Remembering Gloria Naylor

Earlier this week, author Gloria Naylor, whose stories chronicling the experiences of black women in the 1980s and 1990s drew wide acclaim, died at age 66.

We are proud to have Naylor included in our Literary Conversation Series. Conversations with Gloria Naylor collects her interviews and shows her to be one of the most talented novelists to emerge in the past twenty years. The fourteen interviews that are included range from 1983, soon after the publication of her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, to 2000.  Altogether they shed light on Naylor in all her wit, wisdom, and candor. She is the first among the current generation of African American women novelists to have made a study of her literary predecessors. Interviews with her are compelling in their revelation of the evolutionary journey of a self-professed introvert and dreamer who is as indebted to the English classics as she is to blues, jazz, or Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.

Below, Maxine Montgomery, who edited Conversations with Gloria Naylor, has penned a brief remembrance of Naylor and shares the story of the time she met and interviewed her.

I became acquainted with Gloria Naylor in a graduate course on the African-American novel at the University of Illinois during the 1980's. Our readings included a range of canonical texts that are mainstays in the tradition of Black fictional discourse, from Charles Chesnutt's early twentieth-century novel The Marrow of Tradition, to the contemporary era, with a focus on the writing of African-American women. By far, it was the debut work of fiction by Naylor, an author who had just made an appearance on the literary scene, that made a lasting impression in terms of my understanding of and appreciation for novelistic contributions by Black women, authors whose writings were often excluded from or marginalized in mainstream studies of the American and African-American Literary canon. After reading Naylor's first novel and reflecting on her riveting portrait of Black womanhood in the post Civil Rights Era, I became a life-long fan of the woman behind The Women of Brewster Place.

My scholarly interest in Naylor's work deepened with the publication of each subsequent text. As she carried out her avowed purpose of writing a series of novels that would recapture various aspects of Black life in the twentieth-century, creating multi-layered works that would lay the foundation for her career,  I felt as though I had not only discovered someone whose writing skirted the often monolithic representations of Black life present in far too many African-American novels, I found an author unafraid of telling the untold stories of individuals whose stories were lying dormant, unheard, waiting to be told. Naylor, a consummate storyteller, became the voice through which the voices of countless others found unimpeded expression.   

It was during my work on Conversations with Gloria Naylor that I summoned the courage to contact Naylor. My goal was to conduct a personal interview and ask questions about her life, art, and politics. Looking for answers to the probing questions that I entertained while reading her work, I sent a letter requesting an interview. Weeks later, she phoned me at home, surprised that I was willing to travel to Brooklyn for a short, two-hour conversation.

I met Naylor at her Brooklyn home, a spacious, multi-story apartment in the upscale Park Slope neighborhood. Dressed casually in a dark-colored T-shirt and slacks, she answered the door, smiled, and invited me into her living room. I was awestruck at the opportunity to be in the presence of the woman whose writing had greatly impacted my life. Naylor was very down-to-earth. Although she was somewhat guarded at first, she was also welcoming and congenial. She impressed me as being someone who, despite her status as a New Yorker, had a down-home warmth that is no doubt a reflection of her parents' rural Mississippi roots.

Our interview progressed well, in spite of an occasional interruption from the mail-carrier and a nephew who walked into the living room. As our conversation drew to a close, I asked a question that few of us like to reflect on because it reminds us of mortality. "How do you want to be remembered as a novelist," I queried. Naylor paused, as if no one had ever posed such a question to her before. Her response was at once both measured and thoughtful:  "I want to be remembered as a good, good, good storyteller," she said firmly. "I think the more you keep it simple, the greater your reach is going to be as far as whom you affect. You have a story. I have a story. Everyone has a story. And it is important that I tell that story as succinctly and as honestly as I can." 

With her decades-long literary career, her penetrating portraits of African-American life, and the lasting legacy she leaves for the up-and-coming generation of women writers, Naylor has accomplished her goal.