Skip to main content

'Women Of Brewster Place' Reissue Brims With Inventiveness — And Relevance

Book critic Maureen Corrigan considers the reissue of 'The Women of Brewster Place' by Gloria Naylor which in 1983 won the National Book Award for first fiction.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on July 15, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Thursday, July 17, 2021: Interview with Ivan Penn; commentary about book 'The Women of Brewster Place.'



This is FRESH AIR. A new reprint of a landmark novel has our book critic Maureen Corrigan thinking about past literary controversies and the fresh relevance of Gloria Naylor's writing about women and race. Here's Maureen.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The year was 1983. Alice Walker's The Color" "Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. Gloria Naylor's debut novel, "The Women Of Brewster" Place, won the National Book Award for first fiction. The decision to give these awards to these novels by Black women was questioned by some skeptics in the overwhelmingly white literary world. Were Walker and Naylor honored because they were so-called minority writers? Were their novels really good art or just sociology?

Adding to the pushback was the brawling Black critic Stanley Crouch, who later claimed the female-centered novels of Walker, Naylor, Toni Morrison and other Black women writers demonized men and, in particular, corroborated the stereotypes of Black men as bestial. So it was that early in my teaching career, a white male student in one of my English classes unknowingly seconded Crouch's opinion when he hurled "The Color Purple" across the classroom because he was so infuriated at what he saw as its hatred of all men. Just another day in the knowledge factory.

The reason for this ramble down literary memory lane is the reissue of "The Women Of Brewster Place" in a hardback series called Penguin Vitae, with a powerhouse foreword by Tayari Jones, author of the 2018 bestselling novel "An American Marriage." I'd never read Naylor's debut, and reprints like this one give readers like me that extra nudge to find out whether we've been missing something. As Jones says in her foreword, "The Women Of Brewster Place" is a composite novel. Think Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge Of San Luis Rey," or much later, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," novels where separate stories about disparate people intersect. This form can be heavy on melodrama, and Naylor doesn't always dodge that pothole. But it's her ardent inventiveness as a storyteller and the complex individuality she gives to each of her seven main characters that make the novel so much more than a contrived literary assembly line.

Naylor's various women have all wound up on Brewster Place, a dingy street in an unnamed city that dead-ends into a wall. Naylor herself was born in New York and grew up in Queens. With the streetwise knowledge of a native daughter, Naylor opens the novel by almost mythicly surveying Brewster Place, the kind of tired New York apartment building that's housed shifting populations. Brewster Place's third generation of children drifted into the block and precipitated the exodus of the remaining Mediterraneans. Brewster Place knew that, unlike its other children, the few who would leave forever were to be the exception rather than the rule, since they came because they had no choice and would remain for the same reason.

Because it's a group portrait of women of color living in this dilapidated building, "The Women Of Brewster Place" differs from, say, Ann Petry's great 1946 novel "The Street" about an isolated Black woman striving to move up and out. As a collective narrative, Naylor's novel amplifies the systemic racism that keeps everyone stuck in place. Among her women are Mattie Michael, a single mother who is the moral center of the book, Kiswana Browne, a neighborhood activist, and a lesbian couple who argue as we'd say these days about the issue of embracing difference. Theresa is loud and proud, while her partner, Lorraine, wants to live beyond categories. She says she just wants to be a lousy human being.

In one of the most-oft-quoted lines from the novel, all of these Brewster Place women are described as hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding and easily pleased. But that's only one of the many passages here that make a reader stop and appreciate the way Naylor expresses nuanced emotional states. Take this line about Theresa, who at a crucial moment, lets Lorraine walk out the door in favor of maybe someone easier. Theresa was a young woman and still in search of answers, and she made the fatal mistake that many young women do of believing that what never existed was just cleverly hidden beyond her reach.

Deftly, Naylor gathers all these individual stories into one climactic narrative that works through the reader via a word-by-word sense of horror and outrage. The power to decide who, in fact, can be permitted the ordinary chance to be just a lousy human being is itself still the subject of furious argument in this country. The "Women Of Brewster Place," born of the details of a particular time and community, also turns out to be one of those, yes, universal stories depicting how we, the fallen, seek grace.

CORRIGAN: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang on their book about Facebook during the Trump years, or our conversation with pitcher CC Sabathia about his heavy drinking through 15 seasons in the big leagues, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Has Tucker Carlson created the most racist show in the history of cable news?

The NY Times did an exhaustive survey of the Fox News hosts' broadcasts. Reporter Nicholas Confessore says Carlson's show is based on ideas that were once "caged in a dark corner of American life."


British 'Office' co-creator Stephen Merchant isn't afraid to fuse comedy with tragedy

Merchant co-created the British Office and Extras with Ricky Gervais. His new show, The Outlaws, is about people court-ordered to do community service for low-level crimes. He spoke with producer Sam Briger about what inspired the new series, his best writing advice, and how being very tall (6'7") has informed his personality.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue