'Corregidora' by Gayl Jones
'Ursa, have you lost the blues?'—Review #179
Here’s the cover:
I learned about this short and powerful book last year from Imani Perry’s profile of Jones in The New York Times Magazine: ‘She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared.’ I was intrigued by the story of a novelist who wrote brilliantly decades ago and then disappeared for more than 20 years before resurfacing with a new book. I made a mental note to order ‘Corregidora,’ and last month when nothing in my bedside pile spoke to me, I was like:
The novel follows Ursa Corregidora who, as Perry puts it in her Times piece, is a ‘singer from Kentucky who descends from a line of women who were raped, prostituted and made incest victims by their Portuguese-Brazilian slave master named Corregidora. Ursa lives, generations later, inside the psychic hold that Corregidora imposed on the women in her family.’ When we meet Ursa, she is married to a man named Mutt, who is increasingly jealous of other men who come to a bar to watch her sing. One night, he shows up drunk and tries to pull her off-stage mid-performance, but is thrown out. After, he confronts Ursa backstage, and in a scuffle, she falls down, or is pushed down (it’s left ambiguous), a set of stairs. Turns out, Ursa was pregnant, and the fall causes a miscarriage that results in a hysterectomy. Robbed of her ability to have children, Ursa can no longer fulfill the mandate of her female ancestors: ‘making generations’ to ensure their stories and history are remembered and carried forward, like:
As Ursa recovers from surgery, we see flashbacks to the brutal experiences of her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, and how the guilt of not being able to continue their lineage weighs on her. But we also see that history can be preserved through other means, particularly through song. Music is a central presence, and essential performers are name-checked, including Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday:
‘Corregidora’ is a searing look at generational trauma in Black America and the various ways bondage is manifested not only in slavery and ongoing racism, but also in other institutions, like marriage. As James Baldwin wrote in a blurb for the book: ‘Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of Black men and women.” It’s intense, emotionally exhausting and not for every reader. But it’s a brilliant, fascinating and important book, and I benefitted from reading it. If you’re up for a challenge, you should check out this book.
How it begins:
It was 1947 when Mutt and I was married. I was singing in Happy’s Café around on Delaware Street. He didn’t like for me to sing after we were married because he said that’s why he married me so he could support me. I said I didn’t just sing to be supported. I said I sang because it was something I had to do, but he never would understand that. We were married in December 1947 and it was in April 1948 that Mutt came to Happy’s drunk and said if I didn’t get off the stage he was going to take me off. I didn’t move, and some men put Mutt out. While I was singing the first few songs I could see Mutt peeking in, looking drunk and evil, then I didn’t see him and thought he’d gone on home and gone to bed to sleep it off. I always left by the back way. You go down some narrow steps and through a short alley and then you be to the Drake Hotel, where Mutt and I was staying then. I said good night and went out back.
“I’m your husband. You listen to me, not to them.”
I didn’t see him at first because he was standing back in the shadows behind the door. I didn’t see him till he’d grabbed me around my waist and I was struggling to get loose.
‘Corregidora’ by Gayl Jones was originally published by Random House in 1975, and by Beacon Press in 1988 and 1992. 176 pages. $14.72 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #178
Thanks for the shoutout: Books on GIF was mentioned recently in two terrific newsletters. Nia Carnelio, who writes Perceptive Madness, included BoG in her compilation of ‘22 Newsletters You Need to Check Out in 2022.’ And Elizabeth Marro, who writes Spark, includes BoG on a list of Resources for Readers and Book Clubs.
Read this: Donna flagged this wonderful interview with Olga Tokarczuk in The New York Times Book Review. In addition to recommending some books we love, including ‘The Hearing Trumpet’ and the works of Ursula K. Le Guin (coming soon to BoG!), I love her take on literature: ‘I don’t know if I would call it a moral function, but literature definitely teaches empathy and compassion and how to see the world from other points of view.’ I hope to read Tokarczuk’s recently translated ‘The Books of Jacob’ later this year.
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time, enjoy the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day!