Gayl Jones Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Lexington, Kentucky, 1949. Education: Connecticut College, New London, B.A. in English 1971; Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, M.A. 1973, D.A. 1975. Career: Member of the Department of English, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1975-83. Awards: Howard Foundation award, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1976.
Corregidora. New York, Random House, 1975; London, Camden, 1988.
Eva's Man. New York, Random House, 1976.
The Healing. Boston, Beacon Press, 1998.
Mosquito. Boston, Beacon Press, 1999.
White Rat. New York, Random House, 1977.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Almeyda," in Massachusetts Review (Amherst), Winter 1977.
"Ensinança," in Confirmation, edited by Amiri and Amina Baraka. New York, Morrow, 1983.
Chile Woman. New York, Shubert Foundation, 1975.
Song for Anninho. Detroit, Lotus Press, 1981.
The Hermit-Woman. Detroit, Lotus Press, 1983.
Xarque. Detroit, Lotus Press, 1985.
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge and London, Harvard University Press, 1991.
Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women's Fiction by Sally Robinson, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1991; Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paula Marshall, Toni Morrison and Gayl Jones by Stelamaris Coser, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994.
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Gayl Jones's first novel, Corregidora, focuses on the lingering effects of slavery in black America—specifically on its sexual and psychological manifestations in the life of Ursa Corregidora, a Kentucky blues singer. The great granddaughter of a Portuguese plantation owner who fathered not only her grandmother but also her mother, and who used his progeny both in the fields and in his own whorehouse, Ursa is unable to free herself of painful and obsessive family memories. In each personal relationship she finds yet again the sickness of the master-slave dynamic. Her short-lived first marriage is convulsive with desire, possessiveness, humiliation, and violence; her second, safer, marriage fails as she cannot forget the first. In relating Ursa's story, Jones shows the difficulty of loving when abusive relationships have been naturalized by cultural continuity, when so much has been taken that one's only dignity is in withholding. Her taut and explicit idiom, sometimes plainly narrative, sometimes wildly stream-of-consciousness, captures the nuances of a tormented sexuality that is both specific to black experience and symptomatic of our troubled gender system. "I knew what I still felt. I knew that I still hated him. Not as bad as then, not with the first feeling, but an after feeling, an aftertaste, or like an odor still in a room when you come back to it, and it's your own." The book's ending, almost unbearably intense but strangely hopeful, suggests that we may begin to heal ourselves only as we confront the deep sexual hatred that pervades our lives.
Whereas Corregidora allows us to perceive the construction of personality as historical process, Eva's Man offers a very different kind of experience, one that many readers have found profoundly disturbing. Eva Canada, the main character of the novel, tells her tale from an institution for the criminally insane, where she has been imprisoned for a hideous sexual crime of murder and dental castration. Like Ursa, Eva has been damaged by abuse and by a legacy of violence; unlike the protagonist of Corregidora, she has no sense of how her past motivates her present. As she speaks her disjointed narrative, an ugly story disrupted by flashes of recalled nastiness, she remains alien to us, a personality beyond promise or repair.
I put my hand on his hand. I kissed his hand, his neck. I put my fingers in the space above his eyes, but didn't close them. They'd come and put copper coins over them. That's why they told you not to suck pennies. I put my forehead under his chin. He was warm. The glass had spilled from his hand. I put my tongue between his parted lips. I kissed his teeth.
