Gloria Naylor Biography

Gloria Naylor Biography

Gloria Naylor embraces her identity as a black female writer, but laments that the label often results in a kind of literary segregation. For Naylor, literature is at its best when it recognizes all people, yet  her own identity is often used to keep her work (and the work of other black and brown writers) in a niche separate from mainstream white American fiction.

Her novel The Women of Brewster Place uses pastiche as a means toward exploring the lives of a group of African American women. The novel is a series of rich, interconnected stories. 

Facts and Trivia

  • Education has played an important role in Gloria Naylor’s life. In addition to being a graduate of Yale, she has taught at New York University, Boston University, and Cornell.
  • Faith and spirituality are also key influences in Naylor’s life and work. She joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses when she was eighteen, and even worked as a missionary for a time.
  • Naylor’s breakout success, the novel The Women of Brewster Place, was completed while she was still studying at Yale.
  • The Women of Brewster Place has had many lives. The novel was released in the early 1980s, and Oprah Winfrey turned it into a miniseries at the end of that decade. In 2007, the novel was adapted as a stage musical.
  • The popularity of The Women of Brewster Place spurred Naylor to write a follow-up, appropriately titled The Men of Brewster Place.

Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gloria Naylor was born on January 25, 1950, in New York City, the daughter of Roosevelt Naylor, a transit worker, and Alberta McAlpin Naylor, a telephone operator. Her parents had moved from Mississippi only a few months before. The oldest of three sisters, Naylor grew up and attended schools in New York. As a young person she was shy but was an avid reader. In high school, she immersed herself in such classic British authors as Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, whose influences can be seen in Naylor’s writing.

The young Naylor also felt a strong sense of religious dedication. In 1968, after graduation from high school, she began working as a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose headquarters is in Brooklyn. She spent the next seven years as a missionary in New York, North Carolina, and Florida—travels that obviously provided materials for and influenced the settings of her novels. The strongest evidence of her early religious background might be the lingering fundamentalist outlook of her novels, wherein—for other reasons besides religion—characters are often divided into the redeemed or the damned.

In 1975, Naylor left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and returned to New York City, where she worked as a hotel telephone operator while attending Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. At Brooklyn College, Naylor studied creative writing and read the book that was most influential in shaping her career,...

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Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In her novels, Naylor surveys contemporary black American life, ranging from an urban ghetto to an affluent suburb to a pristine southern island. While few white characters appear in her work, racism is a constant background factor, affecting the circumstances of black existence and the sense of black identity. Naylor also writes as a dedicated feminist who celebrates the lives and special powers of black women.

The male characters in Naylor’s work tend either to be demonized or emasculated. Whether Naylor’s doctrinaire feminism and her related tendency to write in grand, sweeping strokes will ultimately limit her development remains to be seen. Yet these same features help to account for a powerful, mythic quality in Naylor’s writing.

Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The oldest child of parents who had migrated from Mississippi, Gloria Naylor was born and reared in New York City, her parents having left the South the year before her birth. An avid reader as a child, Naylor seemed to have inherited her passion for reading from her mother, a woman who would go to great lengths to purchase books to which she was denied access in Mississippi libraries because blacks were not allowed inside. The year Naylor graduated from high school, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated, and the shock of this event caused Naylor to delay her college education. She chose instead to become a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York, North Carolina, and Florida. She eventually found missionary life too strict, but her zeal apparently carried over into her later feminism. Although her writings are not religious, a fundamentalist pattern of thinking pervades them. She tends to separate her characters into the sheep and the goats (the latter mostly men), the saved and the damned, with one whole book, Linden Hills, being modeled on Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320).

In high school Naylor read widely in the nineteenth century British novelists, but later in a creative writing course at Brooklyn College she came across the book that influenced her most—The Bluest Eye (1970), by the black American novelist Toni Morrison. The example of Morrison inspired Naylor to write fiction and to focus on the lives of black women, who Naylor felt were underrepresented (if not ignored) in American literature. Naylor began work on The Women of Brewster Place, which was published the year after her graduation from Brooklyn College with a bachelor of arts degree in English. By that time, Naylor was studying on a fellowship at Yale University, from which she received a master of arts degree in African American studies in 1983.

Naylor’s background and literary achievements won for her numerous invitations for lectureships or other appointments in academia. She held visiting posts at George Washington University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, New York University, Boston University, Brandeis, and Cornell. Diverse in her pursuits, Naylor wrote a stage adaptation of Bailey’s Café. She founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and became involved in a literacy program in the Bronx. She settled in Brooklyn, New York.

Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

When she gave her introverted daughter a journal from Woolworth’s, Gloria Naylor’s mother opened the door to writing. In high school, two experiences shaped Naylor’s emerging identity: nineteenth century English literature taught her that language can be a powerful tool, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1968 assassination turned her to missionary work. Instead of going to college, for the next seven years she traveled as a Jehovah’s Witness, abandoning the work in 1975, when she began to feel constrained by the lifestyle.

At Brooklyn College, her introduction to black history and the discovery of such literary foremothers as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison gave her the inspiration to try writing herself. Completing her first novel, the best-seller The Women of Brewster Place, signified, she has indicated, her taking hold of herself and attempting to take her destiny into her own hands. After winning a scholarship to Yale University, Naylor discovered that, for her, graduate training was incompatible with writing fiction. She nevertheless completed a master’s degree in 1983, when the Afro-American Studies department allowed her second novel, Linden Hills, to fulfill the thesis requirement. Linden Hills illustrates the effects of materialism on an elite all-black community that lacks a spiritual center.

The central feature of all of Naylor’s novels is an enclosed black community where characters learn to embrace their identities in the context of place. Naylor’s powerful settings combine elements of the ordinary with the otherworldly, allowing for magical events and mythic resolutions. For example, Mama Day takes place on the imaginary island of Willow Springs and weaves the history of the Day family from the point of view of the powerful matriarch Mama Day, a conjure woman. Naylor’s own family history provides her with a rich sense of community, but she paradoxically treasures solitude. Married briefly, she refuses to remarry or have children and teaches writing to keep from being too much of a recluse. Naylor’s strength is portraying convincing multigenerational characters in specific settings.