For Gloria Naylor, not all dreams are deferred
Washington — The one library in Robinsonville, Miss., was not for blacks - not in the 1940 s. So Gloria Naylor's mother worked overtime in the fields picking cotton. With the extra earnings, she sent away for books - because book clubs didn't know what color she was.
''What I got from her was my love of books,'' says Ms. Naylor, a creative writing teacher at George Washington University and author of ''The Women of Brewster Place,'' her first novel.
She was six years old when her mother took her to the library to get a library card. Thus began a love affair with ''eons of books'' that subsequently led Ms. Naylor to write her own. Today she holds one of the most prestigious positions to which an American writer can aspire - winner of the 1983 American Book Award.
In this modest northwest side apartment a quick jog from Malcolm X Park, signs of her second novel are strewn atop a small corner desk. On a nearby wall hangs a poster of a black woman gazing upward. Inscribed on the bottom are the famed words of Dr. Martin Luther King, ''I have a dream.''
Sitting on a brown and white tweed sofa, Ms. Naylor chats in soft, genteel tones about her emergence as a distinguished writer.
''I didn't really call myself a writer, believe it or not, until last year,'' she says with amusement.
Yet to call Gloria Naylor anything but a writer would be absurd, for with this single novel she has made a notable contribution to American literature - particularly black American writings.
In relation to other black women writers, ''she ranks right among the best,'' says Johnnella Butler, associate professor of Afro-American studies at Smith College. ''She demonstrates right away that she has the ability to write in a way that captures the essence of a human situation.''
Ms. Naylor's first dabblings in prose began during the mid-1970s while she attended Brooklyn College in New York City and worked full time as a hotel switchboard operator. Like many women writers, she began writing as a kind of emotional purging.
''Writing you did because you had to do it, because the story was built in your gut,'' she says of those initial days. ''Writing was a way of expressing myself. I was very shy. I had a lot of problems, a lot of complexes. I didn't talk a lot. I couldn't express my feelings verbally, so I would write.''
At this time she discovered a core of black writings - in particular, those of Toni Morrison, winner of the 1977 National Book Critic Circle Award.
''I'd had your classical high school education,'' she says, reading the works of ''white American males, white English males, and for good measure . . . George Eliot. Basically, that's what I cut my literary teeth on.
''To learn that there were women who looked like me who were writing, and writing with a caliber that Morrison did, just astounded me. I loved the lyricism in her work, and I said, I'll never write like that, but if I can just try. . . .''
Ms. Naylor did try with a single story, then tucked it away amid the flurry of her busy life. Eventually a second and third followed, and five years later she gathered seven stories together and created ''The Women of Brewster Place.''
This eloquent, sensitive, candid (the book includes a scene of sexual violence), and often humorous novel in seven parts takes place in a deteriorating neighborhood in big-city America. The reader meets seven ordinary black women struggling with their deferred dreams. As Ms. Naylor pries open the tattered front doors of their sad lives, characters of breathtaking proportions emerge.
Most astonishing is Mattie Michael, the central character of the book. She arrives at Brewster Place with a wounded heart and bleak future. Yet she spends little time in disillusionment and instead comforts others. She is the strength of the block, says Ms. Naylor, ''the mammy with a twist, . . . with a humanity that I don't think she's had in American literature.''
The ending of the book is especially powerful. In a dreamlike scene, the women tear down a brick wall that dead-ends their street - a wall, says Ms. Naylor, that ''. . . represents racism, because that is the commonality of their experience.''
Ultimately the book celebrates common lives, '' . . . lives that aren't considered laudatory - child rearing, dishwashing, and just getting by,'' she says.
''The way I envision these women, and the way I envision black women's lives, it's got hardship. It's gotta be, if you're black and if you're a woman, and if you're poor - that spells hardship. But at the same time, I don't see a lot of moroseness in that spirit. I see an acceptance of what is, and a going on.''
Ms. Naylor is working on a second novel, ''Linden Hills,'' to be published next year. Based on the typology of Dante's ''Inferno,'' the book will focus on a professional middle-class black neighborhood in the suburbs. The suburb rests on a hill, she says, and as you wind down crescent-shaped drives, you meet individuals who have moved up in American society.
''There's no question that 'Linden Hills' is fantastic, even better than 'The Women of Brewster Place,' '' says Prof. Henry Gates Jr. of Yale University, who worked with Ms. Naylor and has read portions of her manuscript. ''She will be one of the major writers of our time,'' he says.