Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA

Gloria Naylor: Mama Day

Episode Summary

Recorded live on stage in Toronto in 1988, American writer Gloria Naylor (1950-2016) reads from her 1989 novel, Mama Day, which in “the collective voice of the island” tells of a community with a rich history and proud heritage, forced to reckon with the modern world encroaching. Naylor’s reading is full of dark humour and rhythms that made her such an original talent - and a writer who was ahead of her time. Naylor’s reading was recorded as part of Toronto’s International Readings at Harbourfront Series (now called TIFA) and is used with the kind permission of Brilliance Audio, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the Toronto International Festival of Authors.

Episode Notes

Note: Given the current temporary closure of TPL due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made our best efforts to offer suggestions below for materials which are part our online collections (indicated) and available at home to anyone with a current Toronto Library card. 



Works by Gloria Naylor

The Women of Brewster Place (ebook)

The Novels of Gloria Naylor: Mama Day, Linden Hills, Bailey’s Café (ebook)

Mama Day (print book)

The Women of Brewster Place (DVD of 1989 mini-series starring Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson)

Bailey’s Café (print book)

Other Related Books or Materials

New York Times Obituary of Gloria Naylor (link opens NYT article from Oct 2016)

Unsolved Problems: Rachel Harper on Gloria Naylor  (link opens Los Angeles Review of Books article from Mar 2017)


About the Host

Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.

Music is by Yuka

From the Archives

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first series associated with the Toronto Public Library’s multi-year digital initiative, From the Archives, which presents curated and digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s biggest cultural institutions and organizations.

Thanks to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) for allowing TPL access to their archives to feature some of the best-known writers in the world from moments in the past. Thanks as well to Library and Archives Canada for generously allowing TPL access to these archives.

Episode Transcription

Writers Off the Page S1E14

Gloria Naylor: Mama Day



RANDY: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, produced by the Toronto Public Library. I'm Randy Boyagoda. In this episode, American writer Gloria Naylor reads a story that invites you in, and maybe calls you out, among other things.

GLORIA NAYLOR: When there was lots of cotton here and we bailed it up and sold it beyond the bridge, we paid our taxes to the US of A, and we keeps accountable the fishing that's done and sold beyond the bridge, all the little truck farming. And later on, when we had to go over there to work or our children went, we paid taxes out of them earnings. We pays taxes on the telephone lines and electrical wires run over the sound. Ain't nobody here about breaking the law, but Georgia and South Carolina, ain't seeing the shine off a penny for our land, our homes, our roads or our bridge. Well, they fought each other up to the Supreme Court about the whole matter and it came to a draw. We guess they got so tied up from that, they decided to leave us be, until them developers started swarming over here like sand flies at a Sunday picnic.

RANDY: As you’ll learn in a moment, for reasons beyond her control but clearly important to her sense of cosmic literary timing, Gloria Naylor’s very existence, from the moment of her birth, has had a strong connection to great women writers of past eras, namely Virginia Woolf and Gwendolyn Brooks. Naylor will explain why. But to be honest, another writer kept coming to mind as I listened to this searching and meaningfully meandering story originally recorded during Naylor’s trip to Toronto, in 1988. The writer that came to mind as I listened was Shakespeare, and specifically his play Measure for Measure. Scholars refer to it as one of his ‘Problem Plays,’ insofar as it’s clearly not a tragedy, a comedy, or a history play for that matter. It works on you because you never quite know where it’s going, only that you want to keep following. The same is true with Naylor’s story, whose layer upon layer of voice and perspective, combined with the shifting pronouns and modes of address, all culminate in a striking moment of simultaneous inclusion and exclusion. The story leaves us feeling intimately, imaginatively part of a complex Black community still concealed in important ways from us and from some of its own members. All of this comes through in what and how Naylor tells of that community’s experiences. It’s this set of elements and effects that left me with the same feeling I had when I first encountered Measure for Measure. If you’re still curious what I mean, listen in and tell me what you think about Reemo’s boy – what he knows and doesn’t know, by the end of the story. Good luck coming up with a clear answer.

