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Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | October 2019 | 23 minutes (5,959 words)
In the 1970s, Random House editor Toni Morrison was on a mission to change the face of African American literature. As one of the few Black editors at a major publishing house in the position to green-light writers, Morrison, as the New York Times noted in a 1977 profile, “sat behind a desk stacked stacked high with correspondence and typed loose leaf manuscripts” and signed a group of Black poets, biographers, and novelists who would lay a new literary foundation throughout the decade and into the early ’80s. The stirring, often haunting works of Toni Cade Bambara (The Salt Eaters), Henry Dumas (Jonoah and the Green Stone), Quincy Troupe (Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings), and Angela Davis (Angela Davis: An Autobiography) were met with academic acceptance and critical acclaim. Those authors became celebrated “new voices,” but one book Morrison edited during that era slipped through the literary cracks and virtually disappeared.
Mostly forgotten and long out-of-print, Fish Tales by Nettie Jones is an often shocking, sexually charged novel that has retained the sharpness of its cutting edge in the 36 years since its release. Jones came to Morrison’s attention via another writer of her prose posse, Corregidora author Gayl Jones (no relation), whom Nettie cited as a friend and mentor during the three years it took to finish her book. Fish Tales was published in 1983, the same year Morrison, who had already written four novels including The Bluest Eye and Sula, quit her job to devote herself full-time to writing. Although Random House balked at buying Jones’s book, Morrison, already an empress in the literary world, persuaded the publisher that the work was worthy. “Toni was acquiring strong writers,” said literary agent Marie Dutton Brown, who, in the 1970s held a similar editorial position at Doubleday. “There was no formulaic fiction on her roster. Toni saw something in Nettie that she thought was worthy of publication.”
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Fish Tales is a 175-page chronicle of Detroit native Lewis Jones, a spirited but troubled party girl who, at 32, is too old to be called a girl, but still behaves like one. After her unrequited lover’s new wife teaches her “to disconnect [her] brain from [her] pussy,” Lewis begins diving into situations without considering the often-chaotic consequences of her actions. She splits her high times between the Motor City and Manhattan during the scotch-on-the-rocks, sexually liberated, drug-saturated, disco-blasting 1970s. Lewis gets her freak on while looking for love from all the wrong people, including her flawed doctor husband Woody, who becomes her patron and funds her bi-state misadventures, a homosexual hustler friend Kitty-Kat, and the snide quadriplegic Brook, the sometimes-mean object of her fire and desire.
* * *
In the few interviews Jones did in the 1980s, she always maintained that Fish Tales was a truthful interpretation of her own wild life in Detroit and New York. Born on January 1, 1941, in Arlington, Georgia, she relocated to Detroit when she was 5. She was the oldest child and had a younger sister; together, they took a train with their grandmother and arrived at the majestic Michigan Central Station. Her mother, who was already in the city, welcomed them at the terminal.
“That station was so beautiful,” 78-year-old Nettie Jones told me in the spring from her Brooklyn apartment. “I came with the migrants to work in the factories. I never heard anyone say they came to Detroit to get their children a better education. They all say, ‘Did you hear how much money they paying at Ford?’” Living on Pulford Street, Jones’s family was working-class and her mother was biracial. She has fond memories of roller skating with her sister at the Arcadia Ballroom roller rink, visiting her grandmother’s grocery store, watching movies that included Carmen Jones and Imitation of Life, seeing Billie Holiday at the Paradise Theatre, and visiting Uncle Dix in the Black Bottom when her mama walked her to piano lessons. “He always had a plate of fried fish waiting for us,” she remembered.
In high school, she became friends with the bougie bunch who usually stayed away from kids who weren’t part of their prosperous posse. “I met up with some of those fancy Negroes and they thought I was one of them because I had light skin and blue eyes,” she said. “They were the children of doctors and businessmen, the old Detroiters. They were the Negroes that were doing very well. There was a separation between us and them, but I did get to see into their houses. In my dreams I was going to become a principal in Detroit and buy a big house and a Cadillac. As you know, Detroit is known for its big houses and Cadillacs.”
