The reclusive Gayl Jones re-emerges

Reflecting on the hidden figure that altered the course of African American Literature, who has returned to the literary scene with her novel Palmares and two upcoming books.

Despite acclaim from literary giants such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, and the way she bent the river of how stories about women and blackness should flow, author Gayl Jones has existed as a hidden figure in the literary landscape for more than two decades – in some ways by choice and in others by design of the industry. A reclusive figure, she has taken agency by not allowing voyeurism in her private life. Jones has not been photographed in years and lives a life communing with close friends and chosen kin. 

But the 71-year-old novelist reappeared in 2020 with the publication of her fifth novel Palmares, 22 years after she disappeared from public life. The Birdcatcher is scheduled for release in September, while The Unicorn Woman will be out in 2023.

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As the first of her new books, Palmares continues the tradition she began with Corregidora: interrogating slavery and showing the reader that there can never be a consensual sexual relationship between master and enslaved. Published in 1975, under Morrison’s editorial hand, Corregidora is a fierce confrontation of blackness and sexuality. Jones’ words reveal a world in which the master cannot be allowed to tell the story of the people who have been brutalised and enslaved.

The protagonist is a blues singer – named after the slave owner who fathered her grandmother and mother – who carries the responsibility as one of the women tasked with “making generations” to recite the truth burnt in the form of slave papers and ensure that history does not die in these flames. Corregidora’s journey becomes hollow with loss when she suffers an injury that required a hysterectomy and thus cauterises her ability to birth a new generation. This story illustrates the radical nature of the oral tradition in archiving stories of people subject to violent conquest. In Corregidora’s voice, Jones writes: “I lay on my back, feeling as if more than the womb had been taken out.” Her dexterity is illustrated throughout, as much remains unspoken but startlingly clear and pithy, and that is a rare talent.

Private life

Palmares and forthcoming titles join an archive that includes Song For Anninho, Mosquito and Eva’s Man, alongside playwriting, literary criticism and short stories. Jones’ body of work is a realm of truth-telling. Much like Morrison’s work, she requires an engaged reader who interrogates the pages, who must commit to accepting and understanding the truths of our society, which are in most instances at the root of severe discomfort. As she does this, Jones delivers a beautiful story, told in short sentences that feel like mouthfuls.

The themes that permeate her writing are oppression, the work of memory and rectifying false, dominant narratives that have been universally accepted as truth. The women in her books are complicated characters, dealing with the bruises of existing in the world as a Black woman, inflicted with slavery, gender-based violence, substance abuse and mental illness. They are not always resilient. These are flawed and human women, a narrative that is scarce as Black women are not expected to respond ungraciously to trauma. Her work and life are congruent in their joined mystery, and the need for excavation to uncover what is hidden. 

In a time when privacy is near unfathomable and writers have been propelled to celebrity status, it is remarkable that Jones chooses a life of reclusion with no digital footprint. The use of social media and hypervisibility has allowed writers to attach their personalities to their work and become available for consumption beyond their text. In Jones’ choices, it is interesting to witness the juxtaposition between erasure and chosen invisibility. 

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Jones, as a human being who produces art, is impenetrable. Her reputation as a recluse seems to have unsettled many in her departure from the public eye. Refusing interviews and having no photographs taken of her during her hiatus forces us to reckon with her work alone, as Jones has negotiated the terms of engagement in a manner that may be perceived as strange in the digital era. Her inaccessibility is a radical act that is true to the “silent” nature that the select few who have met her have witnessed. Hers is a life that does not allow trespassing.

In an interview with Claudia Tate, prior to her withdrawal from public life, Jones said: “The writers whom I would most like to be like are those whose works have a certain kind of reputation, but the person, the writer, is more or less out of it. I would want to maintain some kind of anonymity. I think of JD Salinger… I guess that’s the kind of reputation that I’d like … where you can go on with what you’re doing, but you have a sense that what you do is appreciated … that there is quality to what you’re doing.”

Open narrative

Through Jones’ work and personal choices, she illustrates the importance of telling one’s story to rectify the danger of a single narrative. The women in Corregidora rely on birthing children and passing on knowledge as a medium of truth-telling and acting radically. As Jones continues to bring new stories into the world, she simultaneously governs how she is received without acquiescing to the demands of the literary visibility. There is agency in choosing to be away from the public eye, a radical act in a moment where Black women are forced to be visible and accessible in order for their contributions to not be erased. 

For Jones, her work is her public engagement in the sense that her presence is inextricably woven into the characters she creates. She writes from listening to oral history and stories extracted from the lived experiences of generations of Black women, speaking within and alongside her characters without falling into the trap of explaining their world to those outside it. She allows her characters to simply be, and this is a kind of freedom. 

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Corregidora is a seminal work that has come to influence literature that Saidya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery” and her new works, certainly Palmares, appear to continue in this vein. Her influence has poured into generations of works and has altered the way in which slave memory is recorded. This is clearly recognisable in Yaa Gyasi’s brilliant book Homegoing, which viscerally captures the generational repercussions of stolen and enslaved life in the present. 

Jones’ return to writing is a continuation of the literary canon of narratives she has been instrumental in preserving and breathing life into. Her work allows for the possibility to speculate about hidden figures in society by ensuring that her readers know Black women have existed and that they had the possibility to find pockets of agency and freedom in a world invested in the repression of their stories and existence.

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