This is Keepers of Buried Stories, a column by Tari Ngangura on the lives of groundbreaking Black women writers whose stories remain unfinished.
When I think of Jones, I see the work she created with such profound sensitivity, which opened stinging gashes inside me that would later become callused scars. I also think of the work that was lost after the unimaginable trauma her story became a part of, when she stopped publishing completely.
Could there have been any other way for her to move forward without stepping back?
In 1975, at the age of twenty-six, Gayl Jones published her debut novel Corregidora, which had already won the support and gratitude of then Random House editor, Toni Morrison. After two and a half hours spent reading the novel’s manuscript while sitting on the edge of her bed, Morrison remembered thinking that, “No novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.”
Set in locations across Kentucky, St. Louis, and Brazil, Corregidora is about inheritance—an inevitable passing down of sexual and emotional trauma as a generational burden and Black women as vessels of this trauma, conjurers of buried stories. These women also acted as memories, a lineage of survivors who spoke of a pain that violence tried to erase. With Blues music as the thread linking complicated longing and revelations on loss, the book was Jones as both creator and narrator, shaping and recounting the infinite ways slavery bred different ways to die and only one way to live.
As intimate as Alex Haley’s Roots, with an incisive poetry which would find itself reflected in Ntozake Shange’s For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf, with Corregidora, Jones positioned herself alongside other writers whose work sought to give life to inexplicable horrors. She also emerged as a writer who was determined to expand on the ways Black womanhood is understood and molded within the confines of a society that stands only when Black women are on their knees.
It is a book about love, and how those we give ourselves to can be the ones to wound us. How they can take our choices but say we had options.
The success of the book paired with Jones’ shy and private demeanor (a contrast to the vibrancy and admittedly “talkative” characters in her work) rocketed the young writer into literary society, and she found herself celebrated as a much-needed voice in African-American literature and reimagined folklore.
In a 1982 interview with writer Charles H. Rowell for the literary magazine Callaloo, Jones talked about her purposeful engagement with both African-American and African oral traditions, and their relationship to her female characters: “I’ve been wondering about my own voice—my other voice(s) and how it (they) relate to the voices of those women. I trust those voices.”
She was telling stories, obsessively dedicating her time to making audible and tangible the voices which lived inside and outside of her. Later in the interview, when asked about the importance of African-American folk narratives in her fiction, Jones said, “All literary traditions that draw on speech, the spirit of speech and speech motives interest me and I see more of the connectives than the differences.”
In this discussion, published almost a decade after the release of Corregidora, and five years after her short story collection White Rat, Jones was settling into her role as a writer who was drawn to contradictions of personality. She found space to give her characters complex points of view, unburdened by her own. Her creative life was one Black women writers delicately and willfully aspire to; one where they are free to create with financial stability and can take the proper time to articulate and research the countless ways they can deliver their artistry.
But a year after the interview was published, Jones resigned from her tenured teaching position at the University of Michigan and left for Paris with her husband.
When Marielle Franco, a queer Afro-Brazilian city councilor was assassinated in 2018, I had been living in Brazil for over a year, studying West African histories, African folklore, and sacred traditions next to Portuguese imperialism. In this country, they had forcefully coagulated to shape an African people that was still uncertain of what it meant to be both from there and elsewhere. I found out about Marielle’s death the morning after it happened. That same night, I ended up at a bar trying to understand if drinking your sorrow really was as adequate as literature and on-the-run buddy films made it out to be.
I got through two watered-down liquors before finally accepting that, on that day, nothing else mattered except that Marielle was dead. Since my kindergarten days, I’d been told, been read to, and—when I was able—read my own the stories of Black women whose convictions ensured they never lived long enough to bask in old age or share in the special rites of their children. For women like May Ayim, and Audre Lorde, the weight of sharing and speaking their truths without receiving mental, physical, or financial support, directly and indirectly led to early deaths. When I read their stories, my heart ached. My soul felt weighed down by the unfinished lives.