That said, this kind of ambiguity is at odds, in some ways, with the striking clarity of Naylor’s emergence in America’s literary and public life. She came to national prominence suddenly and dramatically in 1982, with the publication of her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place.That novel cast a brave, unsparing, and caring eyes on a community’s poor, violent, broken life — and also its sources of resilience and hope — as seen, told, and experienced from a series of women’s vantages. The book won the National Book Award and was later adapted into a televised miniseries under the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey, who also featured in it. Thereafter, Naylor wrote and taught for a long time, reliably on very difficult issues that managed to challenge every segment of her readership. She also brought resolve and warmth to such matters, signaled, as you’ll see, by the moment she kind of laughs to herself in the middle of reading the story. She likes how one of her characters laughs off death. She clearly admires that kind of courage in a poor put-down Black woman, and invited her readers to do the same.


Gloria Naylor (GM): Thank you. During the break, a lady leaned over and said to me, "Are you Gloria Naylor? My God, you look so young." I said, "I am never leaving this country." And when you get to be my age, you take what you can get. I think I'm probably a bit sensitive about it because I did turn 38 this Monday, January 25th, and that's also Virginia Woolf's birthday. And I happen to have been born in the same year that Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen. So between those two great writers, I have a lot to live up to and many years to do it in.

GN: I'm going to be reading from my latest novel, Mama Day, tonight, the introduction. And Mama Day is a book that deals with the intangible. With belief in love and magic, anything which we cannot actually put our fingers upon. It calls upon the reader to suspend belief. And the introduction deals with perhaps the most universal suspension of belief of all and that's the convention of reading.

GN: First of all, the novel opens with a bill of sale for a woman in the 19th century.

GN: Tuesday, third day, August, 1819. Sold to Mr. Bascombe Wade of Willow Springs, one Negress answering to the name Sapphira. Age 20, pure African stock, limbs and teeth sound. All warranty against the vices and maladies prescribed by law do not hold forth, purchaser being in full knowledge and affixing signature in witness thereof, that said Sapphira is half prime, inflicted with sullenness and entertains a bilious nature, having resisted under reasonable chastisement, the performance of field or domestic labour. Has served on occasion in the capacity of midwife and nurse. Not without extreme mischief and suspicions of delving in witchcraft. Conditions of sale. One-half gold tender, one-half goods in kind. Final. This is the collective voice of the island.

GN: Willow Springs. Everybody knows, but nobody talks about the legend of Sapphira Wade. A true conjurer woman, satin black, biscuit cream, red as Georgia clay, depending upon which of us takes a mind to her. She could walk through a lightning storm without being touched, grab a bolt of lightning in the palm of her hand, use the heat of lightning to start the kindling going under her medicine pot, depending upon which of us takes a mind to her. She turned the moon into salve, the stars into a swaddling cloth, to heal the wounds of every creature walking up on two or down on four. It ain't about right or wrong, truth or lies, it's about a slave woman who brought a whole new meaning to both them words, soon as you cross over here from beyond the bridge. And somehow, some way, it happened in 1823.

GN: She smothered Bascombe Wade in his very bed and lived to tell the story for a thousand days. 1823, married Bascombe Wade, bore him seven sons in just a thousand days, to put a dagger through his kidney and escape the hangman's noose, laughing in burst of flames. 1823. Persuaded Bascombe Wade in a thousand days to deed all his slaves every inch of land in Willow Springs, poisoned him for his trouble to go on and bear seven sons by person or persons unknown.

