Gayl Jones, Honoreé Jeffers, Heather Parks, & farewell!

November 12, 2021
Dear Friends,
I write to you on my last day as Director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. It’s been a challenging year, such that we elected not to hold a conference in 2021, yet many good things have occurred in the world of letters. By way of recap, I’d like to highlight successes of three women writers with ties to Kentucky: Gayl Jones, Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers, and Heather Parks.
But first, my own news: I’ve accepted a position at the University of Louisville as Chief of Staff in the College of Arts & Sciences, beginning in December. I’m thrilled to join one of the nation’s premiere metropolitan research universities and to get to know the wonderful city of Louisville better, even as I’m still a little shaky on the right way to pronounce “Loovul.”
In 15 years with the University of Kentucky, it has been my privilege to lift up women writers and to advocate for readers and the flourishing of literary culture in Kentucky. Many thanks to Christian Brady, Jonathan Allison, Mark Kornbluh, Laura Sutton, Ted Schatzki, Jeannine Blackwell, and Phil Kraemer for their staunch support of me and this program. In 2016, the UK College of Arts and Sciences invited me to expand my work at UK by becoming a Philanthropy Writer, where I witnessed at close range how to lead and strengthen a great public research university. I’m indebted to the College for that opportunity, which set me up for this next move.
I will dearly miss all of you and the platform of this newsletter, which I’ve been writing since 2008. I don’t know what my next writing project will be, but I’d like to devote this final edition to the three women writers mentioned earlier.
Lexington resident Gayl Jones earned our city a spot on the international literary map decades ago with novels such as Corregidora (1975) and Eva’s Man (1976), and she recently published her first work in 22 years, Palmares (Beacon, 2021). It’s a major literary event that occasioned not only a review in the New York Times Book Review, but also a feature about her life in the New York Times Magazine. Gayl’s reclusiveness rivals that of J. D. Salinger’s, and her whereabouts in Lexington are unknown even to me. It’s unlikely that she will ever appear at our conference. Nevertheless, her new novel, set in 17th-century Brazil, is being hailed as a masterpiece. Palmares tells the story of Almeyda, a Black slave girl who comes of age on Portuguese plantations and escapes to a fugitive slave settlement called Palmares. Following its destruction, Almeyda embarks on a journey across colonial Brazil to find her husband, lost in battle. It is apparently the first of five new works by Jones slated to be published in the next two years.
These days Black women novelists seem to be visited by an epic muse. In addition to Jones, from Yaa Gyasi we had Homegoing and Transcendent Kingdom (Knopf, 2016 and 2020); from Namwali Serpell we had The Old Drift (Hogarth, 2019). And this year from Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers we have The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois (Harper, 2021). Those of you who met Honoreé at our conference in 2009 will remember her huge heart, Southern warmth, and fascination with the 19th-century poet Phillis Wheatley. Honoreé read from her collection of persona poems about Wheatley at our keynote that year—paired with Elizabeth Alexander, fresh from her gig as Obama’s inaugural poet. Honoreé’s talent for vivid characterization was apparent to anyone paying attention back then, and perhaps persona poetry is a step closer to fiction than other forms, but no one could have guessed that Honoreé’s next work would be an 800-page novel. The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois chronicles the journey of an American family from the colonial slave trade through the Civil War to the present day in small-town Georgia. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award, and Oprah Winfrey featured it in her September Book Club, prompting weeks on the best-seller list in hardcover, sure to be succeeded by another stint there in paperback. Honoreé has truly arrived as a literary superstar, and she has the work ethic to stay: already she has announced her next three projects: Misbehaving at the Crossroads: Essays; A Simple, Promised Land: Stories; and a biography of the poet Lucille Clifton forthcoming in 2026.
Lastly, I’d like to share excerpts from a message I recently received from Heather Parks:
I am a junior at Wolfe County High School here in Kentucky. I was working on a project for school, and I came across your website. I saw Women Writers and got so excited, only to almost have a heart attack when I read that it was in Kentucky!
I love writing. I'm always lost in a book or scribbling in a journal. Writing has become an escape from my anxiety and a haven when the pandemic hit. Our school is really small, and I can't blame them for that. That does mean that there are limited choices with careers you can get info about. Most people go into a vocational school or nursing. I thought that’s what I would end up doing too, but then my teacher convinced me to enter a writing contest the summer before last. It was Scholastic Art and Writing and when I got a regional gold key, I was dumbstruck. For the first time, I thought of myself as being a possible writer. That was one of the happiest and scariest moments of my life. I wanted to learn everything I could about writing and what I could do with it.
The idea of a conference for just women writers is so cool! I couldn't believe something like that existed. I think I scared my teacher to death when I came into her classroom squealing and jumping around with my computer. Seeing all the photos of the women standing side by side and working together was so different from reading about the older female writers that everyone knows about like Mary Shelley or the really popular ones like J. K Rowling. These women were here and now in time. It made the whole idea of women writers feel real. Real enough to be an hour away from me.
I just want to say that what you all do is so cool. Creating an entire world with nothing but black and white letters is some kind of magic! Hard magic, but still magic.
If anyone doubts the significance of the work we do, Heather’s words will set you straight. The world will always need the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. And so, having earned my M.F.A. from the University of Kentucky, and with a grateful heart to so many fabulous mentors, colleagues, and friends here, I’ll always remember my years at UK with incredible fondness and be an alum who Bleeds Blue.