After a 20-year publishing hiatus, Gayl Jones is back with a heady historical fiction

Somewhere in the last few pages of this brutal historical fiction that has been half a century in the making, our protagonist—the observational Almeyda—asks “how can one write such a history and live through it at the same time?”. A fragmented narrative of slavery and survival set in 17th century colonial Brazil, Palmares begs the same question.

Centred on the last of seven fugitive slave settlements, Palmares attempts to trace the psychological and physical geographies of Brazilian colonialism. These are refracted through the life story of Almeyda, a guarded and reticent soul who comes of age in slavery under the tutelage of her conspicuous grandmother and a Franciscan priest who teaches her how to write. Later she escapes to a fugitive slave settlement where she meets the love of her life in the strong-willed Anniho, a Muslim man who gives her a taste of security in an existence that is, by definition, predicated on a constant sense of insecurity.

That devastating truth bleeds into the very narrative frame of Palmares, an experimental novel that shuns the orienting markers of traditionally signposted narratives, opting instead for a collection of vignettes conveying unmoored moments with a particular intensity that is undeniably characteristic of Jones’s work. In the aftermath of a white raid on the settlement, Anniho is taken away and Almeyda is mutilated, a wrenching moment that occupies the span of a few words. Jones’s storytelling has always been so powerful because it understands the loudness of silence and omission. There are things we do not yet, and may never, have the language for. One might reframe Almeyda’s question to ask “how can one write such a history” at all.

“Jones’s storytelling has always been so powerful because it understands the loudness of silence and omission. There are things we do not yet, and may never, have the language for.”

An author profile in The Atlantic notes how, whether set in contemporary or historical times, Jones’s novels “boldly set out to convey racial struggle in its deep-seated and disorienting complexity”, seeing “the whole where most only see pieces.” Of her magnum opus Corregidora, James Baldwin made a similar statement: “Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women.” Corregidora follows Ursa, an infertile Blues singer who struggles in her relationships with men and money, coming from a lineage of women raped by their father slash owner, the Portuguese plantation slaver Corredigora. Toni Morrison, who first discovered and edited the novel when she was working at Random House, asserted that “no novel about any Black woman could be the same after this.”

After publishing to great acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s, Jones disappeared from the public eye. 20 years later, she has finally remerged with a historical fiction that is wholly conversant with her earlier work. Though Palmares does not directly treat the contemporary legacy of slavery, it’s a timely reminder of how the past is psychically continuous with the present and how Black women are still battling the same demons. It is no coincidence that she started working on Palmares around the same time that Corregidora began to take shape.

Many have noted that Jones’s particular strength lies in her ability to bring out the intimacies of history, to break down the perceived barrier between a character and their environment. From the playful medicine women to the brooding men, the characters in Palmares feel eerily familiar. For example, there are nods to our contemporary culture of political correctness: Almeyda is told time and time again that using the term ‘Mohammedan’ to refer to Muslims is pejorative.

Jones is back, and Beacon Press is scheduled to publish 5 of her works in the next two years. In an author-focused age of social media and cults of curated personalities, she remains her reclusive self. Jones is not giving any author interviews, maintaining a firm separation between her and her oeuvre.

By Jane Link

JANE LINK is a master’s student and an editor for Split Lip MagazineThe Publishing Post, and her own beloved bigblackbooks. When not trying to land her first job in publishing, Jane loves to read historical fiction, self-help, and everything by Black voices. She dreams of one day setting up an independent dedicated to publishing those voices. You can find her on Twitter @verybookishjane.

GAYL JONES is an African-American writer from Lexington, Kentucky. Her most famous works are Corregidora, Eva’s Man, and The Healing.

After a 20-year publishing hiatus, Gayl Jones is back with a heady historical fictionPalmares by Gayl Jones
Published by Virago on 14 September 2021
Genres: Coming-of-age, Epic, Folktale, Historical fiction, Literary fiction, Picaresque, Supernatural, African American, Womanism
Pages: 504
Format: Paperback
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three-stars

Intricate and compelling,  Palmares recounts the journey of Almeyda, a Black slave girl who comes of age on Portuguese plantations and escapes to a fugitive slave settlement called Palmares. Following its destruction, Almeyda embarks on a journey across colonial Brazil to find her husband, lost in battle. Her story brings to life a world impacted by greed, conquest, and colonial desire. She encounters a mad lexicographer, desperate to avoid military service; a village that praises a god living in a nearby cave; and a medicine woman who offers great magic, at a greater price.