Two stellar books, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class by Lawrence Otis Graham and Negroland by Margo Jefferson, tell the story of the Black bourgeoisie that she refers to. Jones was attracted to that lifestyle, but she still rejected the rules and protocols that went along with it. When Jones was 17, in 1958, she gave birth to her daughter Lynne and married the baby’s father, Frank Stafford; they divorced three or four years later. Still, she continued with her education and, after graduating from Central High, attended Wayne State where she got a degree in 1962.
In 1963, she married Frank Harris and relocated to Montreal while he was in dental school. After Harris became an orthodontist, the family moved back to Detroit. Jones taught high school. “I’ve been a teacher in my mind since I was a child,” Jones said. “I taught reading, but I failed as a secondary school teacher in Detroit. The whole system was collapsing. Things were falling apart.” It was during this period that Jones began plotting her escape from Detroit, though she wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted to do.
* * *
Aside from keeping a journal, Jones did little writing during those years. As a lover of movies, she’d originally conceived Fish Tales as a screenplay, which might explain why it’s written, as literary critic William O’Rourke noted in 1989, in episodic chapters “comprising of short scenes, the hearts of vignettes.” Jones later described the book as a textual collage. “That was a word I picked up from [artist] Romare Bearden. He said, ‘Black artists are collages, because we certainly make something out of nothing.’ I heard him say that one Sunday during a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum, and it stayed with me,” she said. Much as it did for Bearden, the collage method became the medium through which Jones could depict her own fractured experience.
To open Fish Tales, Jones uses a Jean Toomer quote as an epigraph: “The human fish is intricate and hidden; the appearance of his fins are deceptive.” Yet fish in the context of this novel is a derogatory term some gay men used about women and the supposed smell of vaginas. This becomes clear when Lewis’s best friend, Kitty-Kat, talks about a drag queen who used sardine oil on herself to “smell like an authentic girl.” Lewis meets Kitty-Kat one lonely Christmas when she calls “Dial Your Desire” looking for companionship. Throughout the book, with Kitty keeping her company, Lewis is intoxicated, and her bad behavior, directed toward friends and strangers alike, often leads to “grand drunken scenes” that are decadent, thrilling, and sad.
Things get worse in the second half when our human hurricane falls in love with Brook. Disabled during a prep school wrestling match, he’s tall and handsome with a number of women fighting over him. “Do you think that you are the first woman that ever did anything for me? Loved me? Wanted me?” he screams at Lewis during one of their many arguments.
* * *
The poet Brittany Dennison learned about Fish Tales in 2018 through a friend who found it on a list of books that Toni Morrison edited. Dennison, who has since read the book twice, said of the novel, “As soon as Lewis transitions from sex to love, that’s when things fall apart.” Dennison quickly became a fan of Nettie Jones, though others in her lit circle weren’t as generous. “They were kind of blindsided by the amount of fast living that is in the book, but none of that bothered me. The sex and drugs were a part of Lewis’ journey, but I never felt that the writer was trying to be raw just to shock the reader. Nettie’s writing is natural and honest.”
When the recently released Toni Morrison documentary The Pieces I Am flashes covers of various books she edited on screen, Fish Tales isn’t shown. It’s as though even the woman who’d introduced Jones’s writing to the world had pushed it to the rear of her memory. Still, a small group of readers, both those from back in the day and recent recruits, are fans of the avant-garde Black erotica tale that takes them zooming down, as the jacket copy promises, “life in the fast lane.”
In Darryl Pinckney’s essay “The Fast Lane,” published in the November 8, 1984, issue of the New York Review of Books, he critiqued Fish Tales alongside Jay McInerney’s influential Bright Lights, Big City. Pinckney, a noted literary critic and novelist of High Cotton (1992) and Black Deutschland (2016), wrote, “The city, as the theater of experience, the refuge, the hiding place, has in turn been replaced by an abstraction, the fast lane. In the fast lane the passive observer reduces everything — streets, people, rock lyrics, headlines — to landscape. Every night holds magical promises of renewal. But burnout is inevitable, like some law of physics. The hand — or drug — that raises the loser up will abandon him in mid-flight and he will crash.” As a survivor of that lifestyle, I can assure you the crashes can be deadly.
