Naylor said she became a writer because she felt the perspectives of black women like herself were underrepresented in America literature. News of her death drew tributes from authors including Terry McMillan, who urged followers to "read everything Gloria Naylor has ever written."
Her debut novel in 1982, "The Women of Brewster Place," follows seven black women in an urban housing project through the trials and triumphs of friendship, family, sexual identity and violence.
The novel won the 1983 National Book Award for First Fiction and was adapted into a television miniseries by Oprah Winfrey's production company in 1989 starring Winfrey, Cicely Tyson and Robin Givens.
"I wanted to write a book that would reflect the diversity and the richness of the black female experience in America -- and no one woman could do that for me, and no one geographical location could do that for me," she said in an interview with the National Book Foundation
. "That's when the idea got born that Brewster Place would be a microcosm of American society, that on that street would come all of these different women, and what they would share would be that wall."
Her subsequent novels, including "Linden Hills," "Mama Day," and "Bailey's Cafe," not only earned her a place in the vanguard of black feminist writers but also established her reputation as a voice of American literature.
Born in New York in 1950, Naylor was a part of a family that encouraged reading and writing. The library was her "refuge," and she went through all the books there in alphabetical order, she told NBF.
"But in all of my early reading, I was never given anything to read that had been written by black Americans, and I believed for years that black people didn't write books. No one ever said that to me -- as a matter of fact, in 1950, the same year I was born, Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize -- but books by black authors weren't on my high school curriculum and their books weren't in my library. I read nothing that reflected me," she said.
Because she had a hard time expressing herself, her mother bought her a diary when she was 12. She filled it up in three months and moved on to the extra paper in her notebook, jotting down vignettes in the style of "Twilight Zone," and she never stopped.
The journal writing inspired the confessional tone of "The Women of Brewster Place," which she began writing as a literature student at Brooklyn College, borrowing bits and pieces from her life, including the names of two characters, Luciela and Mae Johnson, borrowed from her grandmother and great-aunt. By the late 1970s, she had published stories in Essence magazine that later became part of "Brewster Place."
She earned her M.A. from Yale University in 1983, the same year "The Women of Brewster Place" was published. By then, she had discovered the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange.
"Then I got into the room where I belonged, with all of these foremothers, and I said, well, maybe I can tell my story, too," she told NBF.