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.
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...
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