Bright Lights, Big City became the touchstone of ’80s fiction while Fish Tales, published by the same house, sank into obscurity. “McInerney’s second-person narrator loses everything, but the second chance is implied,” Pinckney told me recently, 35 years after his review ran. “Nettie Jones’s book is much darker and it is a woman’s story, a Black woman’s story, as well. Her comedy is deadly, while his is charming. The books went together in my mind because of thinking about them as ‘fast lane’ novels, that aspect of city life, night time, clubs and drugs, as they were back then. You could say Jones’s scene was the scene McInerney’s scene came from. Hers is edgy and dangerous and his is cleaned up and expensive. Hers is closer in mood to certain gay novels of the late 1970s, a sort of victorious bohemianism, often ending in tragedy, because sin must be paid for by someone in American literature, at least in those days.”
Pinckney gave Fish Tales a mixed review. He was unhappy with its ending, which I thought kept in line with the unpredictability of the crazed characters. Upset, Jones contacted him, and the two went out for cocktails. “Nettie was grand, in a huge hat, just like the one Zora Neale Hurston is wearing in a famous photo,” Pinckey recalled via email. “She was grand, voluptuous, and beautiful. We went out, ran around, had a great time. I moved to Europe, but maybe that was only a part of why we lost touch. I heard from her again some years later. She was living with her daughter in New Jersey. I’m not sure, but I think she says she was writing something new.” Neither can remember if they ever discussed the review.
Jones’ second and last published book was Mischief Makers from 1989, but she has been working on a third novel for a number of years. “Nettie is like the female Ralph Ellison when it comes to finishing that book,” friend and fellow writer Dr. Glenda R. Taylor said. “I’ve read a lot of it over the years, but she’s been working on it for forever.” The book, which was originally titled Detroit: Beauty in This Beast, but is now called Puma, is one that Jones began in 1996. In the intervening years, she worked as a teacher, and little work was done on the manuscript. Recent illnesses have also hindered Jones’ writing.
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Taylor and Jones met in the winter of 2009, and Taylor interviewed the novelist for a series of YouTube videos the following year. “I think what made me what to talk to her was that Nettie is unfiltered. She’s not always politically correct and she doesn’t mind saying it from the top of a mountain.” She prefers Jones’s second book, a period novel about three biracial sisters (Native American and Black) coming of age in the “beautiful wilderness” of Leelanau County, Michigan, and Detroit. “Truthfully, Fish Tales was a little jarring for me. Nettie was writing about subjects that I’d never read about before. I just couldn’t relate to the people in that book.”
* * *
While “eroticism is as old as humankind itself,” as Charles L. Blockson states in his essay “African-American Erotica and Other Curiosities,” it was not always openly depicted in our literature. When Fish Tales came out in 1983, there were no mainstream Black erotica markets. The groundbreaking Erotique Noire/Black Erotica edited by Miriam Decosta-Willis dropped in 1992, and a decade later, into the new millennium, Zane’s nasty novels became standard subway reading. In 2001, Carol Taylor began publishing her Brown Sugar collections, including stories by Nelson George, asha bandele, Rebecca Carroll, Miles Marshall Lewis, and myself.
While I believe that Fish Tales fit perfectly into the erotica category, there are others who thought it was smut. “Some people have tried to label Fish Tales pornographic, but I don’t agree,” Brittany Dennison said. “Jones wasn’t writing about hard cocks and bouncing breasts, but a sexuality that was much more true and real. Yes, there are times when the reader becomes a voyeur and the book can be disquieting and uncomfortable, like peeking through a window and seeing an orgy, but we see the world through Lewis’s eyes, and it’s honest and scary.”
At the time of its release, some critics were dismayed by Lewis’s sexuality and so-called counterculture behavior as though Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Clarence Major had never existed. One reviewer described Fish Tales as an “an excursion into perversion,” Jones recalled. “When I heard that I thought it was interesting. I suppose it was perversion, but it was also the truth.”
Two years after it was published, Jones told the New York Times that Fish Tales, “dramatizes my reality blended with heavy shots of my fantasies and my fascinations.” While that could describe the writing process of many other novels, Jones’s honesty in conversation and on the page is blunt. To me, Lewis was written in the grand tradition of wild women in pop culture and real life artistic bohemia, ladies whose lights shine bright until the moment that darkness descends in the guise of liquor, sex, drugs, and mental illness.