GN: Mixing it all together and keeping everything that done shifted down through the holes of time, you end up with the death of Bascombe Wade. There's his tombstone right out by Chevy's Pass, the deeds to our land all marked back to the very year and seven sons. Ain't Miss Abigail and Mama Day the granddaughters of that seventh boy? The wild card in all this is the thousand days. And we guess if we put our heads together, we'd come up with something which ain't possible since Sapphira Wade don't live in the part of our memory we can use to form words. But ain't a soul in Willow Springs don't know, that little dark girls, hair all braided up with colored twine, got their 18 and 23's coming down. When they lean too long over them backyard fences, laughing at the antics of little dark boys who got the nerve to be breathing 18 and 23, with mother's milk still on their tongues. And if she leans there just a mite too long or grins a bit too wide, it's gonna bring a holler straight through the dusky screen door. Get your bow-legged self away from my fence, Johnny Blue. Won't be no early 18 and 23's coming here for me to rock, I'm still raising her.

GN: Yes, the name Sapphira Wade is never breathed out of a single mouth in Willow Springs. But who don't know that old twisted-lip manager at the Sheraton Hotel beyond the bridge, offering Winky Browne only $12 for his whole boatload of crawdaddies, tried to 18 and 23 him if he tried to do a thing? We all sitting here a hop, skip, and one Christmas left before the year 2000, and ain't nobody told him niggers can read now? Like the menus in his restaurant don't say a handful of crawdaddies sprinkled over a little bowl of crushed ice is almost $12? Call it shrimp cocktail or whatever he want.


GN: We can count too and the price of everything that swims, crawls or lays at the bottom of the sound went up in 1985. During the season we had that 18 and 23 summer and the bridge blue down, folks didn't take their lives in their hands out there in that treacherous water just to be doing it. Ain't that much 18 and 23 in the world. But that a hotel manager, don't make no never mind. He's the least of what we then had to deal with here in Willow Springs, malaria, Union soldiers, sandy soil, two big depressions, hurricanes. Not to mention these new real estate developers who think we're gonna sell our shoreline just because we ain't fool enough to live there. Started coming over here in the early '90s, talking vacation paradise, talking picturesque. Like Winky said, we'd have to pick their ass out the bottom of the marsh first hurricane blew through here again.

GN: See, they're just thinking about building where they ain't got no state taxes, never been and never will be, 'cause Willow Springs ain't in no state. Georgia and South Carolina done tried though. Been trying since right after the Civil War to prove that Willow Springs belong to one or the other of them. Look on any of them old maps, they heard and drew up soon as the Union soldiers pulled out. And you can see that the only thing connects us to the main land is a bridge, and even that got to be rebuilt after every big storm. They was talking about steel and concrete way back, but since Georgia and South Carolina couldn't claim the taxes, nobody wanted to shell out for the work. But anyways, all 49 square miles, curves like a bone, stretching toward Georgia on the South End and South Carolina on the north and right smack in the middle where each foot of our bridge sits is the dividing line between them two states.

GN: So, who it belong to? It belongs to us, clean and simple, and it belonged to our daddies and our daddies before them and them too, who at one time all belonged to Bascombe Wade. And when they tried to trace him back and how he got it, found out he wasn't even American. Was Norway born or something, and the land had been sitting in his family over there in Europe since it got explored and claimed by the Vikings. Imagine that. So thanks to the conjuring of Sapphira Wade, we got it from Norway or there's about. And if tax is owed, it's owed to them, but ain't no Vikings or anybody else from over in Europe come to us with the foolishness that them folks out of Columbia and Atlanta come with.

GN: We was being un-American. And the way we saw it, America ain't into the question at all when it came to our land, Sapphira was African-born. Bascombe Wade was from Norway, and it was the 18 and 23 and that went down between them to put deeds in our hands. And we wasn't even Americans when we got it. Was slaves. And the laws about slaves not owning nothing in Georgia and South Carolina don't apply, 'cause the land wasn't then, and isn't now, in either of them places.

