- “Woman Like You”Troubling Same-Sex Desire in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora and Eva’s Man
Gayl Jones’s novels Corregidora (1975) and Eva’s Man (1976) present a complex and sometimes troubling picture of same-sex desire. Because Jones writes within a tradition of black literature that often elides queer characters, the many instances of lesbian and women-desiring women characters in her novels ought to establish her significance for those who study African American queer literature.1 Yet, existing scholarship often ignores Jones’s contribution to that canon, or rests somewhere between over-celebrating her contribution and finding ways to excuse the homophobia throughout her novels. This article will interrogate that homophobia in Corregidora and Eva’s Man, and ask whether there is an optimistic vision of same-sex desire anywhere within. While there is no avoiding the derogatory treatment of queer characters in Jones’s work, nor do her texts invite dismissal. The breadth of characters written in relationship to same-sex desire speaks to an attempt on Jones’s part to interrogate the complexity of black women’s sexuality, even if the attempt has flaws.
In the decade following the publication of Eva’s Man and Corregidora, most scholars either ignored or rejected Jones’s place within a black lesbian framework. When Barbara Smith describes her own foundational work Toward a Black Feminist Criticism, she writes that it was meant to “illuminate the existence of Black Lesbian writers and to show how homophobia insured that [they] were even more likely to be ignored or attacked than Black women writers generally” (“Truth” 213). But Smith’s text makes no mention of same-sex desire in Jones’s novels. In a later article Smith writes, “In contrast [to other authors], Gayl Jones, who has not been associated with or seemingly influenced by the feminist movement, has portrayed lesbians quite negatively” (“Truth” 217). Smith’s dismissal, grounded in a vague assertion about Jones’s “negative” lesbian portrayals, forecloses any useful reading of Jones’s role in the black queer canon.
Other black lesbian feminists of the 1970s and 1980s echo Smith. In an article dedicated to lesbians in 1970s literature, Jewelle Gomez omits even a token reference to Jones. Ann Allen Shockley writes derisively that Jones “always seems to toss a minor Lesbian character or two into her novels,” yet Shockley does not illuminate the role of those “tossed-in” characters (89). In that vein, Audre Lorde’s 1976 review of Eva’s Man calls the text “an inhuman little book, however well-written,” and dismisses its queer subtext by remarking that “Any possible meeting of woman to woman is treated without warmth or with the bleakest contempt” (155, 154). Consistent in these responses is distaste for what the scholars consider Jones’s “negative” treatments of queer desire. [End Page 1196]
It is the female protagonists in Corregidora and Eva’s Man whose homophobic behavior offends, as do the novels’ secondary lesbian characters, who often behave like masculine predators. Both novels explore the position of lower-to-middle class black women oppressed by traditional expectations on their sexuality, maternity, and womanhood. For these women, same-sex desire is fraught with ambivalence and brutality, and awakens deep homophobia. Yet both novels also use same-sex desire to expose the limits of heteronormative expectations and the possibility of a viable life beyond them—a possibility which is at the core of many black feminists’ efforts to theorize black lesbianism. Smith’s and Lorde’s dismissals are therefore peculiar in their suggestion that, because Jones’s portrayals are “negative,” her texts become useless sites for critical exploration of same-sex desire.
Contemporary scholar Thomas Fahy posits that Smith and others have not pursued queer readings of Jones’s work because they find her characters sexually messy and discomfiting. Madhu Dubey conveys this discomfiture when she writes that Jones’s “characters are driven by a sexual appetite that seems absolutely beyond the control of reason” and that “Eva’s Man seems to support the age-old racist stereotype of blacks as primitive and animalistic” (94, 95). According to Fahy, these dismissals arise from critical failure to examine the complexity of...