From the first time I read Lewis’s story, she reminded me of real and fictional “wild women,” including Zelda Fitzgerald, singer Betty Davis, Holly Golightly, Dorothy Parker, and blaxploitation princess Pam Grier as Coffy, code switching from lovestruck femme to blade-welding woman in a heartbeat. Certainly, both the writer and lead character shared a lust for life that could be as exhilarating and scary as a high-wire act on the sharp edge of a razor blade. Still, no matter how crazy Lewis was, there was an urbane complexity that made her, at least to me, attractive and interesting.
Back in the ’80s, when I was a young man roaming free through the New York City nighttime landscape, those were the sort of Black women I was most attracted to. They were cool, chic, creative, and maybe a little crazy. These kinds of sisters — actresses, writers, bass players, nightclub doorwomen, or computer programmers — were never mentioned in the trendy texts of the times that included Bright Lights, Big City or Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. But in real Big Apple life, they were always a part of the scene: at SoHo gallery openings; on Lower East Side and Greenwich Village subway platforms; on the dance floor of Danceteria, the Ritz, and the Garage; or throwing back shots at a Black Rock Coalition shows at CBGB’s and Wetlands.
In 1985, a year after Bright Lights became my personal manifesto and author McInerney a literary hero, I fell in love and lived with a woman very much like Jones/Lewis for the next four years. She too was from Detroit and was smart, sarcastic, and sexy, but also overly critical and quite volatile. In 1989, after literally kicking me in the ass with her high-heeled shoes when I turned my back on her during an argument, we broke up. I flew solo for the next 24 months, until I met music publicist Lesley Pitts. A voracious reader, she introduced me to the short fiction of Flannery O’Connor, the essays of Fran Lebowitz, and Nettie Jones’s Fish Tales.
Though I considered myself well-read, I’d never heard of Jones until Lesley mentioned her. She had lost her copy of Fish Tales by the time we met, and the book was then out of print. I went on a used bookstore treasure hunt and found it at the Strand. The book’s colorful cover, illustrated by George Corsillo, resembled a trendy clothing store ad for Trash & Vaudeville or Zoot in the East Village Eye. A dreamy pop art portrait showed a light-skinned Black woman floating through a glass of bubbly along with a fish, a pair of pink pumps, and a strand of pearls. The woman looked as though she was being waved into Area or the Michael Todd Room. That evening, I surprised Lesley with the book. “I can’t believe you found this,” she said. I felt like I’d passed a test. After rereading it, Lesley suggested that I check it out.
* * *
Fish Tales was written, published, and marketed as “literary,” but a creepy, noir darkness floats through the text like a black cloud. During the writing process, Jones looked to friends such as Gayl Jones and Marie Brown for guidance. Decades later, Brown remembered, “I read through various drafts of Fish Tales, and it was a one-of-a-kind story. There are very few originals out here being published, but that’s not always a good thing in publishing, because people act like they don’t know how to market it or get it reviewed. From the beginning of reading Nettie’s work, I was aware that she wasn’t writing in the tradition, but she kept working. She was determined to get published.”
Brown has been a leading literary agent since 1984. She and Jones first met a few years before she began that career, when Brown was editing the short-lived Black women’s magazine Elan. They lived together briefly in Brown’s uptown Sugar Hill brownstone along with culinary writer Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor. Over the years, many artists and musicians have lived under Brown’s roof. “Marie Brown has nurtured many artists and musicians as an editor-agent-friend among other titles,” Jones said. “She gave me knowledge of that new world of publishing that I was entering. Marie let me stay with her in Harlem when she first moved there. So many famous people passed through. She advised me. She was ‘the other editor.’ I owe Marie big time as do many others.”
Brown’s now-grown daughter recalled to her mother that Jones made her put away her dolls because the toy’s faces disturbed her. “Nettie was not part of the New York literary world,” Brown said. “There were a group of women that included Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and others who socialized, worked together, and supported one another, but Nettie was an independent. Besides me and Gayl Jones, she had no friendships in that world.”