Marielle was someone whose sudden death happened in my present. I was old enough to understand what this loss truly meant and what it said about how easily Black women could be held up and found wanting. I was living in her country and saw the helplessness and grief felt by those who’d loved her and who’d been seen by her. I couldn’t file away the pain as a past memory, and instead, it morphed into a reminder; a threat. A very possible reality for any Black woman who would live as she believed.
Sitting in a bar full of non-Black journalists, in a city with the most Black people in Brazil, my mourning Marielle’s loss was a lonely hurt. Her death was public and brutal. Photographs from the scene showed shards of glass where bullets had exploded through the side windows and the windshield. It’s an image that’s impossible to forget and one that’s crossed my mind every time I’ve seen the rallying cry, “Quem Matou Marielle?” Who Killed Marielle?
I spent the weeks after her death looking out at the sea while sitting by the lighthouse and letting deadlines pile up. Nothing else seemed relevant enough to warrant my attention or effort. In its most basic essence, writing is a process of selective elimination, made daunting by the fact that how you begin is rarely ever the same once you’ve reached the end. Often, I’ve come back to the beginning to rewrite, careful not to lose focus of the ending but fearful of how a completed ending will restrict my unfinished beginning. That is the process. That is my process.
When thinking of Marielle Franco, Trayvon Martin, and Gayl Jones, I think about how this series of violent endings inadvertently affects the way I begin every one of my stories. This makes my relationship to my art one that is fragile, communal, and inherited.
How do you begin when your legacy is loss?
Gayl Jones’ departure to Paris came after her husband, Bob Higgins, was arrested for felony assault and failed to show up in court to address the charge. He had brought a shotgun to a Gay Rights Parade and threatened a marcher who punched him in the face after he said AIDS was a form of divine punishment. Over the years, numerous articles have speculated on Higgins’ mental health, his violence against his first wife, and Jones’ own victimhood as a possibly naive and submissive woman taken advantage of by a forceful personality. During her time of self-imposed exile in Paris, she still wrote and published Raveena, a short story collection, and two poetry books.
After living in Europe for five years, the couple returned to the US and settled in Jones’ hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, where Higgins continued to struggle with his mental health. In 1997, a little over a decade after their return, Jones’ mother, Lucille, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Higgins blamed the Markey Cancer Center at the University of Kentucky (where she’d been receiving treatment) for her death. He began sending notes to the University of Kentucky President, Charles T. Wethington, Jr., and the Kentucky State Police department detailing the Center’s failure to offer what he believed to be appropriate medical attention.
On February 20, 1998, Higgins wrote a letter to Wethington, Jr., saying to check “all the pipes and fixtures in your system,” a statement which the local police took to signify a bomb threat. They went to the couple’s home around 6:00 p.m. to deliver a warrant for the previous assault charge from years earlier. Higgins refused to open the door, threatening to kill himself if the police entered their home.
Shortly after 8:45 p.m., the SWAT team arrived, and Jones called 911. In the recorded audio, Jones told the negotiating officers that unless they left, she knew for certain her husband “would kill himself.” She spoke of how the state was trying to kill both her and her husband, much like she believed they’d killed her mother. The presence of a SWAT team, instead of de-escalating an already tense interaction, simply doused more oil onto the fire.
In 2016, Rare published a piece on the overuse of SWAT in American law enforcement. Several high profile cases, including the murder of Tamir Rice and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, show that, when it comes to Black people, de-escalation is hardly ever the point. The go-to method of control becomes violence.
Higgins was a man clearly suffering a mental crisis and, although Jones attempted to vocalize his distress—like countless other Black people living with a mental illness—calling 911 proved to be pointless. Surrounded by police, a panicked, angered, and paranoid Higgins, stabbed himself in the neck so hard it lodged in his spine. He was taken away by medics with blood flowing out of his neck where the knife was still lodged in.
