A Fierce Farewell: Gloria Naylor’s Literary Legacy
I first met Gloria Naylor when she visited the campus of the College of William and Mary during my junior year. I was part of a small group of students designated as her hosts while she was at the college. The Women of Brewster Place miniseries, starring Oprah Winfrey, Lynn Whitfield, Cicely Tyson, and Mary Alice, had aired in 1989 just two months before my high school graduation. And now the woman who had dared to create Black female characters with this level of complexity was on campus. To say that I was excited to meet her is an understatement
However, when we did meet, my just barely twenty-something-self thought Naylor to be a little off-putting. Now upon reflection, I realize that a better word to describe Naylor would be fierce, both in life and in her work. In The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Linden Hills (1985), Mama Day (1988), and Bailey’s Café (1992), she gave readers vibrant characters who were unapologetically themselves at all times, not unlike the woman who created them
During visits back to campus, I would think of Naylor often. As I began my own writing career, which has focused more on nonfiction than fiction, I had hopes of becoming a fierce writer myself. Much like Naylor, I wanted to set a benchmark of some kind that would mean I was “officially” a writer. For her, it was the completion of her quartet of novels. In a 1994 interview with D.C Denison of The Boston Globe Magazine, Naylor said, “I felt that by writing those four books, I would go through an apprenticeship to my craft. Then I would feel, within myself, that I was a writer.”
Our paths crossed again while I was a graduate student at Howard University and just a few years after Naylor had successfully completed her quartet. A National Book Award Winner, Naylor visited the community college near my home during National Library Week in April 1995. At the time, I was captivated by her most recent novel, Bailey’s Café and had decided to study biblical allusions in the work, which I saw as Naylor’s retelling of biblical stories from a woman’s point of view. During the Q&A portion of her talk, Naylor was asked how she handled the position of the female in the Old Testament. She responded without hesitation, saying simply, “I rewrote it.” Now that’s fierce.
Naylor and I had a brief exchange as she was leaving that evening, and she told me, “When I started writing, I thought what would these stories be like if these women were telling their own stories?” I and so many other writers and readers will be forever grateful to her for daring to ask that question, for being fierce enough to challenge the expected. Perhaps, it is Naylor’s character Eve in Bailey’s Café who best speaks for her life and work: “And I don’t spend a lot of time with the right or wrong, good or bad of what I am – I am” (Random House, 1993, p. 85).
Thank you for being you, Gloria Naylor. Your fierceness will be missed.