In 1975, while still a graduate student at Brown University, Gayl Jones published Corregidora, her first novel. A work that combines stark, deliberately raw language with poetry and dreamlike lyricism, it is narrated by Ursa Corregidora, a Kentucky blues singer who weaves her own story of thwarted desire and artistic strivings with that of her family. As Brazilian slaves and prostitutes, her great-grandmother and grandmother are repeatedly raped by their master, Old Corregidora, who fathers Ursa's grandmother as well as her mother, until Great Gram commits an undisclosed act of violence that makes him murderously obsessed with her. She flees to Kentucky, returning only to retrieve her now pregnant daughter. Like her mother, Ursa has heard this story since birth and has been frequently instructed to raise a child who will in turn bear witness to Corregidora's atrocities; thus does Great Gram try to empower her family, changing her daughters’ identity from chattel to bearers of vengeance. But when Ursa is pregnant, her jealous husband (Mutt Thomas) pushes her down a flight of stairs and she loses the baby. Her injuries require a hysterectomy, and Ursa's resulting distress at being unable to “make generations” also affects her capacity for sexual pleasure.
After turning away from Cat Lawson, a friend whose lesbianism disconcerts her, Ursa marries again, only to have the marriage end when her husband accuses her of frigidity. Alternately yearning for and despising Mutt, a man marked by his own family scars of slavery and possessiveness, Ursa spends the next twenty years singing and writing songs, and grappling with her family's fraught histories of sexual desire and violent abuse. Mutt's reappearance catalyzes an uneasy reunion for Ursa, merging undercurrents of violence with the possibility of healing. Performing fellatio, Ursa finally realizes what Great Gram did to Corregidora (she bit his penis just before orgasm), and thus recognizes the victim's own capacity for violence. Ursa also recognizes the combination of pain and pleasure, power and vulnerability, that constitutes what Jones has called “the blues relationship” between men and women. In acknowledging her own blues relationship with Mutt, Ursa sees how desire survives, however maimed and thwarted, even after a history of abuse. Yet the novel's ambiguous close finds Ursa still searching for a song and identity of her own to replace the angry refrain of vengeance her mothers have taught her.
Critical perspectives about Corregidora focus on its use of African American oral traditions: the frequent call-and-response pattern of Jones's dialogue, the spiraling refrains of the blues, the improvisations of jazz, the echoes of black dialects, the emphasis on performance as part of black folklore. Additionally, Jones's depiction of a female African American singer relates to themes in contemporary black women's writing about the search for a voice and the defiance of a rigid, imposed, and usually sexual identity. Perhaps equally important, Corregidora's portrayal of the complexities between mothers and daughters meshes with Jones's treatment of the double-edged sword of memory for African Americans, who need to remember their history without being imprisoned by it.