The year was 1983. Alice Walker‘s Violet won the Pulitzer Prize for Fictional Literature and the National Book Award; Gloria Naylorfirst novel, Brewster Place WomenHe won the National Book Award for his first novel.
Some skeptics have questioned the decision to award these prizes to these novels by black women in the overwhelmingly white literary world. Were Walker and Naylor honored for being “minority writers”? Were their novels really “fine art” or “just sociology”?
Adding to the response was the feisty black critic, Stanley Crouch, who later claimed the female-centered Walker novels, Naylor, Toni Morrison And other black women writers, in particular, have demonized men She endorsed harmful stereotypes about black men. So it was so early in my teaching career that a white student in one of my English classes inadvertently endorsed Crouch’s opinion when he delivered Violet He crossed the class because he was so angry at what he saw as all-man hatred.
Just another day at the Knowledge Factory.
The reason for this wandering in literary memory lane is a reissue Brewster Place Women In the Hardback Series called Penguin Vitae, with a strong introduction to it Tayari Jones, author of the 2018 bestselling novel, American marriage. I’ve never read Naylor’s first appearance and reprint like this which gives readers like me that extra push to see if we’ve missed something.
As Jones says in her introduction, Brewster Place Women It is a “combined novel”. I think Thornton Wilder San Luis Rei Bridge or much later Tim O’Brien‘s The things they carried Novels in which separate stories about different people intersect. This model can be heavy on melodrama and Naylor doesn’t always avoid this hole. But it is her passionate creations as a story and intricate individuality endowed with each of her seven main characters that make the novel much more than a creative literary assembly line.
All of Naylor’s different women ended up on Brewster Place, a canoe street in an unnamed town that had a dead end to a wall. Naylor herself was born in New York and raised in Queens. Knowing his native daughter, Naylor opens the novel, almost mythically, by surveying Brewster’s Place, the kind of tired New York apartment block that once housed shifting populations:
The third generation of Brewster Place kids… drifted onto the block and precipitated the exodus of what was left of the Mediterranean. … Brewster’s place knew that unlike the other children, the few who would leave forever would be the exception rather than the rule, because they had come because they had no choice and would remain for the same reason.
Because it is a group photo of the women of color living in this dilapidated building, Brewster Place WomenDifferent from Anne Petrie’s great 1946 novel, streetAnd the About a reclusive black woman striving to move in and out. As a collective narrative, Nellor’s narrative amplifies the systemic racism that keeps everyone stuck in their place. Among her “women” are Mate Michael, a single mother who is the moral center of the book, and Keswana Brown, a neighborhood activist, and a gay couple arguing, as we say these days, about the issue of embracing difference. Teresa is boisterous and proud while her partner Lauren wants to live outside the categories; She says she “just wants to be…a lousy human being.”
In one of the most-quoted lines of the novel, all of these women at Brewster Place are described as “strong-eyed, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easy-going”. But this is just one of many passages that make the reader pause and appreciate the way Naylor expresses subtle emotional states. Take this line about Teresa who, at a crucial moment, lets Lauren walk out the door in favor of, perhaps, someone easier:[Theresa] She was young and still searching for answers, and she made the fatal mistake many young women make in thinking that what was not there was cleverly hidden out of her reach.”
Cleverly, Naylor combines all of these individual stories into one climax that works through the reader across a sense of horror and anger word for word. The ability to decide who, in fact, would be allowed the normal opportunity to be “just a lousy human being” is itself the subject of angry debate in this country. Brewster Place Women, born of the details of a particular time and society, also turns out to be one of those universal stories, yes, that depict how we, the fallen, seek grace.