Award-Winning Author Gloria Naylor Donates Archives to SHU

News Story: January 17, 2013
“I wrote because I had no choice, but that was a long road from gathering the authority within myself to believing that I could actually be a writer.” So said author Gloria Naylor to another celebrated woman of letters, Toni Morrison, concerning Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The presence of such a work, Naylor explained, “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 painfully eloquent that it becomes a song.”
Gloria Naylor has been working on that song for 35 years now. She has called New York City home all her life – in fact, she has lived in every borough but Staten Island – but now she hopes to sell her Brooklyn brownstone and move to Paris. As part of making a new life for herself, she recently completed the donation of her personal and professional archives to Sacred Heart University. They will reside in a specially designated room in the Ryan Matura Library and will be available for student use and scholarly research.
Gloria Naylor returned to campus on June 22 to sign papers – and copies of her books – and to formally present the texts and accompanying research materials to the library. “Returned,” because she was here in 1994 when the University presented her an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at the Commencement in May. Although she has since received two additional honorary degrees and numerous other awards, she retained an affection for Sacred Heart and determined that this living legacy would become a major University resource. Her later honors include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a rare Guggenheim Fellowship.
Naylor has led an extraordinary life full of surprising twists and turns – worthy of a novel, you might say. Her mother grew up as a sharecropper in Mississippi and saved every penny she could earn to buy books that black people were forbidden to borrow from the local library. She passed on this passion for the written word to her rather shy daughter and got her a New York City library card the moment her child could sign the application – about the age of four. Like her mother, Gloria joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses, where she engaged in missionary work for seven years after high school.
Upon returning north, she worked as a telephone operator for six years while attending college classes, eventually earning her BA from Brooklyn College, in English. It was there, she recalls, that she came to an understanding of herself as a woman of color and a writer. She admired many writers, but came to realize that all of them were either men or white – and often, both – so reading Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was a genuine eye-opener. In 1981, the former missionary and switchboard operator entered a master’s program at Yale where she pursued Afro-American studies, graduating in 1983.
Naylor’s first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, arrived in 1982. It explored the lives of seven African-American women struggling against horrific odds. It received a number of important awards and was made into a television movie produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. Subsequent novels included Linden Hills, with strong parallels to Dante’s Inferno, and Mama Day, which explores the lives of generations of black women on a mysterious island off the southern coast. Filled with magic, myth and family, it is, according to the author, “about the fact that the real basic magic is the unfolding of the human potential and that if we reach inside ourselves, we can create miracles.” Bailey’s Café was followed by a return to familiar territory with the 1998 edition of The Men of Brewster Place, and four years ago, with 1996.
Most clearly associated with her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor has scarcely given up writing and has a number of works in progress. She’s maybe a third of the way along with a historical novel she calls Saphhira Wade, which joins the lives of a woman from Africa and a man from Norway in the early decades of this country. Another project is tentatively called Myisha Speaks, poems by a 17-year-old girl with AIDS, and another she is hoping to write is called Sorry, No Answer – a refrain she heard often during her years as a switchboard operator.
Although she figures that 95 percent of her readers are women – they prefer fiction, she asserts, and her writing explores strongly feminist themes – she objects to being labeled a “woman writer” or even a “black author,” arguing that Amy Tan is not an ‘Asian woman writer’ or Norman Mailer a ‘Jewish male writer.’ Rather, they are American writers telling American stories. And so am I,” she explains.
Naylor’s writing habits were developed at a very early age. She was a shy and bookish child, and her mother gave her a diary to record her thoughts. When writing her first novel, which won the American Book Award for best first novel, she was also working as a telephone operator in New York City hotels, so she never had the leisure to spend hours every day at her writing desk. Initially, she wrote in longhand because the clatter of an electric typewriter was too distracting. Mama Day was her first major work composed at least partially on a computer, though she finds herself back to writing longhand these days, since the historical novel she is working on, set in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, seems to demand that approach.
The author has taught in a number of prestigious academic institutions, including her alma mater, Yale, as well as such schools as the University of Pennsylvania, NYU and Princeton. And she will return to the classroom next year at St. Lawrence University. Naylor was attracted to Paris because of the vibrant intellectual life there, and the rich tradition of “salons,” where writers and other creative people gather to share their thoughts and plans. And it will give her a chance to continue the volunteer work she took up at a Catholic-sponsored soup kitchen in New York; she has already scouted the options in Paris.
A poet, a missionary, a short-story writer, a telephone operator, a columnist, an essayist, a playwright and screenplay writer, an Ivy League student and sought-after educator: the book of Gloria Naylor’s life has had many chapters, and she hopes to write the latest one in the fabled city of Paris. But like a character in one of her novels, she must depend on some outside forces before she can make her move. And that chain of events begins with the New York City real estate market.