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Gayl Jones returns after 20 years with a new novel

‘Palmares’ is a love song to the memory of millions

To understand the genius of Gayl Jones today, you must look backward. Jones was just 26 when she shook the literary world in 1975 with her first novel Corregidora.

Championed by Toni Morrison during her tenure as an editor for Random House, Corregidora tells the story of blues singer Ursa Corregidora, reckoning with the dark lineage of sexual violence and psychological trauma in her family’s history. The family’s surname comes from the Portuguese slave owner who raped the women of Corregidora’s matrilineal line. Corregidora, her mother and foremothers are urged to “make generations” so that “we’d never forget.” When she finished reading Jones’ manuscript, Morrison said, “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.”

The novel won praise from the likes of John Updike, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. “Gayl Jones, I am trying to say, is quite a 26‐year‐old writer and her own woman,” wrote New York Times book reviewer Raymond Sokolov in 1975. “With any luck, Gayl Jones will soon be casting even larger pearls before us swine.”

In the intervening years, however, Jones, now 71, has become one of the most elusive figures in American letters. But her new novel, Palmares — and her latest in over 20 years since her National Book Award finalist book The Healing (1998) and Mosquito (1999) — is the culmination of a nearly four-decadelong project rendering the full humanity of enslaved women. With Palmares, Jones has built an intricate world, channeled voices from the dead, merged history and memory to create an epic neo-slave narrative.

The lasting legacy of slavery in the Americas has long been a focus for Jones. While estimates vary, about 10.7 million who survived some 350 years of the middle passage, nearly 50% of those survivors were brought from Africa to Brazil, according to estimates by Slave Voyages Database. In 1888, Brazil would become the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery. By contrast, less than 4% of enslaved people (388,000) were brought by slavers to the United States through the transatlantic slave trade. In 1808, the U.S. discontinued its participation, while permitting a thriving internal trade until slavery was abolished after the Civil War in 1865.

Even the naming of the country we call Brazil is imprinted with the motives of colonists. The Indigenous Tupi people called it pindorama, or “land of the palms,” before European contact in 1500. The Portuguese invaders solidified their conquest by renaming it for their use of the trees (“pau brasil” or “brazilwood”) that produced a red dye. Subsequently, they forged a new nation through genocide, mass rape and bondage. After failed attempts to subjugate Indigenous bands, the Portuguese’s investment in human trafficking between the 16th and 19th centuries transformed the “new world” as deemed by Europeans.

“I’m drawn to the things that are now the content of fiction, but of course which used to be the territory of poetry,” Jones told Charles Rowell in a 1982 interview and the last formal interview Jones has given, shortly after the publication of Song for Anninho in 1981. It was a book-length work of poetry and adaptation of an earlier iteration of Palmares, which she wrote years ago. Palmares was a real community of escaped slaves, free-born Africans, Indians and mixed-race people from 1605 to 1695 until its destruction by Portuguese soldiers. Jones was reportedly prolific during her postbaccalaureate years at Brown, where she earned her doctorate and wrote manuscripts for several works that are still heralded by critics and fans.

The cover of Gayl Jones’ latest novel, Palmares.

Beacon Press

Jones’ Palmares is at its core a reconstructed slave narrative that draws out in stunning detail the collision between the colonizers’ culture and identities. Encounters between Indigenous people, enslaved and free-born Africans move from the banal to depraved to the fantastic. She invents a language that moves effortlessly between lyricism and dream, interiority and history, illuminating what survival may have looked like for the millions who survived in this hemisphere.

The novel’s enslaved narrator Almeyda is a keen observer of the dynamics of sexual subjugation and violence on an unnamed plantation in Brazil in the 17th century. The situations are intense. Mexia, an Indigenous woman, is a servant to Father Tollinare, a lustful, religious leader who has taken on the experiment of educating enslaved Black children. And then there’s Antonia, an enslaved Black woman who is regularly violated and beaten by her and Almeyda’s master, Entraldo. It is common knowledge among the women at Entraldo’s plantation of other plantations whose sole function is to support mass rape to breed generations.

