given the social realities of her life? Undoubtedly, there were those who felt the...
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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 who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
We are rooted in language, wedded, have our being in words. Language is also a place of struggle. The Oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves—to rewrite, to reconcile, to renew. Our words are not without meaning. They are an action—a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle.
“I know Mammy didn't know a thing about history.”
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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 lesbianism, and its use of stereotypes, first-person narration, and black dialect, resists a Black Aesthetic reading. This defiance of the contemporary conditions of readability produces a visible sense of strain in the text. The most subversive moments of Eva's Man are shrouded in an incoherence that seriously jeopardizes the reader’s interpretive function, and prevents us from distilling any clear meaning from the text. It seems almost as if the novel must disclaim its right to meaning altogether if it cannot posit the clear, didactic meaning required by the Black Aesthetic. Eva's Man renders itself unreadable, as it were, in order both to escape the functional reading codes of the Black Aesthetic and to obscure its own refusal of...
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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, Alice Walker and the ‘Ancient Power’ of Black Women,” and Joanne Braxton’s “Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance” posit the mother as the origin of the black women's literary tradition, as well as the guarantor of its temporal continuity. Apparently resuming a familial metaphor long familiar to Euro-American feminist theory—as early as 1929, Virginia Woolf declared that women writers “think back through [their] mothers” ( 1957, 79)—the black feminist discourse on matrilineage seeks to unwrite a brutal history of rupture and dislocation and to write an alternative story of familial and cultural connection. While generating an empowering new critical narrative that takes Zora Neale Hurston as...
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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 of liberating the text from narrowly defined limits, but such critical maneuvers may generate an entirely different set of meanings in different cultural configurations. For example, unlike New Criticism which examined “literature for literature’s sake,” critical discourses concerning themselves with African-American literature often did not treat it as literature. African-American literature was treated as political statement. Thus the move to politicize literary texts cannot have the same consequences in the African-American literary and critical tradition as it has had on literary studies in general.
In the introductory chapters of The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates outlines some of the issues that...
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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 behavioral phenomenon that is seemingly senseless and potentially destructive, McDowell implicitly evokes the theory of trauma. She suggests that retelling manifests an attempt to gain mastery over elusive or defeating histories and their narration. This essay will pursue McDowell’s lead in exploring the connections and disjunctions between trauma and the neoslave narrative, the twentieth-century novel about slavery.1 In what follows I will examine the term “trauma” in order to argue that it can be useful for focusing a discussion of two texts by African-American women: Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.2 I do not wish to suggest that anything as meticulously worked out and worked upon...
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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 use of first-person narration, none of her writing was “strictly autobiographical.” She names one story as a slight exception: “‘The Welfare Check’ is only in terms of the Woman's being like me.”1 Jones elaborates further on the function of the narrator of the story and the purpose the story served:
[T]he woman narrator, even though the details of her life were different, was me in the sense that I needed her to explain myself. There was no way I could explain who I was to myself or anybody else except that way. Particularly my silence. I had to say something about it some way. … And I felt that if people read the story or if I read it to them, they would feel less badly about my...
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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 souls of Black men and women.” In praise of Eva's Man, John Updike called Jones “an American writer with a powerful sense of vital inheritance, of history in the blood.” On the heels of such high praise, Jones virtually disappeared from the American literary scene. Walking away from a tenured professorship at the University of Michigan, she retreated to Europe in the early ’80s after an unspecified “incident of racial injustice,” according to a statement issued by her publisher. While living in France, Jones quietly published a novel in Germany as her growing community of U.S. readers wondered if we’d ever hear from her again.
Now Gayl Jones is back, with her first U.S. novel in more than 20 years....
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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 Europe for several years, she continued to write fiction, plays and poetry, occasionally publishing with small presses. Now, with The Healing, Jones announces a welcome return to the American scene, thematically and otherwise.
I found it hard (as many will) to read the new novel without recalling the impact of Jones’ early fiction—specifically, her portrayal of lives under extreme compulsion, from both external forces and a tyrannical and violent eros within. With all their stripped-down contemporaneity, those fiercely deterministic narratives belonged to the lineage of fictional naturalism—traced back through Richard Wright, perhaps, to elements in Eugene O’Neill and Theodore Dreiser. For such a writer, whose...
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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 conglomerates, America’s erasure of the line between celebrity and talent. Nowadays, too often the writer as personality/celebrity is either indistinguishable from or overtakes the written word. “I'm famous, therefore I'm good” might well be their mantra.
Gayl Jones, whose first novel in twenty years, The Healing, was published to great fanfare in February by Beacon Press—the only original novel published by that house in its 144-year history—is an extremely private writer living in an extremely public time. The fact that she had not published or been otherwise heard from in twenty years attests to this, as does the absence of even the smallest of author photos on the dust jacket and the lack of any book tour...
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Chambers, Veronica. “The Invisible Woman Reappears—Sort of.” Newsweek CXXXI, No. 7 (16 February 1998): 68.
Remarks on The Healing and summarizes Jones's life.
Additional coverage of Jones's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 2; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27, 66; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 9; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 33; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2.
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