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.”