Jones saw everything while being held back by police. According to news accounts, after her husband’s death, she was committed to the state mental hospital for a seventy-two-hour watch. Her stay was extended until she was deemed no longer a danger to herself. The Healing, her first novel in over twenty years, had been released barely a week earlier. A few months later, Mosquito, her novel on the exploits of a Black woman who worked as a truck driver transporting immigrants between the Texas-Mexico border was released. It would be the last she’d ever publish.
How do you begin when your legacy is loss?
Jones’ story is one of the most painfully mind-boggling things I have ever come across, with layers of violence which complicate the notion of what it means to be a victim. Gayl Jones as a woman in love is someone I struggle to understand. In her writing, I hear voices whose fleshed thoughts offer new renderings of what it means to be a Black woman trying to exist, love, and be loved in a brutal and untender universe.
But the person she shared her life with was homophobic, sexist, and—from anecdotes shared by those who knew them both—someone convinced of his own unsung greatness; a copy of the undeserving and wounded men Jones described in her work.
After Sandra Bland’s death, I remember mindlessly scrolling through Twitter with the hope that, somewhere in that minefield, I would find the absolute truth behind her death. The videos questioning whether she was killed before, after, or during her mug shot presented anti-black violence at its most obscene and regular; something that was both surreal and ghastly comedic.
Her death came a year before I graduated from my journalism program. As certain as I was in my career path, I was even more aware that the industry I was soon to be part of was clueless when it came to showcasing the systems of violence experienced by people who looked like me. The voices of Black women were missing from open forums on a Black woman’s death—and though some absences were self-preservation, most were intentional erasure. From the women I saw online who brought forward her story, I wanted to know how they’d been able to settle their minds, dull the endless chatter, and deliver the heartbreaking story as a public service.
In her rare interviews, Jones spoke most candidly of a fascination with the workings of the mind as influenced by its surroundings, saying, “I was working on experimental stories which dealt with how psychological states influenced speech and language patterns and the making of stories. The kind of fragmentations that would occur in such story-telling.”
This fragmentation is my entry point when I think about Black women whose storytelling is affected by their psychological states. Women like Jones, and the mothers of Bland, Martin, and Franco—Geneva Reed-Veal, Sybrina Fulton, and Marinete da Silva. Their experiences are their own and the kind that no one wants to have their name listed alongside, but their pains are felt by those of us who bear witness so we can recreate their patterns, their language, and make a story from the fragmentations. It is this the women writers who I admire are so adept at doing, and it’s this which becomes so much harder when Blackness and death are seemingly eternal companions.
I wrote about this once, a few years ago, and even at the beginning of my career in storytelling I knew it would not get easier. And I also knew as hard as it was, it was the only way I knew how to cope. From her work, her interviews and her characters, Jones coped through her writing, and it was here her voice projected most loudly.
In a Longreads interview with writer Michael Gonzales, the novelist Nettie Jones—whose book Fish Tales was one of the first published books featuring erotica and a Black female protagonist—said of her friend and name twin, “She hasn’t published anything since , but I know she is still writing, because that’s all she knows how to do.”
The fragmentation of Gayl Jones’ storytelling has presented itself as a decades-long absence, a silencing of a voice. For Black creators, there are varying degrees of absences. For some, it looks like months without inspiration. For others, it’s a break from the social media sites built from our insights, yet unsupportive of our presence. Our psychological states inform how we create. Every now and then, I think of what my art would look like if I did not have to daily maneuver fragmentations in my storytelling—if I didn’t have to recalibrate the patterns of my speech so my voice remains audible.
I think of what it would look like if I didn’t have to write through the trauma, even when that’s all I know how to do.
Tari is a journalist and photographer from Zimbabwe, based in Brasil. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Globe and Mail, Rookie Mag, Noisey, SYFY, Broadly, The Fader, New York Magazine, Flare Magazine and Hazlitt. You can find more of her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.