I told an audience in New York City recently that I had given up the notion of homogeneity in my fiction. “Why can’t omniscience sound like my grandmother?” I asked them. “Why can’t a woman like my country, black grandmother be God? Why can’t I think of point of view as my grandmother riding the back of a bird through the story?” What I didn’t say to them was that reading Gayl Jones helped nurture this idea in me years ago.
I found myself in Jones’s writing. Kentucky. Black. Rural. Woman. I was especially taken with how she drew characters from the oral storytelling tradition and then broadened that form into her own literary style. I saw Jones’s act of making black speech the core of her work as revolutionary.
I discovered Jones in 1992 when she made a rare appearance and read from her work at the University of Kentucky. She was reserved in her stage demeanor but also brilliant. Every new thing I found out about Jones made my backbone straighter. She was shy. Me too. She had learned to write from listening to her mother and the people in her community. So did I. Her mother was an artist, a writer. Mine played piano by ear and was a visual artist. My grandmother was the writer.
I read all of Jones’s books in the order she wrote them and read every article about her critical and personal life. I was writing my own stories and felt an urgency to know all about her in order to know more about myself.
All published accounts say that Jones was a very quiet child but that her teachers in Lexington recognized her talent as a writer early on. Though she lived in the city with her parents, other members of her family including her grandmother lived in surrounding counties, and her mother and grandmother told stories about black Kentucky life. (Her people lived in Midway, where my partner, Ron Davis, and I made a home for two years.) When she graduated from high school, another Kentucky-born writer, Elizabeth Hardwick (Sleepless Nights), assisted Jones in securing a scholarship to Connecticut College. Jones studied creative writing with the esteemed poet, scholar, and educator Robert Hayden (A Ballad of Remembrance). By the time she graduated with her English degree, she was already forming her own voice and securing her legacy among black letters. I often try to imagine Jones at this stage of her life when everything was opening up and she was discovering the full potential of her gifts with the help of her mentors.
Jones then went on to earn a Master’s and PhD at Brown University, where she established a lasting friendship with poet Michael S. Harper, who would introduce her work to Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House. Jones’s first novel, Corregidora, was published in 1975 with Morrison as her editor. Morrison once said of Jones’s work that “no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” Eva’s Man followed the next year, and White Rat, a collection of stories, in 1977. After two decades when she published poetry and criticism and lived in Europe, she returned to Kentucky and produced two more novels, the National Book Award–nominated The Healing (1998) and Mosquito (1999).
In 2003, I was distressed from what I will call an MFA hangover. Somehow my natural storytelling voice had gotten lost while I was pursuing a graduate degree. I loved my program at Spalding University, but toward the end of graduate school every story I wrote seemed to stand up and say, “Look what I can do!” I was concentrating so hard on going from natural storyteller to craft master that I found myself in tears because much of the fiction I wrote seemed contrived. I had come to graduate school with one published book (Blackberries, Blackberries) and was contracted for a second, but I wasn’t completely sure I could write the next book and properly balance craft and voice. When it was time for me to write the program’s required critical thesis, after trying and failing at several proposed topics, I leaned back into the literary arms of Jones for inspiration and wrote on her unflinching use of first-person point of view.
It felt glorious to be in her embrace again. By studying Jones I was able to hear the voices of my characters again, to find a healing balm that cured the hole in my own writing. John Updike described Jones as an American writer with “a powerful sense of vital inheritance, of history in the blood.” I immersed myself in her work and (re) discovered the history in my own blood and regained plausibility in my stories, the characters and their voices. It was Jones’s pure freedom to work within the vernacular that convinced me that my work could be both literary and true to the traditions of my culture. I fell deeply into a writing fury that would produce the short stories in my second collection, Water Street, and the initial chapters of what would eventually become my first novel, The Birds of Opulence.
Because the “I” can often be mistaken for the writer’s personal voice, when I teach—like many other writing professors—I urge writers to use third person if there isn’t a specific reason for the story to be on the tongues of the people who live in the story. But I also try to teach them the magic that can occur when a writer, like Jones, allows the reader to be intimately engaged with the consciousness of the people. Jones once stated that she believed first person to be “the most authentic way of telling a story.” And I agree.
Jones’s novels and short stories give voice to the silenced. Reading her work gave me permission to center a story on a protagonist who lives in a black, rural community, but it was even more empowering to know that I could let the characters tell the story in their own beautiful voices. In an interview with Harper in the late seventies, Jones says that at the beginning of her career she felt that she was using her own voice, writing the way she would speak. But when she was in graduate school, her narrative strategy changed as she began to make cultural connections to oral traditions of storytelling.
That relationship further led her, Jones writes in an essay, “About My Work” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980), to an interest in “the psychology of characters and the way in which they order their stories—their myths, dreams, nightmares, secret worlds, ambiguities, contradictions, ambivalences, memories, imaginations, their ‘puzzles.’” This too was a revelation to me. As Jones’s characters reveal the circumstances of their lives, there is no censor from other characters or from the author. The discourse in Jones’s fiction is most always black and feminine and sometimes tragic but obstinately strong and uncompromised; the reader is held there, perhaps wiggling from discomfort, but equally intrigued and satisfied.
