Born: November 23, 1969
In a 1982 interview with Charles Rowell, Gayl Jones said that, like most people, she felt “connections to home territory — connections that go into one’s ideas of language, personality, landscape.” Born to Franklin and Lucille Jones in Lexington, her early connections with the South are reflected strongly in her personal life as well as in her writing, which often brings Kentucky culture and characters to life for the reader.
Much of Jones’ desire to write came from her maternal grandmother, Amanda Wilson, who wrote plays for church productions, and from her mother, who wrote short stories to entertain Gayl and her brother, Franklin, Jr. “I have to say that if my mother hadn’t written and read to me when I was growing up, I probably wouldn’t have even thought about it at all,” Jones said. In elementary school, several of Jones’ instructors recognized the talent beneath her shy exterior and encouraged her to continue writing.
After graduating from Henry Clay High School, Jones took a considerable step away from the South and enrolled at Connecticut College. Her education there was funded through scholarships and support from the Lexington-born writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick. In 1971, Jones received her B.A. degree in English. She was then accepted into the graduate creative writing program at Brown University, where two years later she earned her M.A. degree in creative writing. By 1975, she had earned her Doctorate of Arts degree in creative writing from Brown and had her first play, Chile Woman, produced.
Although she has written poetry, short stories, plays, and critical essays, Jones is best known for her novels. While at Brown, Jones studied under poet Michael Harper, who introduced her first novel Corregidora (1975) to Toni Morrison, who became her editor. Much of Jones’ work explores a theme of contradictory and coexisting emotions. This theme, specifically of love and hate, is especially visible in Corregidora.
Following graduation, Jones’ second novel, Eva’s Man (1976), was published. She taught briefly at Wellesley College, then became an assistant professor of English and Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. While at Michigan, Jones published a collection of short stories, White Rat (1977), a volume-length poem Songs for Anninho (1981), and another volume of poetry, The Hermit-Woman (1983). Jones also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Society of Fellows. She met and married Robert Higgins, a politically active student, who eventually took her last name.
Because of legal problems, Jones and Higgins left the United States in the early 1980s and moved to Paris, France for a self-imposed, five-year exile. During this time, Jones published another novel, Die Volgelfaengerin (The Birdwatcher) (1986) in Germany, as well as a collection of poetry, Xarque and Other Poems (1985), in the United States. Her first book of criticism, Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature (1991), was published soon after Jones and her husband returned to the United States in 1988.
After living privately in Lexington for 10 years, Jones published her novel, The Healing (1998), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent novel, Mosquito, was published in 1999.
Jones often uses colloquial African-American dialect and stream-of-consciousness narration that fuses time and place throughout her novels. Jones commented on this in an interview with Roseanne P. Bell for the book, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature: “One of the things I was consciously concerned with was the technique from the oral storytelling tradition that could be used in writing. A story is told to someone in much the same way when Ursa sings. She picks out someone to sing to. The book has layers of storytelling. Perceptions of time are important in the oral storytelling tradition in the sense that you can make rapid transitions between one period and the next, sort of direct transitions.”
Jones work has at times been overshadowed by news coverage of incidents resulting from Higgins’ mental illness. He committed suicide in 1998 after a standoff with Lexington Police, and Jones hasn’t appeared in public since. Still, her work continues to awe readers with its complex style and depth of emotion. She draws many of the themes from her African American heritage as well as her own personal life and struggles. Perhaps most important are the psychological depictions of her characters, whose voices shout their story, their song, and their truth from the pages of her work.
Corregidora. New York: Random House, 1975.
Eva’s Man. New York: Random House, 1976.
White Rat. New York: Random House, 1977.
Midnight Birds. ed. Mary Helen Washington (with Gayl Jones, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Netozake Shange). New York: Anchor Books, 1980.
Song for Anninho. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1981.
The Hermit-Woman. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1983.
Xarque & Other Poems. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1985.
Die Volgelfaengerin (The Birdwatcher). Hamburger, Germany: RoRoRo(Rowohlt Verlag), 1986.
Black-eyed Susans and Midnight Birds: Stories by and About Black Women. ed. Mary Helen Washington (with Gayl Jones, Jean Wheeler Smith, Paulette Childress White, Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Meriwether, Alexis DeVaux, Frency Hodges, Sherley Anne Williams, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and Toni Cade Bambara). New York: Anchor, 1989.
The Greywolf Annual Seven: Stories from the American Mosaic (with Gayl Jones, Walker Scott, Kim Chi-won, Ekoneskaka, Louise Erdrich, K.C. Frederick, Joseph Geha, Jamaica Kincaid, and Salvatore La Puma). Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 1990.
Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
The Healing. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Mosquito. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Song for Anninho. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Palmares. Boston: Beacon Press, 2021 (Pulitzer Prize finalist)
The Birdcatcher. Boston: Beacon Press, 2022 (National Book Award finalist)