GN: When there was lots of cotton here and we bailed it up and sold it beyond the bridge, we paid our taxes to the US of A, and we keeps accountable the fishing that's done and sold beyond the bridge, all the little truck farming. And later on, when we had to go over there to work or our children went, we paid taxes out of them earnings. We pays taxes on the telephone lines and electrical wires run over the sound. Ain't nobody here about breaking the law, but Georgia and South Carolina, ain't seeing the shine off a penny for our land, our homes, our roads or our bridge. Well, they fought each other up to the Supreme Court about the whole matter and it came to a draw. We guess they got so tied up from that, they decided to leave us be, until them developers started swarming over here like sand flies at a Sunday picnic.

GN: Sure, we could have used the money and weren't using the land. But like Mama Day told ‘em, we knew to send them straight over there to her and Miss Abigail. They didn't come huffing and sweating all this way in them dark gaberdine suits, if they didn't think our land could make them a bundle of money. And the way we saw it, there was enough land, shoreline, that is, to make us all pretty comfortable. And calculating on the basis of all them fancy plans they had in mind, a million an acre wasn't asking too much. Flap flap flap. Lord bitten them jaws and silk ties move in the wind.

GN: The land wouldn't be worth that if they couldn't build on it. Yes sir, she told him, and they couldn't build on it, unless we sold it. So we get ours now and they get theirs later. You should have seen them coat tails flapping back across the sound, with all their lies about community uplift and better jobs. ‘Cause it weren't about no them now and us later. Was them now and us never. Hadn't we seen it happen back in the '80s on St. Helena, Dufusqi and St. John's? And before that, in the '60s on Hilton Head, got them folks land, built fences around it first thing, and then brought in all the builders and high paid managers from main side. Ain't nobody on them islands benefited.

GN: And the only dark faces you see now in them “vacation paradises” is the ones cleaning the toilets and cutting the grass. On their own land, mind you. Their own land. Weren't gonna happen in Willow Springs. 'Cause if Mama Day say no, everybody say no. There's 18 and 23, and there's 18 and 23, and nobody was gonna trifle with Mama Day's 'cause she know how to use it. Her being a direct descendant of Sapphira Wade, piled on the fact of springing from the seventh son of a seventh son, uh-uh. Mama Day say no, everybody say no. No point in making a pile of money to be guaranteed the new moon will see you scratching at fleas you don't have, or rolling in the marsh like a mud turtle. And if some was waiting for her to die, they had a long wait. She says she ain't gonna.


GN: And when you think about it, to show up in one century, make it all the way through the next, and have a toe inching over into the one approaching is about as close to eternity anybody can come. Well, them developers upped the price and changed the plans, changed the plans and upped the price till it got to be a game with us. Winky bought a motorboat with what they offered him back in 1987, turned it in for a cabin cruiser two years later, and says he expects to be able to afford a yacht with the news that's waiting in the mail this year.

GN: Parris went from a new shingle roof to a split-level ranch, and is making his way toward adding a swimming pool and greenhouse. But when all the laughing's done, it's the principle that remains. And we done learned that anything coming from beyond the bridge gotta be viewed real, real careful. Look what happened when Reema's boy, the one with the pear-shaped head, came hauling himself back from one of those fancy colleges main side, dragging his notebooks and tape recorder and a funny way of curling up his lip and clicking his teeth, all excited and determined to put Willow Springs on the map. We was polite enough. Reema always was a little addle-brained, so you couldn't blame the boy for not remembering that part of Willow Springs's problem was that it got put on some maps right after the War Between the States.

GN: And then when he went around asking us about 18 and 23, there weren't nothing to do but take pity on him as he rattled on about ethnography, unique speech patterns, cultural preservation, and whatever else he seemed to be getting so much pleasure out of while talking into his little gray machine. He was all over the place, "What 18 and 23 mean? What 18 and 23 mean?" And we all told him the God-honest truth: It was just our way of saying something. Winky was awful, though, he even spit tobacco juice for him. Sat on his porch all day, chewing up the boy's Red Devil premium and spitting so the machine could pick it up.


