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Understanding Gloria Naylor.

Margaret Earley Whitt. Understanding Gloria Naylor. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1999. 221 pp. $34.95.

There is something peculiarly Southern about Gloria Naylor's fiction--and this despite her birth in New York City. Careful consideration of place--whether it is a dilapidated, rat-infested housing project situated on a dead-end street or a magical island paradise off the Georgia coast--and the uniquely individual folk inhabiting such locales are hallmarks of Naylor's carefully crafted novels. Her deft rendering of people, places, and customs invites comparison with that of the best American local colorists who have brought national and, in some instances, international attention to little-known regions of the country.

Revealing an intimate familiarity with distinguishing features of Naylor's canon, Margaret Earley Whitt offers a thorough introduction to the author's five texts and the contexts out of which the works evolve. Her study is one of five focusing exclusively on Naylor's canon to appear in the last seven years, including Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (1993), edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah; Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary (1996), by Virginia Fowler; The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor (1997), edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle Loris; and Gloria Naylor's Early Novels (1999), edited by Margot Anne Kelley. What sets Understanding Gloria Naylor apart from the other scholarly works is the author's commitment to providing non-academic as well as academic readers an overview of Naylor's award-winning fiction. In other words, far from relying heavily upon abstruse critical jargon, Whitt attempts to make Naylor's novels accessible to a broad reader-audience--one which , as far as some segments are concerned, may lack the critical tools necessary to unlock contemporary fiction.

Among the book's many outstanding features are not only its level of accessibility and a very useful annotated bibliography, but an overview of Naylor's career. Whitt mentions such biographical information as the migration north on the part of Naylor's parents, the influence of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and Naylor's Ivy League academic background involving, for the most part, exposure to canonical texts in the Western literary tradition. Oddly, though, Whitt fails to mention anything of Naylor's short-lived marriage at the age of 30 or the impact of the 1970s Black Revolution in the formation of Naylor's nationalist consciousness. The overview is nonetheless important in an understanding of Naylor's writing, for it is her life, in all of its myriad complexity, that has shaped her craft.

Nowhere is this influence more evident than in Naylor's use of aspects of black expressive culture--what Bernard Bell refers to in The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition as symbolic acts of religion, speech, and music. Much of the author's fiction involves, for instance, her search for an authorial voice with which to tell, or rather retell, the stories of partially dispossessed women across the diaspora. As Naylor mentions in an interview with Toni Morrison, an introduction to The Bluest Eye served as catalyst for Naylor's career. "The presence of the work served two vital purposes at that moment in my life," Naylor comments. "It said to a young poet, struggling to break into prose, that the barriers were flexible; at the core of it all is language, and if you're skilled enough with that, you can create your own genre. And it said to a young black woman, struggling to find a mirror of her worth in this society, not only is your story worth telling but it can be told in words so painstakingly eloquent tha t it becomes a song."

Whitt's book follows a predictably chronological organization, mirroring the author's evolution as a creative artist. Readers familiar with Naylor's canon will recognize recurring concerns in her work, such as the impact of community or place; the complexity of female characters; signification upon biblical texts and canonical texts in both the Western and black literate traditions; and the residual nature of black folk culture. In all, Naylor's work shows a rich coalescence of oral and written modes as Whitt plumbs the depths of the author's multivocal texts.

Whitt draws upon critical articles, essays, reviews, and interviews in presenting close textual analyses. She even acknowledges having conducted an interview with Naylor. Her book stresses the interlocking influences of race, class, and gender as she focuses on the movement on the part of Naylor's characters from a state of powerlessness and despair to transcendence of imposed limitation. Particularly enlightening is the comparison, complete with a diagram, between Dante's Inferno and Linden Hills. Naylor's readers are no doubt aware that she drew upon her knowlege of Dante's work and Judeo-Christian eschatology in writing her second novel, but Whitt's discussion of the book's medieval influence broadens significantly the readers' grasp of the novel. In a similar sense, the discussion of Mama Day's Willow Springs as both literal space and symbolic reality is likewise illuminating. Whitt also addresses briefly a possible future direction for the talented author, whose latest work, The Men of Brewster Place, a s I have mentioned in an earlier AAR review, lacks the lyricism and character depth of earlier Naylor novels, but is still an important literary contribution to an understanding of the contemporary black male situation. In her fifth work Naylor revisits the squalid urban environs of her first novel, giving attention to the point of view of Brewster Place's egregiously errant men.

Understanding Gloria Naylor represents a notable addition to the growing body of scholarship on the gifted author's canon. It is well-written, thorough, and insightful--a must-read for scholars and teachers, as well as readers desiring a deeper acquaintance with Naylor's expanding oeuvre. It will undoubtedly pave the way for broader and more intense attention to an author who has acquired not only a voice but a lasting place in contemporary American letters.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Montgomery, Maxine Lavon
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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