Gayl Jones returns after 20 years with new novel – The Undefeated
To understand the genius of Gayl Jones today, you have to look back. Jones was just 26 when she rocked the literary world in 1975 with her first novel Corregidora.
Defended by Toni Morrison during her tenure as editor for Random House, Corregidora tells the story of blues singer Ursa Corregidora, taking into account the dark lineage of sexual violence and psychological trauma in her family history. The surname of the family comes from the Portuguese slave owner who raped the women of the matrilineal line of Corregidora. Corregidora, her mother and her ancestors are urged to “make generations” so that “we never forget”. When she finished reading Jones’ manuscript, Morrison said, “No novel about a black woman could be the same after this.”
The novel received praise from John Updike, Maya Angelou, and James Baldwin. “Gayl Jones, I’m trying to say, is a 26 year old writer and his own wife,” wrote New York Times literary critic Raymond Sokolov in 1975. “Hopefully Gayl Jones will soon throw even bigger pearls in front of us pigs.”
In the years that followed, however, Jones, now 71, became one of the most elusive figures in American literature. But his new novel, prize list – and his last in more than 20 years since his National Book Award finalist The healing (1998) and Mosquito (1999) – is the culmination of an almost four-decade project to make the full humanity of female slaves. With prize list, Jones built a complex world, channeled the voices of the dead, fused history and memory to create an epic neo-slave narrative.
The enduring legacy of slavery in the Americas has long been central to Jones’ concerns. Although estimates vary, with around 10.7 million people surviving some 350 years of the Middle Passage, nearly 50% of those survivors were brought from Africa to Brazil, according to estimates from the Slave Voyages database. . In 1888, Brazil would become the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery. In contrast, less than 4% of slaves (388,000) were brought by slavers to the United States through the transatlantic slave trade. In 1808, the United States ended its involvement, while allowing for a flourishing domestic trade until slavery was abolished after the Civil War in 1865.
Even the name of the country we call Brazil is printed with the designs of the settlers. The indigenous Tupi people called him pindorama, or “land of palm trees”, before European contact in 1500. The Portuguese invaders solidified their conquest by renaming it for their use of trees (“pau brasil” or “brazil wood”) which produced a red dye. Subsequently, they forged a new nation through genocide, mass rape and servitude. After unsuccessful attempts to subjugate native bands, the Portuguese investment in human trafficking between the 16th and 19th centuries transformed the “new world” as Europeans saw it.
“I am drawn to things which are now the content of fiction, but of course which were once the territory of poetry” Jones told Charles Rowell in a 1982 interview and the last formal interview Jones gave, shortly after posting Song for Anninho in 1981. It was a book of poetry and an adaptation of a previous iteration of prize list, which she wrote years ago. Palmares was a real community of runaway slaves, free-born Africans, Indians and half-breeds from 1605 to 1695 until its destruction by Portuguese soldiers. Jones is said to have been prolific during her post-baccalaureate years at Brown, where she earned her doctorate and wrote manuscripts for several books that are still praised by critics and fans alike.
Jones prize list is at the heart of a reconstructed slave narrative that draws in amazing detail the collision between the culture and the identities of the colonizers. Encounters between indigenous peoples, slaves and free-born Africans go from the mundane to the depraved to the fantastic. She invents a language that oscillates effortlessly between lyricism and dreams, interiority and history, shedding light on what the survival of the millions of people who survived in this hemisphere may have looked like.
The novel’s enslaved narrator, Almeyda, is a keen observer of the dynamics of sexual subjugation and violence on an unnamed plantation in 17th-century Brazil. The situations are intense. Mexia, an indigenous woman, is the servant of Father Tollinare, a lewd religious leader who undertook the experiment of educating enslaved black children. And then there’s Antonia, a enslaved black woman who is routinely raped and beaten by her and Almeyda’s master, Entraldo. It is common knowledge among the women of the Entraldo plantation of other plantations whose sole function is to support mass rape to reproduce generations.
