Gayl Jones has not published a book for 20 years, but her publisher, Beacon Press, is determined to make up for lost time. This September, the Boston-based press is slated to release Palmares, the first of five books it will publish in the next two years by Jones, an author who has had a significant impact on American literature.
Born in Lexington, Ky., Jones first came to the attention of then–Random House editor Toni Morrison in the mid-1970s. After reading Jones’s first manuscript, Morrison said, “No novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” With Morrison as editor, that book became Correigadora, which was published in 1975 and was quickly followed by Eva’s Man in 1976.
Jones’s work grapples with the legacy of enslavement and has influenced writers from Maya Angelou to Imani Perry. In a profile in the Atlantic, novelist Richard Ford called her “a movement unto herself.” But her refusal to allow an increasingly author-focused industry to dwell on her personal life led to an eventual withdrawal from publishing.
“She doesn’t want people writing about her,” said Beacon publisher Helene Atwan. “She wants people writing about the books.”
Atwan is the only editor besides Morrison to have worked with Jones; the author sent Beacon a draft of the 500-page Palmares in 1997, soon after it published her novel Mosquito. By that time, she had already been working on Palmares for roughly 20 years. Set in 17th-century Brazil, the novel tells the story of enslaved girl Almeyda’s struggle for freedom.
But instead of publishing the book, Jones went back to work, revising it for another 23 years. When she was in touch with Atwan again in 2020, she had completed the manuscript for Palmares, along with an entirely new long-form poem to accompany her previously published book-length poem Song for Anninho, which Beacon released in 1999.
Those new works are at the forefront of Beacon’s effort to introduce a new generation of readers to Jones. Following the publication of Palmares this fall, Beacon will rerelease Song for Anninho in April 2022, during National Poetry Month. The book will double in length, with the inclusion of the newly written “Song for Almeyda.” Atwan said the poems will make for a natural progression for readers who first encounter the character of Almeyda in Palmares.
In fall 2022, Beacon will release Jones’s The Birdcatcher, a novel previously published only in German in the 1980s. The following April, it will release Butter & Other Stories, which is largely composed of new and substantially revised short stories. And in September 2023, it will release Jones’s previously unpublished novel The Unicorn Woman. A republication of her novel Mosquito is also in the works.
Atwan hopes that as a result of these efforts, Jones will get long-overdue recognition for the breadth and skill of her storytelling. Already, an academic conference is being planned at Boston University, where her papers are housed. The conference, titled “Then You Don’t Want Me,” will be held virtually May 13–15, 2022, with the aim of canonizing Jones’s work. But, true to form, the author has not announced any public interviews for the forthcoming books, nor does Atwan expect any sudden change in her approach.
For Atwan, the opportunity to share Jones’s works is a reminder of another time in publishing, when literary art took center stage. “Authors didn’t do interviews,” she said. “That was seen as ridiculous. People read, and the publicity department where I started [at Knopf] was all about getting the book reviewed. I think we need to go back to that notion. Let’s not talk about the author’s life. Let’s talk about the work.”