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Gloria Naylor, whose novels gave voice to African American women, dies at 66

Gloria Naylor’s debut novel, "The Women of Brewster Place," won a National Book Award and was adapted into a two-part television series by Oprah Winfrey. (Tom Keller/AP)

Gloria Naylor, whose 1982 debut novel, "The Women of Brewster Place," won a National Book Award and launched her to the fore of a wave of acclaimed black female writers that included Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, died Sept. 28 at her home in the U.S. Virgin Islands town of Christiansted. She was 66.

The cause was a heart attack, said her literary agent, Sterling Lord.

As a novelist, Ms. Naylor was unusual in “telling the stories of individuals whose voices have been excluded from the literary and social mainstream — whether because of race, class, gender or sexual preference,” said Maxine Montgomery, an English professor at Florida State University who has written two books on Ms. Naylor.

“The Women of Brewster Place,” widely considered her finest work, featured the interconnected stories of seven African American women, straight and gay, who live in a dilapidated housing project mired in poverty and sexual violence. “Like an ebony phoenix,” Ms. Naylor wrote of the women, “each in her own time and with her own season had a story.”

In a review for the New York Times, critic Annie Gottlieb praised in particular Ms. Naylor’s handling of a scene in which one of the book’s lesbian characters is gang-raped. Ms. Naylor “bravely risks sentimentality and melodrama to write her compassion and outrage large,” Gottlieb wrote, “and she pulls it off triumphantly.”

The book sold hundreds of thousands of copies and won a National Book Award for first novel the same year that Walker’s “The Color Purple,” about a young black woman in 1930s Georgia, won the award for best novel. (At the time, the honors were known as the American Book Awards.)

Both writers came to prominence on the heels of Morrison and “a new black cultural renaissance” in the late 1970s, Montgomery said. “They were appearing on the literary scene as the result of a demand for authentic portraits of black women, from black women.”

In 1989, Oprah Winfrey’s production company adapted “The Women of Brewster Place” into an acclaimed two-part ABC miniseries, starring Winfrey, Cicely Tyson and Robin Givens. The book was later adapted into a musical, and Ms. Naylor wrote a follow-up novel, “The Men of Brewster Place” (1998), from the point of view of its male characters.

In the "Brewster" books and in Ms. Naylor's other works, spirituality was a central theme. A former Jehovah's Witnesses missionary, she often drew character names from the Bible and adapted Old Testament tales and parables to her own ends. Her second novel, "Linden Hills" (1985), was a retelling of Dante's "Inferno" from the setting of a middle-class black community.

Characters and invented places reappeared in her novels, which also include "Mama Day" (1988), inspired by Shakespeare's play "The Tempest," and "Bailey's Cafe" (1992), about a neighborhood gathering place that seems to exist without any fixed ­location.

Her most recent work, a lightly fictionalized memoir titled "1996" (2005), documented her theories about government surveillance and mind control, including a technology by which words are planted in a person's head.

Gloria Naylor was born in Manhattan on Jan. 25, 1950. Her mother, who grew up in Mississippi and was not allowed into segregated public libraries, was a Jehovah’s Witness who fostered an early interest in reading and ­writing.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Naylor worked as a missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses in North Carolina and Florida before leaving the church in the mid-1970s, finding herself disillusioned with what she called the limited role that it prescribed for women.

Nearing 30, she fell into what she called “a severe depression” as she struggled to find direction in her life. She studied nursing and entered into a brief marriage before an English professor at Brooklyn College, which she was attending, encouraged her writing. Through connections, she published a short story in Essence magazine that was later used as a chapter of “The Women of Brewster Place.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree in 1981, and two years later received a master’s degree in African American studies from Yale University, writing a version of “Linden Hills” for her thesis.

Ms. Naylor taught writing at the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington University, among other colleges, and her honors included Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships.

Survivors include a sister, Bernice Harrison.

Montgomery said that Ms. Naylor saw her novels as part of an ongoing, unfinished cycle that documented aspects of African American life.

“For the Afro-American, regardless of where you climb on the ladder of success, there will be racism,” Ms. Naylor told the Times in 1985. “Under these conditions, if you give up what centers you, what is unique to you — then you are lost. The greatness of this country is the uniqueness of its people. But there is pressure to amalgamate. And that is suicidal when it happens to the ­Afro-American.’’

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