Slaves struggle to remember their names and the rituals that belonged to them before their subjugation as they sailed through existence on the strange shores of the Americas. They speak by metaphor and amalgamation of myths, deeply linked to the natural and supernatural worlds. The borders between the slaves, the “pretos” and the indigenous peoples of the Brazilian hinterland are fluid.
Yet Palmares exists as a promised land in the imagination of slaves. For this reason, Palmares would always exist as a threat in the imagination and reality of the slavers. Jones never dwells on the facts of the confrontation between the quilombos – or fleeing slave communities, indigenous peoples and freeborn blacks – and the Portuguese army that is destroying Palmares. What we get is something much denser than the simple facts of history. We get the probable interiority of people who lived, died, and survived annihilation. Through Almeyda’s eyes from adolescence to adulthood, readers become intimate as they witness the everyday to the fantastic in the lives of slaves under the thumb of frightening and brutal white men.
Often the historical record, whether presented in fiction or non-fiction, carries a particular awareness and perspective of the oppressor. Black and indigenous life exists on paper in the memories of whites who have the means to transcribe and document it. Slave societies forbade literacy to slaves, for reasons that should be obvious: slaves recounting their interiority and humanity highlight the depravity of slavery. Jones’s Almeyda is a lyrical rebuttal of those tales so conscious of a blank gaze. Our immersion in his universe is deep and complete.
Much of what we can glean from Jones comes from his work alone. She hasn’t given an interview since the 1980s. She Recount his mentor, the poet Michael Harper, in 1977, “A lot of people think that the things I do are autobiographical because when I tell the story or read it aloud, I don’t mean ‘I’ am these women , but these women tell the story.
Born in 1949 in Kentucky, Jones grew up in poverty in the isolated town of Lexington. His father was a cook and his mother stayed home to raise Jones and his brother. Jones was immersed in oral tradition, and her early days were steeped in stories of her mother and grandmother, which seeded the concept of the generational romance. Despite the extent of her characters ‘lives and loves in her novels, much of Jones’ private identity as she gained literary notoriety remains unknown. Her own publisher, Beacon Press, did not have current photos of her to accompany this story.
With Palmares, Jones built a complex world, channeled the voices of the dead, fused history and memory to create an epic neo-slave narrative.
His marriage to Michigan businessman Bob Higgins in the early 1980s arguably marked the beginning of his demise from public life. In 1983, Higgins appeared at a gay rights march in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and “cried out about AIDS and burning in hell,” which sparked a brawl and he returned to the event with a shotgun. He was arrested and charged soon after. The couple fled to Europe (Higgins was tried and convicted in absentia of assault with intent to frighten) and lived in exile. Jones passed out of the world of letters, appearing only once in the early 1990s with the publication of an anthology, Liberating Voices: The Oral Tradition in African American Literature, on the black oral tradition that she edited. The couple eventually relocated to Kentucky, allowing Jones to be closer to his mother, who has cancer.
Then in 1998, a few weeks after the publication of his novel The healing, police came to his door with a 15-year warrant against Higgins. In the deadlock that followed, the husband and wife threatened to kill themselves, but only Higgins succeeded. As the police stormed their cabin, Higgins stabbed himself in the throat.
Could Jones speak through her novels about the whims of her own narrative? May be. Jones’s share of personal tragedy may eclipse his talent for some, but Jones is a griot who masterfully captures the vernacular traditions of the African diaspora. She is also a traditional artist who is not tied to the 21st century demands of celebrities, who insists on accessing artists and creators to get to know them “personally”.
“I like to tell stories like they really happened,” Jones said in an interview in 1982. “I think it’s a real story.” However, the literal truth in prize list is irrelevant. The real joy of reading this book is the journey, through Almeyda’s eyes, of this world only understood in facts, figures, pictures of slaves. History has many faces in prize list, and this novel offers a dazzling picture of love, survival and the monstrous creation of a nation. Jones’ life’s work is a gift and a long love song in memory of millions of people.