The year was 1983. Alice Walker's The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award; Gloria Naylor's debut novel, The Women of Brewster Place, won the National Book Award for first fiction.
The decision to give these awards to these novels by Black women was questioned by some skeptics in the overwhelmingly white literary world. Were Walker and Naylor honored because they were so-called "minority writers"? Were their novels really "good art" or "just sociology"?
Adding to the push-back was the brawling Black critic, Stanley Crouch, who later claimed the female-centered novels of Walker, Naylor, Toni Morrison and other Black women writers demonized men and in particular corroborated damaging stereotypes about Black men. So it was that early in my teaching career, a white male student in one of my English classes unknowingly seconded Crouch's opinion when he hurled The Color Purple across the classroom because he was so infuriated at what he saw as its hatred of all men.
Just another day in the knowledge factory.
The reason for this ramble down literary memory lane is the reissue of The Women of Brewster Place in a hardback series called Penguin Vitae, with a powerhouse foreword by Tayari Jones, author of the 2018 bestselling novel, An American Marriage. I'd never read Naylor's debut and reprints like this one give readers like me that extra nudge to find out whether we've been missing something.
As Jones says in her Foreword, The Women of Brewster Place is a "composite novel." Think Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey or, much later, Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried -- novels where separate stories about disparate people intersect. This form can be heavy on melodrama and Naylor doesn't always dodge that pothole. But it's her ardent inventiveness as a storyteller and the complex individuality she gives to each of her seven main characters that make the novel so much more than a contrived literary assembly line.
Naylor's various women have all wound up on Brewster Place, a dingy street in an unnamed city that dead-ends into a wall. Naylor herself was born in New York and grew up in Queens. With the streetwise knowledge of a native daughter, Naylor opens the novel by, almost mythically, surveying Brewster Place, the kind of tired New York apartment building that's housed shifting populations:
Brewster Place's third generation of children ... drifted into the block and precipitated the exodus of the remaining Mediterraneans. ... Brewster Place knew that unlike its other children, the few who would leave forever were to be the exception rather than the rule, since they came because they had no choice and would remain for the same reason.
Because it's a group portrait of women of color living in this dilapidated building, The Women of Brewster Place, differs from, say Ann Petry's great 1946 novel, The Street, about an isolated Black woman striving to move up and out. As a collective narrative, Naylor's novel amplifies the systemic racism that keeps everyone in stuck in place. Among her "women" are Mattie Michael, a single mother who's the moral center of the book, Kiswana Browne, a neighborhood activist, and a lesbian couple who argue, as we'd say these days, about the issue of embracing difference. Theresa is loud and proud while her partner, Lorraine, wants to live beyond categories; she says she "just wants to be ... a lousy human being."
In one of the most oft-quoted lines from the novel, all of these Brewster Place women are described as "hard-edged, softcentered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased." But that's only one of many passages here that make a reader stop and appreciate the way Naylor expresses nuanced emotional states. Take this line about Theresa who, at a crucial moment, lets Lorraine walk out the door in favor of, maybe, someone easier: "[Theresa] was a young woman and still in search of answers, and she made the fatal mistake that many young women do of believing that what never existed was just cleverly hidden beyond her reach."
Deftly, Naylor gathers all these individual stories into one climactic narrative that works through the reader via a word-by-word sense of horror and outrage. The power to decide who, in fact, can be permitted the ordinary chance to be "just a lousy human being" is itself still the subject of furious argument in this country. The Women of Brewster Place, born of the details of a particular time and community, also turns out to be one of those, yes, universal stories depicting how we, the fallen, seek grace.