BOOKS / A visionary who smuggles freedom

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The Independent Culture
LAST YEAR the Los Angeles Times sent a photographer to take a picture of Gloria Naylor. He walked into her flat overlooking the Hudson, and couldn't get over how big it was, especially for Manhattan, where space costs. This is fantastic, he kept saying, then turned to her and said: 'So, what's she like, Gloria Naylor?' 'I am Gloria Naylor,' replied the writer. 'What did you think, I must be the maid or something?'

When they heard this punchline, the people sitting opposite in the train stopped listening to the black woman being interviewed by a journalist. 'He was miserable when he realised, but it didn't embarrass me,' said Naylor. 'All your life you shrug off things like that.'

Gloria Naylor has come to England for a few months to get away from being black in America. Her books, The Women of Brewster Place (which won the American Book Award for first fiction), Linden Hills, Mama Day, and her latest novel, Bailey's Cafe (Heinemann pounds 14.99) all deal with black suffering, though she does not write about herself: time and place in her books tend to be symbolic rather than specific.

Last autumn, Naylor, aged 42, decided that she needed a break from American race relations. The Clarence Thomas hearings showed her a Senate 'speechless before black Americans'. Naylor switched off her television set determined to 'get the heck out'. The next week a letter arrived from the Arts Council offering her three months as a writer-in-residence for Kent. She left the States in May, on the tail of the LA riots, for Canterbury.

Naylor is inevitably compared with other black women writers such as Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. Her work is not as searing as Morrison's; sometimes it reads like the product of too many creative writing classes, too worked upon. Naylor has another profession - ghetto survival instinct, perhaps - with her new film company, but for these few months she is bringing American-style writing gospel to the Kent countryside.

On the day I spent with Gloria Naylor, she had a 9.30am women's writing workshop at Cookhamwood prison, followed by another at 1 o'clock. She has agreed to put in 39 days' public work during her 13 weeks in Kent. 'At one point they were piling on more but I had that figured out,' she giggled. 'Only they got me by saying maybe you could do two events on one day.'

At the Ramsgate adult study centre, the group was mainly older women with groomed grey hair, sitting very straight. Naylor is good at this, very enthusiastic, very interested. She sat listening to the women reading their work, her eyes paying close attention behind big pink glasses.

The women's homework had been to write a letter to themselves. Some were very bitter. One woman wrote about custody of her children. At the end she said: 'I wrote it in rhyme so as not to be too heavy.' Naylor said: 'So what's wrong with being heavy, honey? In your own fiction?'

They talked about the fear of ending up in an old people's home, lying in their own excreta; of bed sores and lovers who remains stamped on the memory; of unacknowledged nervous breakdowns. Gloria eggs them on: 'Wonderful,' she says, 'we should applaud you.' In her early twenties, Gloria was a preacher in the backwoods of the American South. She can still be rousing in this sedate Kent classroom. But was it therapy, or a writing lesson? Naylor's own break into fiction saved her sanity. As a child she was so troubled and so shy that she rarely spoke. When she was 12, her mother bought her a white plastic diary and said: 'Gloria, maybe there are things going on at home or at school you don't understand - why don't you write them in here?'

Naylor says of the Ramsgate class that it is partly an exercise in consciousness-raising. Writing a letter to oneself is the first step towards writing different characters: write your own voice, then you can do others. In the car on the way back to the station Naylor and Maggie, the group's down- to-earth leader, argue about the sixth sense. Naylor is a fan, and seeks the advice of spiritualists.

'I go to real trouble, not frauds. I'm not interested to hear I was a Nubian princess in some other life,' she said. 'But how can I be a writer and not believe in the sixth sense?' 'It could just be imagination,' said Maggie. Naylor replies, 'You're shy of the word spirit, Maggie'. Later she says that many of the characters in her works came to her in visions. Her books often have several different narrative voices - Bailey's Cafe is constructed like a jazz band, each narrator piping up with a different section.

'I see these people ahead of time,' she says. 'I sit quietly, that's what it takes, getting quiet - and I let them speak to me. I'll get a glimpse and if that image keeps coming back, a face, or sometimes I'll see them doings things, then I know that's a character. The visions started when I started writing fiction.

'I don't think the ones I've seen in visions turn out more successfully in the books, but perhaps more passionate. For years I had this image of a woman carrying a dead baby through the woods to an old lady, who said to her, go home Bernice, go home and bury your child.

Three years later I got into Mama Day and found out Bernice's story - how hard it was for her to conceive, and what the child meant to her - well, then I didn't want that child to die, but I knew it had to happen, because it had been an early image. And ultimately I think that was one of my most powerful pieces of writing.'

At Cookhamwood Gloria is welcomed by the prisoners. It has taken weeks to win their confidence, she says. She sometimes has to force herself to talk, and sometimes, in the way of people not at ease with their own voices, she doesn't know how to stop. 'Self-consciousness is really a form of egotism,' she says, and she's not allowing herself any. So when meeting all these new people, she is instantly warm and spontaneous.

She has also won the admiration of the prison staff. 'Some of these poets we've had,' says one, 'we won't have them back. But she's very good, is Gloria. Won't take any nonsense from them - none of this giving them cigarettes or agreeing to take messages to the outside.'

Naylor is smuggling in her own brand of freedom, forged from her history and her own search for a career: being a writer wasn't one of the jobs on offer in her neighbourhood. 'You can't teach talent,' she said. 'You can't put in what God left out - but you can teach confidence.'

(Photograph omitted)