Gloria Naylor Biography

Gloria Naylor embraces her identity as a black female writer, but she 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 works of other black and brown writers) in a niche separate from mainstream 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 into a stage musical.
  • The popularity of The Women of Brewster Place spurred Naylor to write a follow-up novel appropriately titled The Men of Brewster Place.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

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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, The Bluest Eye (1970), by the black woman novelist Toni Morrison. Morrison was a model for the young Naylor, inspiring her to write fiction and to focus on the realities of black women.

In 1981, Naylor received her B.A. in English from Brooklyn College; then, with a fellowship, she moved on to Yale University. While at Yale, she published The Women of Brewster Place (1982), which in 1983 won the American Book Award for best first novel. That same year, Naylor won the Distinguished Writer Award of the Mid-Atlantic Writers Association and received her M.A. in Afro-American Studies from Yale.

Thereafter, Naylor found herself much in demand as a visiting writer and lecturer. During the summer of 1983, she was writer-in-residence at Cummington Community of the Arts in Massachusetts; during 1983-1984, she was a visiting lecturer at George Washington University; during the fall of 1985, she was a cultural exchange lecturer for the United States Information Agency in India. Naylor’s second novel, Linden Hills, also appeared in 1985.

Further awards and invitations followed. Naylor received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1985, the Candace Award of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1986, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1988. She was a scholar-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania in 1986, a visiting lecturer at Princeton University in 1986-1987, a visiting professor at New York University in 1986 and Boston University in 1987, Fannie Hurst Visiting Professor at Brandeis University in 1988, and a senior fellow at Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities in 1988.

In 1988, Naylor published her third novel, Mama Day, to even greater applause. Not all of her work was instantly successful, particularly her attempts to write television screenplays. Two screenplays written in 1984 and 1985 remained unproduced for a time, but a television miniseries of The Women of Brewster Place, featuring Oprah Winfrey and a host of other stars, was broadcast and was well received.

Meanwhile, Naylor expanded her literary efforts in other directions. In 1984, she became a contributing editor to Callaloo: An Afro-American and African Journal of Arts and Letters, and she has contributed articles to a wide range of periodicals including Essence, People, Life, Ms., Ontario Review, and The Southern Review. In 1986, she also wrote a column for The New York Times titled Hers.

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