Certainly that would explain why Jones hasn’t been anthologized, studied, or talked about as much as the others. While I’m not sure that Nettie Jones’s readership is large enough to be considered a cult, there’s something about her work that touches those of us who have read her. “Nettie didn’t get a lot of reviews and profiles when the books came out, but she became a word-of-mouth writer, the kind of writer that people tell their friends to read,” Brown said.
* * *
“Some people are born writers, but that’s not me,” Jones told me. While we were on the phone, I looked at her big eyes in a Fern Logan photograph taken many years before our conversation. Her stylish attire reminded me of my mom’s friends during that same era. Jones appeared seductive and smart, but her eyes seemed as though they could stare into your soul. “I’m no Brontë sister or Ralph Ellison,” she said. “I wrote Fish Tales the way I did because I allowed myself to be free and to listen and to take down what I needed. Some writers are afraid of freedom, because they’re concerned with what mama may think. The first agent I had worked with Rosa Guy and Louise Meriwether, but she read three pages of Fish Tales and quit. I guess I was a little rough, but when Gayl got the book to Toni, she warned her about the language.”
The Detroit section has two chapters that describe the city before and after the 1967 riot that devastated it in ways still being felt today. Jones was living in a lush apartment house where she witnessed the burning city from her 12th-floor window. “It was heartbreaking, but the riot is often used to illustrate when the city began to change. Detroit had begun to change long before that. The truth is much more complex,” she said. Jones received a master’s of education in 1971, and later that year relocated to New York to take graduate courses at the New School for Social Research. She also took classes in copywriting at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
“Going to school was just an excuse to get to the city,” Jones said. “I wasn’t in love with either of my husbands. The first one I married because of the baby and the second one, we made a deal if I put him through school then it would be my turn. He didn’t mind me going to New York. My daughter refused to come with me on my adventure. She said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘OK, bye.’ She was 13, so of course I was a disgrace in the eyes of the neighbors. Family life wasn’t a happy place for me.”
At 30 years old, Jones began life anew in the big city of dreams among the gleaming skyscrapers, wondrous museums, great restaurants, and those artistic feelings that began vibrating through her body once she settled down in a grand apartment on 21 West 9th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, five flights up with a skylight.
“Originally, I was staying on 21st Street, but the person I was renting from wasn’t paying, so the marshals came and kicked me out. My friend Jack Arnold Clark took me in as his roommate. He was the queen of queens, but I was in love with him. He was 6’5” and he made me throw away most of my clothes, because he says they were too Detroit,” Jones said. Although New York City was going through its rotten Big Apple phase of high crime, rampant decay, and near bankruptcy, Jones was living the damn near high life. “Jack was a master cook, and I would go to Jefferson Market for our food. Jack didn’t allow cans in the house or anything frozen. We had an interesting life, me and the charming queen.”
In addition to the “gorgeous” life she was living with Jack. “I was just drinking scotch, but other people were smoking weed and sniffing coke,” she said. “That was when I began living the story that would become Fish Tales. I was living it, but I didn’t realize it at the time.” Her husband Frank came to visit often, but in 1976 the couple divorced, though they remained friends until his dying day. “I wanted a divorce, because I got tired of being an adulteress. He was probably being one too, because our sex life was not good. When you’re a couple, that’s vital.”
Jones never finished her classes at the New School, and, with her newfound free time, began to write. “Since I was home, Jack suggested I needed a project and somehow I decided that project would be writing,” she said. Jones began writing regularly, but after an argument with Jack, the two friends had a falling out. “He was a psychiatrist, so he should have known that I was crazy. I had started writing a book that I dramatically threw into the flames of the fireplace when I left. Truthfully, I don’t think there was much.”
After traveling back to Detroit, she met Todd Duncan, a professor at Wayne State University specializing in American literature who soon became her mentor, lover, and the inspiration for brilliant quadriplegic character Brook that Jones created for Fish Tales. In 1980, Duncan introduced Jones to Gayl Jones when the shy, complicated writer was teaching at the University of Michigan, five years after Morrison edited the manuscript that would become Corregidora. In an article Morrison penned for Mademoiselle, she wrote of Gayl’s work, “I shuddered before the awesome power of this young woman.”