GN: There was enough fun in that to take us through the fall and winter, when he had hauled himself back over The Sound to wherever he was getting what was supposed to be passing for an education. And he sent everybody he'd talked to copies of the book he wrote, bound all nice with our name and his signed on the first page. We couldn't hold Reema down, she was so proud. It's a good thing she didn't read it. None of us made it much through the introduction, but that said it all: You see, he had come to the conclusion after extensive field work. Ain't never picked a boll of cotton or head of lettuce in his life, Reema spoiled him silly. But he done still made it to the conclusion that 18 and 23 wasn't 18 and 23 at all. Was really 81 and 32, which just so happened to be the lines of longitude and latitude marking off where Willow Springs sits on the map.

GN: And we was just so damned dumb that we turned the whole thing around. Not that he called it being dumb, mind you. Called it “asserting our cultural identity,” “inverting hostile social and political parameters.” 'Cause, see, being we was brought here as slaves, we had no choice but to look at everything upside-down. And then being that we was isolated off here on this island, everybody else in the country went on learning good English and calling things what they really was in the dictionary and all that, while we kept on calling things ass-backwards. And he thought that was just so wonderful and marvelous, etcetera, etcetera.

GN: Well, after that crate of books came here, if anybody had any doubts about what them developers was up to, if there was just a tinge of seriousness behind them jokes about the motorboats and swimming pools that could be gotten from selling a piece of land, them books squashed it. The people who ran the type of schools that could turn our children into raving lunatics, and then put his picture on the back of the book so we couldn't even deny it was him, didn't mean us a speck of good. If the boy wanted to know what 18 and 23 meant, why didn't he just ask?

GN: When he was running on here sticking that machine in everybody's face, we were sitting right here, every one of us, and him being one of Reema's, we would have obliged him. He could ask Claris about the curve in her spine, that came from the planting season when the mule broke his leg, and she took up the reins and kept pulling the plow with her own back. Winky would have told him about the hot tar, that took out the corner of his right eye. The summer we had only seven days. When we build the bridge, so the few crops we had left after the storm could be gotten over before rot set in. Anybody would have carried him through the fields we had to stop farming, back in the '80s, to take outside jobs, washing cars, carrying groceries, cleaning house, anything, 'cause it was leave the land or lose it during the silent depression.

GN: Had more folks sleeping in city streets and banks foreclosing on farms than in the Great Depression before that. Nah, he didn't really wanna know what 18 and 23 meant or he would have asked. He would have asked right off where Miss Abigail Day was staying. So we could have sent him down the main road to that little yellow house where she used to live, and she would have given him a tall glass of ice water or some cinnamon tea, as he heard about peace dying young, then hope and peace again.

GN: But there was the child of grace, the grandchild, a girl who went main side, like him, and did real well. Was living outside of Charleston now with her husband and two boys, so she visits a lot more often than she did when she was up in New York. And she probably would have pulled out that old photo album so he could have seen some pictures of her grandchild, Coco, and then Coco's mama, Grace. And Miss Abigail flips right through to the beautiful one of Grace laying in her satin lined coffin. And as she walks him back out to the front porch and points them across the road to a silver trailer where her sister, Miranda, lives, she tells him to grab up and chew a few sprigs of mint growing at the foot of the steps. It'll help kill his thirst in the hot sun. And if you'd known enough to do that, thirsty or not, he'd know when he got to that silver trailer to stand back a distance, calling mama, Mama Day, to wait for her to come out and beckon him near.

