03/11/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Though born in Harlem, novelist Gloria Naylor felt right at home in the Deep South, where she journeyed to record the words of an 84-year-old herbalist named Eva McKinney. The resulting interview is our first offering of a new PEOPLE feature—VOICES (page 86). In this new section we hope to present a sampling of the folklore, poetry and wisdom that often lies submerged in the spoken language and in the memories of this country. Eva McKinney is a wonderful example of the people this section has been created to introduce—a folk healer of vast experience who found her marvelously expressive voice without benefit of formal learning. Her chronicler, by contrast, is the highly educated, 35-year-old daughter of Alberta and Roosevelt Naylor, Mississippi sharecroppers who moved North so that their children might gain the education they were denied.
Gloria Naylor, a graduate of Brooklyn College, has fulfilled their hopes. Her novel, The Women of Brewster Place (Viking Press, $13.95), won the American Book Award for First Novel in 1983. Her second novel, Linden Hills (Ticknor & Fields, $16.95), published just last month, is a parable about the black middle class, set in "the typography of Dante's Inferno." It is both devastating and delightful, and Naylor hopes the book will make "all hyphenated Americans—whether they be Afro-American, Irish-American or whatever-American—think about their ethnic past."
Naylor's Southern journey helped her to understand her own heritage. She was "conceived in Robinsonville," the tiny hamlet where her parents and grandparents sharecropped and where Eva McKinney thrives still. Born a month after her parents arrived in New York in 1949, Naylor heard talk throughout her life of the beauty and pains of the black experience in the South. One thing her mother regrets is that "people up North are more dishonest. Back home, if a person told you something, you didn't have to get it in writing."
That her daughter puts everything in writing does not surprise Alberta. "Gloria always loved to write," she says. "Since she was a little girl, she wrote poems and stories. And how she loved to read!" Naylor credits Alberta: "She made a ritual of going to the library. 'As soon as you learn to sign your name,' she told me, 'all these books can be yours.' I lived through books as a child." Today books, and voices, live through Gloria Naylor.