I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t come across Gayl Jones’ writing before learning about this new edition of “Corregidora” being reissued by Virago Modern Classics. It was originally published in 1975 with the help of Toni Morrison who was working as an editor at Random House at the time. Morrison famously stated “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this” and the influence “Corregidora” had on Morrison is very evident. It certainly must have partly inspired her novel “Beloved” as Jones’ novel similarly shows how the past intrudes upon and shapes the present by invoking voices from earlier generations who suffered under slavery.
“Corregidora” is the story of blues singer Ursa Corregidora. At the beginning of the novel she suffers a terrible injury after being thrown down the stairs by her jealous husband Mutt. The novel traces their tumultuous relationship over the years while Ursa recounts her early and later life. Interspersed throughout her story are accounts from previous generations of Corregidora women who can only relate the history of their difficult lives by talking to their daughters because physical records of their subjugation have been purposefully destroyed: “She said when they did away with slavery down there they burned all the slavery papers so it would be like they never had it.” Ursa carries the evidence of this past in the stories she’s received and she feels guilty that she can’t continue passing it on because she can’t have children. Both she and this novel are filled with the weight of history.
There’s a blunt honesty to Ursa’s story. I was frequently startled by the candour of the dialogue as well as the sex and violence portrayed. This is in sharp contrast to the figure of Ursa herself who is frequently passive and quiet – so much so that characters often chide her for being so listless. Yet this perfectly exhibits her crisis. Weighed down by the past and how it manifests in men’s attitudes towards her in the present makes her inert. The only way she can express how she’s really feeling is in song: “When do you sing the blues? Every time I ever want to cry, I sing the blues… What do blues do for you? It helps me to explain what I can’t explain.” Her music is the one thing she has that completely belongs to her when she feels the previous generations in her blood “we’re all consequences of something. Stained with another’s past as well as our own. Their past in my blood.” And her body and genitals are claimed as possessions by the men she’s with. Being so totally occupied she strives to achieve independence and her journey is artfully portrayed.
Ursa is the embodiment of her family's past. So much so that they nearly become one another: “It was as if their memory, the memory of all the Corregidora women, was her memory too, as strong with her as her own private memory, or almost as strong.” This shows the way trauma can be carried and felt from one generation to the next. But Ursa is also her own woman and it's absorbing following the way she builds her own life and stays true to her music. The complexities of her uniquely powerful story are captured here with rare honesty and insight.
My reading experienced was informed and influenced by the particular copy I read. Since this is a novel about passing stories on, the publisher had the clever idea of passing a single proof copy amongst several readers to annotate and comment in it as they read along. My copy had notes from two different readers who underlined passages and wrote their thoughts in the margins. I appreciated the connections they made and the ideas they discussed next to the text. It made this quite a unique communal reading experience or maybe it reinforced how reading is both an individual and a communal experience. Anyway, it was an interesting way to experience the story.
I'm also so curious to know more about the author Gayl Jones now. She's still living but is reclusive, doesn't grant interviews and hasn't published anything new in twenty years. Her life has been incredibly dramatic including fleeing from the US for many years to escape a crime her husband committed and being involved in various protests. It's sombre to think her life has been troubled as that of her character in “Corregidora.”