Under Jones’s gifted hand, the teller of the story is always an intimate observer or participant making the story seem more tangible, more real. In Corregidora, the reader is firmly grounded in the narration of Ursa Corregidora, a Kentucky blues singer. An interior monologue throughout the novel takes the reader through Ursa’s psycho-historical background detailing her family’s saga—the legend of Corregidora, the nineteenth-century slave master who fathered both Ursa’s grandmother and mother. Corregidora’s emotional and physical impact on the family is delivered through Ursa’s memories, her absorbing of oral tradition, the magical pulsing of family history in the blood.
She’s sometimes too real, according to Jones’s critics: Throughout her career, Jones’s choice to stay out of the public eye (she’s been called a recluse) coupled with the first-person voices of her characters have caused speculation about her personal life. She once said, “I think I have an unfortunate public image, because of the published work. People imagine you’re the person you’ve imagined.”
In an interview with the noted editor of Callaloo, Charles Rowell, Jones recalls giving a talk about Corregidora and someone being surprised that she (Jones) didn’t speak like her protagonist, Ursa: “The implication of course was that I was more ‘articulate,’ at least within an acceptable linguistic tradition . . . but always with black writers there’s the suspicion that they can’t create language / voices as other writers can—that they can’t invent a linguistic world in the same way other writers can. For instance, I couldn’t imagine that same professor having made such a comment to Joan Didion or Margaret Laurence regarding the possibilities of their linguistic imagination.”
But Jones is resolute about her narrative choices. In the interview with Harper, she says: “I like to write things that sound like they really happened, when I tell a first-person story. It has to be like it really happened. I have to identify so closely with it—like in the oral storytelling tradition—that it really happened and the woman telling the story (or the man telling it—I have two short stories with a man narrator—but they are usually women) is really telling the story. I’m not telling the story—the person telling the story is telling it.” I have probably read this quote by Jones hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times over the years and for a period of time kept it over my writing desk: I’m not telling the story—the person telling the story is telling it.
J ones has been my long-term mentor on the page though we have never met face to face. In 2011, when Ron and I opened our bookstore, we wanted to name it Xarque after the title of one of Jones’s collections of poems. Ultimately, we decided on The Wild Fig after her poem “Wild Figs and Secret Places.” One of my favorite parts of it is “Memory is a mosquito / pregnant again / and out for blood.” Every year, near her birthday in November, we invite scholars and writers and readers to the bookstore for our annual Gayl Jones Read- In, at which we read aloud from her work and talk about her writing. Sometimes we even get a person or two who want to share stories of personal encounters with her. The Wild Fig Books and Coffee is just a few blocks away from where Jones currently lives in Lexington. I know where she lives, but I would never knock on her door. Of course I would love to invite her to the bookstore for a cup of tea, but she seems to revere her privacy and I respect that. Meeting her work on the page will suffice and continues to sustain me.
Reading Jones helps me write fictional lives that reflect my own dual experience as black and Appalachian. Just as she does, I try to lend an unflinching eye to the lives of my characters and see my job as a writer to create a space in which silenced individuals can speak to each other, speak to me, and speak to the reader. I try to get out of their way, get out of my own way.
I, like Jones, don’t often write directly to politics, but this amalgam of personal memory, historical memory, and imagination—the act of writing these characters, the act of drawing from the oral storytelling traditions of both black and Appalachian communities, and the act of making black, Appalachian vernacular the core—is political. How much more political, revolutionary really, can you be than to give a country black woman the freedom to tell her own story, from her own mouth, from her own tongue as though she is talking to her own people when much of the world refuses to acknowledge that she even exists?
Let the tellers tell! Let them remind everyone that we exist. Why can’t my omniscient narrator be my black God of a grandmother or someone like her? Why not? If I don’t do it, then who will?
When I write in the voices of my people, I am paying homage to my matriarchs—the housekeepers, the granny women, the educators, the wives, the witches, the ones who bleed, the drumming heart of black Appalachia—but I’m not just regurgitating my own reality, I’m indeed attempting to write the purest fiction. Always trying to scratch at the most authentic way of telling a story.
I use dialect and voice as literary tools, as weapons, as conduits to the ancestors because you do, Ms. Gayl. You have taught me to examine the human mind, to attempt to create truths through the eyes and mouths of ordinary people. I write hoping that somehow the reader and I, myself, can see more clearly the human heart. Even after all these years, black women writers are not always given credit for our linguistic imaginations. But I appreciate you, always there—in your fiction, in your interviews, on the pages of your critical work, behind your closed door as you sit in your peacock’s chair wishing to be left alone, reminding me to lean back into our people—their traditions, myths, dreams, nightmares, secrets, memories, talk—and to place my anchor there.
Like your Ursa said, Shit, we’re all consequences of something. I am a writer who is a consequence of you.
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