Rosa Guy: New York Times Obituary

Margalit Fox is the author of this obituary for the New York Times

Rosa Guy, a Caribbean-born writer known for her unflinchingly direct novels for young people about black life in urban America, died on Sunday at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was 89.

The cause was cancer, her grandson Warner Guy III said.

Ms. Guy (her surname rhymes with “key”) was widely considered one of the 20th century’s most distinguished writers for young adults. She addressed subjects that had remained largely unexplored in fiction for teenagers when she began her career four decades ago.

The themes to which she returned repeatedly in these books — and in several well-received novels for adults — included race, class, poverty, sexuality and simmering tensions between American blacks and Afro-Caribbean immigrants newly arrived in the United States.

“She’s never afraid of the truth,” the writer Maya Angelou, a friend of more than 50 years, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “Some writers dress the truth in a kind of elegant language, so it doesn’t seem quite so blatant, so harsh, so raw. But Rosa was not afraid of that.”

Of her books for young adults, the best known was a trilogy of novels, “The Friends” (1973), “Ruby” (1976) and “Edith Jackson” (1978). The books drew partly on Ms. Guy’s experience as a young immigrant from Trinidad, coming of age in New York without money, parents or stability.

“The Friends” centers on the sometimes wary alliance between two teenage schoolmates: Phyllisia Cathy, an educated West Indian immigrant, and Edith Jackson, a poor, street-smart African-American born and reared in Harlem.

The second book in the trilogy features Phyllisia’s sister, Ruby, who embarks on a lesbian relationship with another girl — a taboo subject in children’s literature then. The third returns to Edith, now in a foster home and pregnant, who must choose between having the baby and having an abortion.

Reviewing “The Friends” in The New York Times Book Review in 1973, the novelist Alice Walker described it as a “heart-slammer,” adding: “This book is called a ‘juvenile.’ So be a juvenile while you read it. Rosa Guy will give you back a large part of the memory of those years that you’ve been missing.”

Ms. Guy’s novels for adults include “My Love, My Love: Or, The Peasant Girl” (1985), a Caribbean-inflected reworking of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid.”

In Andersen’s story, a mermaid’s love for a prince is doomed by her inability to survive on land. In Ms. Guy’s retelling, a Creole peasant woman falls in love with a wealthy man but finds she cannot transcend his family’s class prejudice.

The novel was made into a musical, “Once on This Island,” with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Graciela Daniele, it played for more than a year on Broadway in 1990 and 1991 and was nominated for eight Tony Awards.

Ms. Guy’s own childhood was like something from a fairy tale, though not the kind suffused with light. Rosa Cuthbert was born in Diego Martin, Trinidad, on Sept. 1, 1922. (News accounts have erroneously given the year as 1925 and 1928.)

At 7, Rosa arrived in Harlem with her 10-year-old sister, Ameze, to join their parents, who had moved to New York to seek a better life.

Their mother died two years later, “leaving us,” Ms. Guy said in a 1965 interview, “with a tyrant of a father, who was terrified at the prospect of raising two girls in the corrupting influence of the big-city life.”

He soon married a well-to-do woman, and for a brief halcyon period, Ms. Guy recounted, the girls “were swept from abject poverty to a situation where we were being taken to picnics on the weekend in a chauffeur-driven car.”

The marriage foundered, and the girls resumed life with their father, whose behavior was increasingly erratic. By the time Rosa was 14, he too had died. To support herself and her sister — Ameze was too frail for the task — Rosa left school for factory work in the garment district.

The sisters were eventually shunted through a series of orphanages and foster homes. Hearing the personal narratives of the children she met there, Ms. Guy said, made her realize that her vocation lay in storytelling.

Before turning to writing, she studied acting at the American Negro Theater, a Harlem-based group of the 1940s where Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte received early training. With John Oliver Killens and others, Ms. Guy founded the Harlem Writers Guild in 1950.

Ms. Guy was a passionate participant in midcentury black nationalist organizations, and in more traditional civil rights groups. Her first book, “Bird at My Window,” a critically praised novel for adults published in 1966, told the story of a gifted young black man crushed by systemic poverty and violence.

An early marriage, to Warner Guy, ended in divorce; their son, Warner Jr., died in 1995. Ms. Guy’s survivors include five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Among her other books are “Children of Longing” (1971), a nonfiction volume of interviews with African-American youth she compiled after the assassinations of Malcolm X and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; a trilogy of young-adult novels featuring Imamu Jones, an inquisitive adolescent boy; several picture books; and the adult novel “A Measure of Time” (1983), about a self-made woman’s rise amid the Harlem Renaissance.

For all their surface bleakness, Ms. Guy’s books were far from hopeless. Characters often transcended their circumstances through newfound self-awareness and, in particular, through the capacity to forge durable bonds with others.

“She loved to write about love,” Ms. Angelou said on Wednesday. “If you thought a situation called for a kind of mournfulness, she was the one to laugh and turn music on and dance.”

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