The Arts

A Seminal Author Breaks Her Silence
Palmares, the long-awaited novel by Gayl Jones ’73 AM, brings readers inside 17th-century Brazil and a colony of Africans who have escaped slavery

By Beth Schwartzapfel ’01 / September–October 2023
August 25th, 2023
illustrated portrait of Gayl Jones
Illustration: Xia Gordon
In the late 1600s a girl was born into slavery in Brazil, then a Portuguese colony. On the plantation where she lived with her mother and grandmother, Almeydita learned to read and write from a Franciscan priest who kept a beautiful young woman, “half Black and half Indian,” as a housekeeper—and, if the gossip was to be believed, his mistress—in a little chapel attached to the casa grande.

“I was seven and I was a slave,” Almeydita tells us in the opening pages of an epic that spans decades, miles, and dozens of characters who float, dreamlike, in and out of her life and her story. As she grows up and is sold from one plantation to another, the name of a place keeps appearing in murmured conversations: Palmares, a society of runaway slaves who have set up a fortified redoubt in the jungle, with spies and soldiers posing as free Blacks in nearby cities and towns. 

Palmares is a new novel by Gayl Jones, but to say that so plainly understates its import. Gayl Jones is a foundational voice in modern Black literature. Her first novel, 1975’s Corregidora, was championed by Toni Morrison, who said “no novel about any Black woman could ever be the same after this.” Corregidora tells the story of Ursa, a 1940s jazz singer whose present-day relationship is haunted by her forebearer: the Portuguese-Brazilian slave master Corregidora, by raping and prostituting his slaves a hundred years earlier, set in motion the generations that would eventually lead to Ursa’s birth.

Jones followed Corregidora with a series of other novels that were equally as complex and resistant to easy narrative. So too was Jones’s own life, shaped by segregation, alienation, exile, a decades-long relationship with a man who struggled with mental illness and whose life ended with tragedy and spectacle, and, finally, a withdrawal from public life so complete that the publication of Palmares after 22 years of silence was enough to make critics tremble. (“My hands shook when I received my advance copy of Palmares,” wrote Imani Perry in the New York Times Magazine.)

Not surprisingly, Palmares—a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer—is a difficult book. It resists entertaining. It’s work to read, and the everyday terrors that surround Almeyda (as she is known as an adult) are presented so evenly, so casually, it’s work to absorb them all. There is Corricao, the slave breeder. There are the men who come to Almeyda’s plantation for “the cure,” paying the master for the opportunity to rape a little Black girl as a “treatment” for STDs. “The superstition was that only virgins could cure bad blood, and only Black ones, though myth had it that there were very few of those,” Almeyda says.

For all its horrors, the book is also mesmerizing, as if the witches and medicine men and visions that pepper the story are doing their work on readers as we move through the narrative. 

For all its horrors, the book is also mesmerizing, as if the witches and medicine men and visions that pepper the story are doing their work on readers as we move through the narrative.

As a child, Almeyda lives in a hut with her mother and grandmother, both of whom work powerful herbal medicines and charms. They don’t try to shield Almeyda from the difficult—or playful—conversations between them, but neither do they explain. So the fears, gossip, dangers, dreams, and stories wash over her like so much rain. Almeyda’s grandmother is also known for her mystical visions, and Almeyda seems dimly aware that she could be shipped to “the Negro asylum.” But for all her exposure, Almeyda has no idea where she and her mother are going one day when they’re loaded onto a cart and brought to market.

Almeyda eventually makes her way to Palmares and marries, and accompanies her husband Anninho on various scouting trips around the region that it’s implied (but never said) are related to the fate of Palmares. When Palmares is destroyed by government forces, Almeyda is grievously injured and she and Anninho are separated. She embarks on a months-long journey to heal from her wounds and then to find him, during which she also discovers strengths and skills she had never known in herself. 

If it sounds like a feel-good narrative arc, beware. It’s not. There are few good guys in this story. Almeyda is surprised to discover that the Palmaristas keep slaves, too, and display shocking cruelty to those who step outside the bounds of the society they’ve built. Many of the bushwhackers who hunt slaves to return them to their owners are Black men looking to earn their freedom or curry favor with their colonizers. She also discovers friends and confidants in unexpected places, whom she—and we, reading along—are surprised to discover she has come to love and trust.

Almeyda is the opposite of an unreliable narrator—call her an over-reliable narrator, who provides so many details, it’s not always clear which are meaningful and which are just details. Characters, scenes, faces, customs, conversations, landscapes, rumors, dreams, visions, and tales are all conveyed in the same even tone, such that at times it’s disorientingly hard to tell them apart. This, of course, mimics the experience of moving through the world as a person with limited agency. As an enslaved child, and then a displaced Black woman always at risk of being captured and sold back into slavery, Almeyda is all too often someone to whom events happen, regardless of whether she understands or chooses them.

Even as an adult, the narrator Almeyda maintains that same even distance. There’s no particular tenderness in the language of the love scenes, nor pathos in the telling of the casual cruelties everywhere around her. All of it just is, leaving us to wonder what ordinary joys and cruelties that we take for granted would shock people 300 years from now. 

Beth Schwartzapfel ’01 is a staff writer at the Marshall Project, where she covers the criminal justice system. Her new podcast, Violation, explores an unthinkable crime, second chances, and who pulls the levers of power in the justice system.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
September–October 2023