Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Corregidora by Gayl Jones was going to be tough book. It’s about a Portuguese slave master named Corregidora who rapes his slaves. The narrator’s great-grandmother was raped by him. Then her daughter was raped by him, producing the narrator’s mother. Once slaves were emancipated, Corregidora burned their ownership papers. Thus, the narrator’s ancestors told the stories of what happened to them — over and over and over — so it will never be swept under the rug of history.

These women keep the name Corregidora (slaves were given their masters’ last names) and emphasized the need to make new generations so the horrors of slavery would have new ears to hear and a voice to keep them alive. In 1948 Ursa Corregidora, the narrator, is pushed down a flight of stairs by her husband on the first couple of pages. We learn she has an emergency hysterectomy, and that she was a month pregnant.

Some pretty famous writers love Gayl Jones’s novel. John Updike called it a “unpolemical” and “exploratory.” Maya Angelou claimed it an American tale. James Baldwin wrote “Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred. . .” Three great writers, no doubt, but none of their comments say anything about the style of writing itself, and that was the problem for me. I can handle brutal stories of slavery and rape. They are  fact, and I don’t turn from the facts of humans’ lives because they’re upsetting. I know many readers do, and I’m not judging. I’m just saying that’s not why I chose to “DNF” this book.

I was going to write about the diction. The language throughout is graphic. But the language is meant to capture the objectification women face one generation after the next. Women are nothing but their vaginas, both as slaves and in the present 1948. When Ursa’s husband is mad at her, it’s not that she maybe fell in love with someone else, it’s that she’s having sex with someone else. Corregidora doesn’t want any black men having sex with his slaves; they’re prostitutes for white men. At first, I thought Jones was suggesting male slaves are rendered impotent by their masters, a common theme in slave narratives, but the black men in 1948 treat women no better. Woman are still their genitals. Both the language and content of Corregidora is enough to turn off most readers.

For me, it was the style of writing. The 1948 sections make sense, but then there are large italicized passages. The speaker changes, and it’s unclear. Sometimes it’s the grandmother or great-grandmother. Other times, I realize it’s Ursa talking to her husband — who isn’t there. Is she dreaming she’s talking to him? Wishing? After he pushed her down the stairs, she never spoke to him again because he cost her her ability to make generations to keep her family’s stories alive. I skimmed the rest of the novel (just 50 pages) to see if things cleared up, and it looks like Gayl Jones keeps her style and topic the same all the way to the end. I didn’t see any signs of character or plot development.

John Updike may not feel Corregidora is polemical, but what I got is we should never romanticize nor forget the real horrors of American slavery. Playing with time and reality shifts didn’t make the characters delivering that message deep. Unfortunately, the basic elements of fiction were lost in the important message.

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13 comments

  1. I’m sorry to hear that the writing style of this one put you off. And I agree with you that character and plot development are critical if a reader is to stay engaged. It’s a shame, too, because it sounds as though there’s a lot here that ought to be told and shouldn’t be forgotten.

  2. I wonder if much of the praise for this book derives from its groundbreaking analysis, in 1986, of the situation of AfricanAmerican women. That at the time it was not possible to criticize it from a literary point of view.

    • Good point. I know it’s not even close, but I have to say negative things about a book with positive representation of fat women that I didn’t enjoy. Young adult authors are really cornering the market, but I don’t love the young adult writing style or simplistic plots.

  3. Just because a book’s message is important doesn’t mean we have to enjoy the actual book or even read it / finish it. I have given up on books that were praised by people I look up to and respect.

    I agree with you, this book’s message is extremely important. It’s a part of our history and it should not be erased. But confusion about POV’s as well as plot development are extremely important to me, and the points you made would frustrate me as well.

    • I get the feeling I would have taken more from this subject if it had been a memoir. Typically, the POV doesn’t change in a memoir, and some of the parts that stretched credibility, such as telling family they must reproduce so no one forgets what happened to their slave ancestors, would have either disappeared or had truth behind it.

  4. Wow. Powerful text. What inspired you to pick this up in the first place?

    I can understand why you would have DNFd the book. While there are many creative formats a memoir can take, it sounds like the unique POV changes were challenging. I imagine the diction wouldn’t have bothered you from an academic perspective… is that a fair assumption? This is just part of Jones’ own life legacy.

    Speaking of: is it clear that she is the last of the Corregidora “line”? I understand why no one wants to lose the truth behind this, as these sorts of stories being circulated will keep these horrid acts from happening again. At least, one would hope. But if there are no children to share this story with… Why did she write this memoir? I’m not saying it’s wrong to have written it. I just don’t understand the motivations.

    • Corregidora is fiction, but I wondered how it would be different if it were a memoir. Because it’s fiction, it seems over-the-top. However, if it WERE a memoir, it would be more believable. I picked up this Jones’s novel because my background is in African American literature, I hadn’t heard of Jones, and both Angelou and Baldwin recommended her work. There’s a bit of a gap in my knowledge after the rise of the Black Panther Party, so I’m trying to read more in that time period.

      • Wait. It’s fiction? How did I miss that?! I agree with you– being fiction this feels over-the-top. I guess my brain just inserted that this is a memoir because that’s the only way this seems logical. Which, in itself, is illogical. … … .. My brain hurts.

        Are there other authors who have written post-rise of the Black Panther Party fiction you will be seeking out? Or more of Jones’s works? It sounds like this didn’t *quite* work for you.

        • I’m not sure. Post 70s is a gap in my knowledge. You get your Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but the other, smaller voices get drowned out. There was a cool play called Goin’a Buffalo by Ed Bullins I enjoyed that came out in 1968.

  5. I’m really bothered when reading a passage that’s difficult to discern who is speaking-it’s one of my great frustrations actually, but I get the sense that some readers don’t mind it, so like you, I always include it in my reviews. Agreed this is an important topic (slavery that is) but it doesn’t mean you can’t criticize the writing of the book-famous authors be damned!

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