Unsolved Problems: Rachel Harper on Gloria Naylor

March 26, 2017   •   By Rachel Harper

"Women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems."

Virginia Woolf,  A Room of One's Own 

This piece is the first in a series called Unsolved Problems, which features women writers discussing the other women writers who have taught, encouraged and moved them. We will be publishing these short pieces until the end of this month. Read more in the series in the LARB Quarterly Journal, No. 13.




I WAS DEEPLY SADDENED to learn of Gloria Naylor’s death last fall, a writer I’ve admired since reading her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, when I was in high school. I didn’t realize it back then, but along with Faulkner and Twain, Wilder and Fitzgerald, Naylor was one of my first teachers. I read the novel — a story that placed black women at the center of the narrative in lush, lyrical prose — and for the first time in my New England prep school, connected completely to a book from their reading list. And just like that, it was as if the big iron gates of my school, my mind, were fully unlocked; the doors spread open enough for me to finally enter. In class, I suddenly felt seen in a different way — respected, appreciated — by classmates and teachers, but perhaps most significantly by myself. This did wonders for my self-esteem, but also my sense of having a voice: first as a reader, and later, as a writer.

Naylor wrote unapologetically about racial and class divides, gender dynamics, motherhood, and sexuality with power and grace; her subject matter validated my own. Her stories felt contemporary and urban; they mirrored aspects of my own life, and also the lives of people I most wanted to understand. My classmates — as far from the experiences she wrote about as one could be — also reveled in her words and the mysteries of the flawed, fierce characters she brought to life on the page. They saw that a black person could teach them something. I internalized that insight; it wasn’t conscious at the time, but a seed was planted in that moment, one that would later bloom into a clear and unwavering desire to write my own stories, to do my own teaching.

I would like to believe her influence is apparent in my work, but I can say for sure that I’ve learned a few things about structure and style from her novels. I used multiple narrators in my recent novel, This Side of Providence, and in the book I’m writing now, I’ve broken the narrative into dated sections instead of traditional chapters, as she did in Linden Hills. I like to think this speaks to a shared belief that for some stories, the truth comes best through many voices, free of the constraints of a traditional timeline. The passage of time doesn’t always move in one direction.

Naylor also believed in the redemptive power of language, as her prose offers the great gift of revealing humiliations without humiliating, of laying characters bare without leaving them barren. Her sentences — even the ones describing decrepit, desperate things — were beautifully wrought, showing us that a story about people in despair can still be filled with hope. This led me to one of my most fundamental beliefs as a writer: that words are the great time traveler, capable of bridging worlds and races and generations, of merging two disparate halves into one whole.

As I think about her impact on me, its specific potency, and of the legacy she left behind in her many books, I can’t help but ponder the empty spaces as well, the books I will never get to read because she never got the chance to write them. It feels strange to miss a writer you never knew personally, and to miss books you’ve never read, but that’s where I am today: longing for the Naylor story that would speak to this phase of my life, the one I need on my nightstand right now. She might not have the answer, but she would certainly provide an answer, and for that, this faithful reader would be grateful.