The enslaved struggle to remember their names and rituals that belonged to them before their subjugation as they navigate an existence on the strange shores of the Americas. They speak in metaphor and amalgamation of myths, deeply connected to the natural and supernatural worlds. The boundaries between the enslaved, the “pretos” and the Indigenous people in the hinterlands of Brazil are fluid.

Yet, Palmares exists as a promised land in the imagination of the enslaved. For this reason, Palmares would always exist as a threat in the imagination and reality of the enslavers. Jones never dwells on the facts of the confrontation between the quilombos — or communities of escaped slaves, Indigenous people and free-born Black people — and the Portuguese army that destroys Palmares. What we get is something far denser than the mere facts of history. We get the probable interiority of the people who lived, died and survived annihilation. Through Almeyda’s eyes from adolescence to adulthood, readers become intimate in witnessing the quotidian to the fantastic in the lives of the enslaved under the thumbs of fearful and brutal white men.

Often, the historical record, whether presented in fiction or nonfiction, bears a particular consciousness and perspective from the oppressor. Black and Indigenous life exist on paper in the recollections of white people who have the means to transcribe and document it. Slave societies prohibited literacy among the enslaved, for reasons that should be obvious: The enslaved narrating their interiority and humanity draws in sharp relief the depravity of slavery. Jones’ Almeyda is a lyrical rebuttal to those narratives so conscious of a white gaze. Our immersion inside her world is thorough and complete.

Much of what we can glean from Jones is from her body of work alone. She hasn’t given an interview since the ’80s. She told her mentor, poet Michael Harper, in 1977, “A lot of people think the things I do are autobiographical because when I’m telling the story or reading it out loud, I don’t want to say ‘I’ am those women, but those women are telling the story.”

Born in 1949 Kentucky, Jones grew up poor in the segregated city of Lexington. Her father was a cook and her mom stayed at home to raise Jones and her brother. Jones was immersed in the oral tradition and her earliest days were imprinted with stories from her mother and grandmother, which seeded the concept of the generational novel. Despite the expansiveness of her characters’ lives and loves in her novels, much about Jones’ private self, as she garnered literary notoriety, remains unknown. Her own publisher, Beacon Press, didn’t have current photos of her to accompany this story.

With Palmares, Jones has built an intricate world, channeled voices from the dead, merged history and memory to create an epic neo-slave narrative.

Her marriage to Michigan businessman Bob Higgins in the early 1980s arguably marks the beginning of her disappearance from public life. In 1983, Higgins appeared at a gay rights march in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and “shouted about AIDS and about burning in hell,” which caused a fight and he returned to the event with a shotgun. He was arrested and charged shortly afterward. The couple fled to Europe (Higgins was tried and convicted in absentia for assault with an intent to frighten) and lived in exile. Jones faded from the world of letters, popping up only once in the early 1990s with the publication of an anthology, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature, on the Black oral tradition she edited. The couple eventually resettled in Kentucky, allowing Jones to be closer to her mother, who had cancer.

Then in 1998, weeks after the publication of her novel The Healing, police showed up at her doorstep with a 15-year-old warrant for Higgins. In the subsequent standoff, both husband and wife threatened to take their own lives, but only Higgins was successful. As the police stormed their bungalow, Higgins stabbed himself in the throat.

Could Jones be speaking through her novels of the vagaries of her own narrative? Perhaps. Jones’ share of personal tragedy may overshadow her talent to some, but Jones is a griot who masterfully captures vernacular traditions across the African diaspora. She is also a traditional artist who is not bound to 21st-century demands of celebrities, which insists on access to artists and creators to know them “personally.”

“I like to tell stories as if they really happened,” Jones said in a 1982 interview. “I think as if it were a real story.” However, literal truth in Palmares is beside the point. The real joy of reading this book is the journey, through the eyes of Almeyda, of this world only understood in facts, figures, slave tables. History has many faces in Palmares, and this novel offers a dazzling picture of love, survival and the monstrous creation of a nation. Jones’ life work is a gift and long love song to the memory of millions.

Syreeta McFadden is a writer and professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, City University of New York. She is a contributing editor for Guernica Magazine.