GN: He told her he'd been sent by Miss Abigail, and so more likely than not, she lets him in. And he hears again about the child of grace, her grandniece, who went main side, like him, and did real well, was living outside of Charleston now, with her husband and two boys. So she visits a lot more often than she did when she was up in New York. Coco is like her very own, Mama Day tells him, since she never had no children. And with him carrying that whiff of mint on his breath, she surely would have walked him out to the side yard facing that patch of dogwood to say she has to end the visit a little short 'cause she has some gardening to do in the other place. And if he'd had the sense to offer to follow her just a bit of the way, then and only then, he hears about that summer 14 years ago when Coco came visiting from New York with her first husband. Yes, she tells him there was a first husband, a stone city boy, how his name was George, but how Coco left, and he stayed, how it was the year of the last big storm that blew up pecan trees down and even caved in the roof of the other place. And she would have stopped him from walking just by a patch of oak. She reaches up, takes a bit of moss for him to put in them closed leather shoes, they're probably sweating his feet something terrible, she tells him.

GN: And he's to sit on the ground right there, to untie his shoes and stick in the moss. And then he'd see through the low bush that old graveyard, just down the slope. And when he looks back up, she would have disappeared through the trees but he's to keep pushing the moss in them shoes and go on down to that graveyard where he'll find buried grace, hope, peace, and peace again. Then a little ways off a group and of seven old graves. And a little ways off, seven older again. All circled by them live oaks and hanging moss, over arise from the tip of the sound.

GN: Everything he needed to know could have been heard from that yellow house to that silver trailer to that graveyard. Be too late for him to go that route now since Miss Abigail's been dead for over nine years. Still, there's an easier way. He could just watch Coco any one of these times she comes in from Charleston. She goes straight to Miss Abigail to air out the rooms and unpack her bags. Then she's across the road to call out at Mama Day, who's gonna come to the door of the trailer and wave as Coco heads on through the patch of dogwood to that Oak road. She stops and puts a bit of moss in her open-toe sandals, then goes on past those graves to a spot just down the rise toward the sound, a little bit south of that circle of oaks.

GN: And if he was patient and stayed off a little ways, he'd realized she was there to meet up with her first husband. So they could talk about that summer, 14 years ago, when she left, but he stayed. And as her and George are there together for a good two hours or so, neither one's saying a word. Reema's boy could have heard from them, everything there was to tell about 18 and 23. But on second thought, someone who didn't know how to ask wouldn't know how to listen. And he could have listened to them the way you've been listening to us right now. Think about it. Ain't nobody really talking to you. We're sitting here in Willow Springs and you're God knows where, it's August 1999. Ain't but a slim chance it's the same season where you are.

GN: Uh huh, listen, really listen this time. The only voice is your own, but you done just heard about the legend of Sapphira Wade, though nobody here breathes her name. You done heard it the way we know it, sitting on our porches and shelling June peas, quiet in the midnight cough of a baby, taking apart the engine of a car. You done heard it without a single living soul really saying a word. Pity though, Reema's boy couldn't listen like you, to Coco and George down by them oaks, or he would have left here with quite a story.

GN: Thank you.



RANDY: Gloria Naylor was born in Manhattan in 1950, sharing Virginia Woolf’s birthday, which also happened to be the very day African-American writer Gwendolyn Brooks received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Naylor’s parents had migrated to New York from Mississippi in search of better prospects, and she grew up particularly encouraged by her mother, a telephone operator, to read and write as much as she could. Eventually, her efforts led her to study English at Brooklyn College and African-American Studies at Yale, where thesis work and creative work combined and led eventually to her second published novel, following her first and most famous,The Women of Brewster Place. A onetime missionary for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Naylor wrote fiction and taught for decades, at places including Boston University, Cornell, and NYU. Gloria Naylor died in 2016, aged 66.

Thanks to Brilliance Audio and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for allowing us permission to use the audio for this episode of Gloria Naylor reading live on stage in 1988 as part of the International Readings at Harbourfront Series - now called TIFA and, as always, thanks to TIFA, the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for allowing us access to their archives. Find out more at festivalofauthors.ca.

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick. This episode was produced by Gregory McCormick and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou and Michelle De Marco, marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.

For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit tpl.ca/podcasts where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections. 

Music is by YUKA.

I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode ofWriters Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.