Jones shared her work with Gayl, and the two began a long friendship that would see them through several dramas in their lives. “When I read Gayl’s work I was inspired, because her books were so different,” Jones said. “Gayl didn’t tell me how to write, but she did advise me.” Known to be shy, Gayl accepted Jones for who she was. “Gayl never had any fear with me. I seem to have a way of getting close to people that others can’t get close too. She advised me to simply write and not throw away any of the pages. When Fish Tales was finished, she gave me a list of editors to contact. I think Toni was third on the list, so I didn’t contact her until I was rejected by the first two.”
Without an agent at the time, Jones sent Morrison the manuscript in the mail and it was accepted. Another writer would have been enormously thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with the premier Black editor, but Jones wasn’t impressed with their working relationship. “Toni was my editor, but I only met her once, and that was only because my agent, Julian Bach, who I acquired after the book was sold, insisted,” she said. In addition, Jones felt she should’ve been paid more than $3,000 fee she was paid. “That’s $1,500 before publication and $1,500 after. Things were very different back then, and none of us was going to get rich publishing novels.”
Jones later realized that their relationship could have been better. “I was not what she was used to handling, because I didn’t know she was the queen. Toni was a literary lion and I didn’t act accordingly, but if I knew then what I know now, I’d be, ‘Yes, yes’m, Ms. Morrison.’” We both laughed. While the Jones women remained friends, Gayl hasn’t published a book since 1998. A week after her novel, The Healing, was released, she and her Black militant husband Bob Higgins were involved in a stand-off with police after a decade spent in hiding. Higgins committed suicide while Gayl watched from across the room as she was being held by police. “I had eaten dinner with both of them at that same table,” Jones said. “She hasn’t published anything since, but I know she is still writing, because that’s all she knows how to do. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was publishing under an alias.”
* * *
The jacket copy for Fish Tales compared the book to William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which Jones described as “disgusting.” Though far-fetched, it was a sign that she had strayed into a different landscape than her contemporaries. “I was sick and tired of these books that told the same damn story over and over,” she said. “I kept wondering, when do we move ahead and push our stories forward.” Fish Tales was not protest fiction, and Jones seemed guided by Albert Murray’s influential essays in The Omni-Americans. He thought the fictions of James Baldwin and the Black Arts Movement scribes portrayed “Negro” life as one-dimensional and narrow. In his mean-spirited and funny critique of Claude Brown’s bestselling ghetto classic Manchild in the Promised Land, he wrote, “The background experience of U.S. Negroes is a rich source of many things. But many people insist that it is the only source of frustration and crime, degradation, emasculation, and self-hatred.”
“There’s a real divide between what Nettie Jones and Gayl Jones were writing, compared to what Alice Walker and Toni Morrison were doing,” mystery writer and creator of the character Nanette Hayes, a jazz musician detective, Charlotte Carter said. “In Nettie’s work there is a dreamy quality to it that pulls you in as well as the feeling that there is nothing between you and Lewis’s voice.” While Jones’s writing was inspired by the minimalism of lost generation honcho Ernest Hemingway and the eroticism of D.H. Lawrence, Carter also saw a bit of Norman Mailer in the freaky-deaky prose. “Everything comes down to sex. It’s the thing that gives life to you, destroys you. It’s redemptive, it’s religion, it’s a yardstick to how liberal you are and how hip.”
A few days later, when I was talking to Jones about the sex in her work, she laughed. “A lot of women writers were prudish,” she said. “Those writers were coming on like nuns. I knew I wasn’t the only one who had a baby at 17, not the only one who drank. They acted like they ain’t never spread their legs or turned their butts up.”
In the end, it was liquor that became Jones’ worst enemy. “I think I would’ve been a lot more successful if I hadn’t been drunk all the time,” Jones said. Having had my own battles with the bottle, spending much of the ’90s “in my cups,” as the old folks used to say, I’m not here to pass judgment. No one aims to become an alcoholic, but with enough practice it can happen to anyone. “I cared for no one other than me and my God when I was intoxicated with Jack Barleycorn,” Jones said over email, referencing Jack London’s alcoholic memoirs. “God was going to love me anyway no matter what I did. Narcissism running rampant is a power for many successful human beings, but I have been sober for years after many years of striving to kick this monkey off my back.”
