I have always favored fiction that possesses inherent strangeness and transcendence and mystery. I know part of that aesthetic is due to having grown up on comic books, old episodes of The Twilight Zone, my aforementioned love of Stephen King novels, and my own (overactive) imagination. Even the modernist writers I favor--say a William Faulkner--veer toward something Other (for lack of a better term) that isn't quite realism.
I first read Gloria Naylor's Mama Day as an undergrad taking one of those 'ethnic literature' courses that attempted to upend the dead-white-male literary cannon. There was more good than bad in the attempt for obvious reasons, but when selecting literature for such a course, it's easy to imagine the professor saying, "OK, we have our Asian, we have our Native American, now whom should we pick to represent African-Americans?"
At the time (the wild and wonderful early 90s, he said with unadulterated nostalgia) if you wanted an African-American female novelist, the choices were two - Alice Walker and/or Toni Morrison. How or why my professor threw in Gloria Naylor, I will never know, but he did. And his was a brilliant choice.
It was one of those courses that we had too much to read in too little time, and I had originally skipped Mama Day because I figured I would focus on the books I was going to write my term papers about. I even sat through the Mama Day lecture, missing the point of it and not much caring. No, it was when we had started the next book that I picked up Naylor's novel and thumbed through it. Then, like that, I was hooked and everything else got shoved aside while I read Mama Day and nothing else. I think I may have even taken on Naylor's novel for my term paper, I was that crazy about it.
The folkloric backdrop, the magic realism (we weren't allowed to call novels fantasy in my program...at least not then), the in-your-face use of 2nd person narration alternating with a present tense 3rd person limited, and the characters--oh, the characters--make the novel not merely good but great. At that stage in my development as a writer (such that it was or is), I didn't realize how much I needed to see someone so masterfully weave the literary, the fantastic, and the human into such a powerful work of art.
I knew then what I wanted my own novels to be like.
I place Mama Day in the list of my top five favorite novels of all time. (Yeah, don't ask...I'll come up with the rest of my list someday.) The novel really is that good. Or wondrous strange as the family of one of my favorite painters liked to say about a piece of art that both fascinated and beguiled them.
You may be wondering why the qualification - why not just say that Gloria Naylor is an influence. I don't know her works as deeply as I do some writers, and although I enjoyed Bailey's Cafe, which was the follow up to Mama Day, I didn't find it as life-changing. (And really, can anything be as life-changing as the art we were exposed to in our early-twenties?)
Gloria Naylor deserves more celebration and study than she was getting twenty years ago (Jesus, has it really been that long?), and from what I can tell by reading the all powerful Interwebs, she is almost criminally ignored in literary circles these days. Here's hoping that her fortunes change. The woman has the gift, and the world could use another masterwork like Mama Day.