After 22 years out of the public eye, “the best American novelist whose name you may not know” returns with a novel that’s been 40 years in the making
Born in 1949 in Lexington, Kentucky, Gayl Jones has published four novels alongside poetry and short story collections as well as a play. Despite being a “literary legend”, she is extremely reclusive and declines all interviews. Her first novel Corregidora was published in 1975 and divided critical attention. It’s the story of an African American blues singer from Kentucky who is navigating her abusive husband’s violence and the trauma inherited from her foremothers - two of whom were slaves in Brazil, prostituted and impregnated by the same slave master.
It was followed just a year later by Eva’s Man. Ultimately, critics struggled with the thematic content of her work, particularly its violence. This and her extreme reclusiveness meant that Jones fell into obscurity. Her most recent publications, The Healing (1998) and Mosquito (1999), although joyful, exuberant and humane, underwhelmed readers. Yet after a 22-year hiatus, her newest book Palmares became a significant literary event when it was published last September.
Palmares: “Palmares, or Quilombo dos Palmares, was a quilombo, a community of escaped slaves and others, in colonial Brazil that developed from 1605 until its suppression in 1694. It was located in the captaincy of Pernambuco, in what is today the Brazilian state of Alagoas.”
Before embarking upon the novel, you’d be forgiven for expecting a story about the community of escaped slaves in Brazil that survived for about a hundred years. Palmares was the best known of these maroon communities, or quilombos. At its zenith its population exceeded 30,000 and, despite repeated attacks by the Portuguese colonists, it lasted for almost the entire 17th century. Jones’s novel, however, takes a thematic and geographic detour. After being liberated from plantation slavery by Palmaristas, the novel’s protagonist Almeyda falls in love with one of their warriors Anninho. They are separated following an attack on the quilombo and the sprawling novel charts Almeyda’s journey through the forest in search of her lost lover.
Alternative Ways of Resisting
But Jones’s novel is not really about Palmares. It is not about a warrior community whose black citizen is free “only if he takes up weapons and defends it”. Rather, it is about alternative ways of resisting. The formation and defence of quilombos as a means of rebelling against slavery is itself a poorly remembered history, but Jones digs beneath it and looks instead at the way rebellion can be effected with folk knowledge, storytelling and romantic love.
Folk knowledge, an alternative epistemology that challenges western logic, science and rationality is celebrated throughout the novel. While many characters have spiritual powers and magical abilities, Luiza, Almeyda’s guide and mentor is the most significant repository for this overlooked expertise. Folk knowledge is used in Palmares to inflict STIs, administer abortions (“to make angels”) and heal wounds. It is not passive resistance and can’t be read as a stereotypically feminine alternative to the stereotypically masculine aggression of the war-like Palmaristas. It resists this reading, blurs the boundary between these constructed binaries, undermining the validity of them as categories because it is active and sometimes violent. It is truly revolutionary, although it looks beyond the violence of battle as a site for resistance.
This unearthing of hidden alternatives, the rehabilitation of the knowledge systems, cultural expressions, and stories of colonised or oppressed communities is the novel’s central theme. For example, although Almeyda spends the majority of the novel searching for her lover Anninho, the novel isn’t really about this regressive (Anninho uses very old-fashioned and possessive language when he talks about Almeyda, referring to her as “my woman”) and heteronormative idea of love. Most of the relationships we see are forged on Almeyda’s journey. And they are mostly with women. There is the matrilineal community of Almeyda, her mother and grandmother. There is the supportive and conflicted teacher-pupil relationship between Almeyda and Luiza. There is the community that is made up of the King of Palmares’s wives. These relationships often cross racial and cultural boundaries and make the case for the deconstruction of hierarchy and a democratic and loving egalitarianism. It’s also particularly refreshing to read these supportive relationships between women in Palmares given that Jones’s previous novels have featured casual unchallenged homophobia.
(Don’t) Make It Make Sense
Another way in which Palmares challenges the hegemony of western epistemology is in its literary models. Jones doesn’t look to classics of European literature for inspiration, but to the magical realism of South American literature, particularly that of Gabriel García Márquez. The novel is studded with whimsical tales of transformation (characters “turn into wolves at night”, have “supernatural visions”, and of course there are magical plants and potions). In this way, Jones challenges the western convention that everything “has to make sense”. A character can appear in one of the novel’s six parts and reappear in the form of another character later on. Others might live to be “hundreds and hundreds of years old”. The reader is forced to abandon the rational.
Jones’s literary inspirations also affect the way her story is told. Over the course of this epic narrative, we meet a huge number of characters, many of whom never reappear, only adding to the novel’s sense of surreal expansiveness. We read glimpses of their stories, but there is the sense that this cumulative combination of tales never quite adds up to a whole. Here again, the novel challenges the notion central to western epistemology that there has to be a “coherent whole” at all.
Standard perceptions of time are also cast aside. Events are compressed or elongated. We leap into visions that seem to exist outside of time. Even Almeyda asks of her time in the forest, “Was it hours, or months?”. Patterns of Palmares’s destruction and renewal and constant allusions to reincarnation thrust us into a cyclical notion of time proposed by many indigenous, non-western cultures. The novel’s sense of chronology is certainly an aspect of its magic realism, but it also says something about freedom. For example, one character, Xavier imagines when “he will be free”. He says, “he’ll leap through time then”. Freedom then, is the conquering of time, the dissolving of the borders between past, present and future, the feeling of not being bound by rigid linearity. The spiritually gifted are capable of this in the novel, but so too is Jones, the fiction writer.
With Palmares, Jones brings different temporalities together. Although in some ways a historical novel, she is light and vague with historical allusions, making only brief and ambiguous references to real historical figures like Ganga Zumbi and his nephew Zumbi, successive leaders of Palmares. She doesn’t use historical language, nor the African American vernacular audible in almost all of her other work, but a kind of neutral idiom with very little descriptive language or characterful syntax, that isn’t out of place today. With this and by deconstructing the polarity between historical reality and surreal fiction, Palmares has a sense of timelessness. As we read, the novel directs our gaze back to this moment in history, and forwards to a mystical futurity. We “leap through time” with Jones and the novel’s spiritually enlightened characters. With her chronology, Jones is also making a statement about the universal and the particular. The timelessness of Jones’s presentation of this very particular time period, place and group of people, often consigned to the margins of both fiction and history, mean that they bear a universal relevance. This universality insists on the parity of the marginalised particular with the hegemonic default. Their stories are just as valid. From these stories, anyone can learn something about the universal experience of being human.
This playfully shapeshifting novel - never about what it first seems to be - constantly surprises the reader, who’s forced to dig beneath the surface and imagine alternative ways of knowing, loving and resisting. There are some moral lessons, too, in the rehabilitation of forgotten and oppressed voices. Not just politically, but practically. There’s much to be learned from forgotten knowledge, from the particular blend of indigenous seeds that can be used to rehabilitate destroyed rainforests to natural forms of contraception such as fertility awareness. If you want to go on a journey rich in paradoxical and magical detail, pick up Palmares. But don’t expect a direct course or clear end point.