In addition, she is being treated for manic depression, which she described as a a chemical condition exacerbated by “memories of childhood molestation by a school teacher, statutory rape by my first husband and father of my child, rejection by my family, expulsion from school in the last semester of my secondary education, stress of always having to wipe out these head starts to madness by being extraordinary as a woman.”
Back in 1991, after I finished reading Fish Tales, I put it back on the shelf and didn’t think about it for two decades. Even in 2002, when I read Carter’s brilliant stand-alone noir Walking Bones (2002), a book that was influenced by Fish Tales and featured a protagonist named Nettie, I had, like so many others, forgotten. “I first read Fish Tales in the ’80s, and though it left a huge impression, I don’t remember thinking about it consciously when I was writing Walking Bones,” Carter said from her Lower East Side apartment. “Lewis was messed-up, articulate, bohemian, and free, and a part of that great artistic milieu that I was so caught-up in when I was younger. She was a Black woman in a world that most people don’t think of Black women in, and there isn’t much writing about us in that way. She was not the standard Black woman character.”
The irony of Charlotte Carter’s last line — and a fact that I wasn’t aware of until recently — was that Jones, though Black herself, never set out to write an “African American book,” but instead was attempting to craft a “colorless” novel. “I wanted to present my characters as human beings, their character not determined by their color,” Jones said. In an effort to keep race out of the conversation, the fair-skinned, blue-eyed writer even opted to forgo her author’s photo. “I refused to have a photo of me, because I did not wish to have anyone not buy my book because of my race.”
It was all for nothing because graphic designer George Corsillo hired a light-skinned woman to pose on the cover, and she became Lewis’s avatar. “I hated that cover and I actually went to Random House and asked it to be changed, but the production director literally begged me not to make this move. The book was in final production, so I gave in, but that picture defeated my desire to not include color on the cover or contents.” Most critics, with the exception of Darryl Pinckney, didn’t pick up on the “racial blurring” of Jones’s characters and, obviously judging the book by its cover, referred to Lewis as Black.
“One of the remarkable aspects of this novel is that race doesn’t matter,” Pinckney wrote in 1984. “There is no sociology; even with descriptions of reddish hair on legs, curly heads, and broad noses it is hard to tell who has rhythm and who hasn’t.” Though Jones lived through the civil rights era in American politics and the Amiri Baraka–founded Black Arts Movement that included women writers Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Ntozake Shange, she refused to carry the banner for Blackness with the same zeal as her soul sistas.
Jones is well aware of her own Blackness, but she’d prefer not to be referred to as African American. Old-school in that way that my own grandmother was, Jones still uses the words “Negro” and “colored” to describe herself. “Most people don’t say colored anymore. That has become an evil word,” she said. “I don’t use African American or Afro-American, because it’s too political and it’s too limiting. I’m not ashamed of any part of me, I just don’t want to give up the other parts. I’m not ashamed of my dark skin grandmother and I’m connected to all of those nice women in Congress. I’m from Detroit, which means I am of the world.”
After publishing Mischief Makers in 1989, Jones returned to the world of academia. She taught fiction at the University of Michigan and later at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She sometimes included fellow Detroit writer Donald Goines on the reading list.
“I loved teaching, and the students loved me, because they were free. I didn’t ask them to do stupid things,” she said. Since retiring from academics in 2010, Jones has a had a few major medical setbacks, but “for me the research never ends,” she said. “That’s where we create our stories, our dances, our poetry, our journalism. Everything I look at, it’s like, how can I use that. At this point, I just do it automatically.” Meanwhile, she’s still writing, fighting, and observing the world through her piercing eyes.
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Essayist / short story writer Michael A. Gonzales has written about books for Catapult, Longreads, CrimeReads and The Paris Review. His fiction has appeared in The Root, Brown Sugar, Killens Review, Art Decades, Bronx Biannual, The Darker Mask and Black Pulp. In addition, Gonzales has written about music, visual art and film for The Village Voice, New York, Wax Poetics, HYCIDE, Pitchfork, Newark Bound and Vibe. Upcoming projects includes work in Sticking it to the Man: Revolution and Counter Culture in Pulp and Popular Fiction, 1950-1980, edited by Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre and Gimme the Loot, edited by Gabino Iglesias.
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Copy editor: Jacob Z. Gross
Fact checker: Steven Cohen