In Eva's Man, Jones takes us into the pathological mind, and we do not find ourselves there. As the tidy reader-protagonist identification is denied us, we are left with the horror of what we can't sympathetically imagine. Jones's unflinching violation of our strongest taboos—made all the more chilling by her starkly controlled prose—raises a number of questions about the roles of writers, readers, and cultural conventions. Beyond shock value, what does a writer achieve in presenting the truly sordid? Is our understanding necessarily dependent upon the protagonist's understanding? What do disturbing books demand of us that comforting ones do not? How must we see the world in order to change it? The stories that make up White Rat suggest that Jones is intent on keeping those questions before us. The majority of these pieces ("Legend," "Asylum," "The Coke Factory," "The Return," "Version 2," "Your Poems Have Very Little Color in Them") are about madness or extreme psychic alienation. Some ("The Women," "Jevata") address the painful complications of desperate sexual arrangements. The most attractive, of course, are those few ("White Rat," "Persona," "The Roundhouse") that hint at successful human connection despite overwhelming odds. Like Eva's Man, most of the stories in White Rat challenge our notions of what fiction should do.
Jones's later novels, The Healing and Mosquito, press the limits of the novel in an entirely different direction, by evoking the sound and form of oral storytelling. The narration in both novels is idiomatic and non-linear, following the syntax and associative logic of the spoken word. And though both novels are written in the first-person, they incorporate multiple voices through free indirect discourse, and through a technique in which the narrator responds to the implied questions of her audience, creating a dialogic, multi-voiced narrative. In Mosquito, the narrator expressly comments on this form, suggesting that she's creating a jazz narrative in which the readers can join in and improvise as they will.
This new dialogic narrative form corresponds to a greater emphasis on the beneficial possibilities in human interaction. The narrator of The Healing is a faith healer who can cure afflictions of both the body and mind; the narrator of Mosquito is an African-American woman truck driver in south Texas who becomes involved in the new Underground Railroad, transporting illegal immigrants and providing sanctuary. Both of these narrators experience transformation and a change of consciousness, yet the narratives' non-linear forms suggest that these changes are neither sudden nor isolated, but instead interconnected with the narrators' histories.
Harlan Jane Eagleton, the narrator of The Healing, for instance, tells her tale backwards. She moves from her experience as a faith healer to her previous career as the manager of the rock star, Joan "the bitch" Savage, her affairs with Joan's husband and with an African-German horse breeder, her brief marriage to a medical anthropologist, and her first career, as a beautician. As a faith healer, Harlan continues to promote natural beauty products and to listen to Joan's music. The bodyguard of her horse-breeder lover is her "witness," so that all of the experiences of Harlan's life inform her contemporary identity as a healer. Harlan's ability to heal is never explained; instead, the retrospective narrative stands in for the explanation, suggesting that Harlan's increasing independence and ability to "manage herself" eventually leads to her ability to heal herself, and then to heal others.
African-American women's independence is a major theme in Mosquito as well. Mosquito herself (aka Sojourner Jane Nadine Johnson) is an independent truck driver who refuses to join the union and who eventually forms the worker-owned Mosquito Trucking Company. Her childhood friend, Monkey Bread, joins the "Daughters of Nzingha," an African-American women's group that pursues womanist philosophy and advocates economic independence for its members. This emphasis on independence complements rather than contradicts the novel's other main theme, of interdependence. It is because Mosquito remains independent from the union that she can carry immigrants in the back of her truck and thereby discharge her social obligations to the immigrants that she understands to be the contemporary versions of fugitive slaves. Thus in this novel as well, history (both personal and cultural) informs the main character's change of consciousness.
Jones's skillful control of African-American idiom, use of parody, and ability to subtly signify on everything from the CIA's illegal activities to movie stars' hair color in Mosquito has led reviewers to compare Jones's work to that of Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Ishmael Reed. In fact, Jones's more recent work draws on both the traditions of the African-American vernacular and on the forms of postmodern literature, creating novels that layer many forms and provide commentary on the state of the novel. Both Mosquito and The Healing are replete with references to, and analysis of, other novels from Invisible Man to Huckleberry Finn. Much of Jones's brilliance lies in her ability to use the colloquial voice of working-class African-American women to provide not only extensive social commentary but also intriguing metafictional discourse on the nature of narrative, or, in the words of The Healing 's narrator, "confabulatory truth."
—Janis Butler Holm,
updated by Suzanne Lane
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