Tuesday, 17 July 2007

July writer: Zora Neale Hurston

I am delighted to feature Zora Neale Hurston (January 7, 1891 - January 28, 1960), novelist, folklorist and anthropologist, as my very first Writer of the Month.

Born in Alabama, Hurston moved at an early age to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black community in America, of which her father would become mayor. It was Eatonville that provided the inspiration for her work. She attended Howard University and later Barnard College where she studied anthropology along with fellow student Margaret Mead. In 1937 Hurston was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel to Haiti and conduct research on conjure.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) had been mouldering on my wish list for years. The novel is always mentioned in any talk of classic African American literature, and that was reason enough for it to get on to my 'to buy' list. Then I read somewhere that the story is about a relationship between a woman and her much younger lover, a woman who took control of her life and went after what she wanted at a time when that was revolutionary. Older woman - younger man? Woman flying in the face of tradition, popular opinion and community pressure? Liberated woman? I was hooked.

Last year I saw a copy at the little library in my town and grabbed it. I was not disappointed. In addition to my enjoyment of the story itself, it was illuminating to find many similarities to people of African origin in my Caribbean society - especially in the spoken idiom of the day. Some of these speech patterns I had believed uniquely Caribbean, or Trinidadian. But best of all was Hurston's use of language. There were sentences and paragraphs which I just had to reread because of the sheer beauty of expression, the lyricism, the magic that she succeeded in conveying. The structure of the story, as she alternates between the African American dialect of the day and Standard English narrative, must have been ground-breaking at the time of writing. I'm not easily impressed, but Hurston's writing blew me away. She is master of her medium.

Among her many books are Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), Mules and Men (1935), an exploration of African American folklore, and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Although she enjoyed a measure of literary acclaim during her lifetime, Hurston's work was severely criticized and almost forgotten, and she died in poverty and obscurity. Alice Walker initiated a revival of interest in her writing in the 1970s, and her books are now celebrated not only as African American literature, but as feminist literature as well.

Few of us will ever attain Zora Neale Hurston's level of excellence. All of us should aspire to her level of competence.


KeVin K. said...

I remember discovering Hurston in college and being excited she'd lived right down the road from me. I know the store on the corner of Lake Road she mentions more than once, particularly in Dust Tracks, I think. Lake Road connected Eatonville to Maitland, and I'm a Maitland native. My family lived on Lake Road for a while, and I used to buy orange Nehi sodas there in the summer.

I've often imagined I saw her, though I doubt it. (I used to think that if I'd known she was there, I'd have sought her out to ask her about writing and life, but that's not really true -- she died when I was 8 years old. Two or three years before I was old enough to be allowed to walk to the store alone and five or six years before I realized I was called to be a writer.)

Today Maitland and Eatonville have been fairly eaten by the Orlando megalopolis, but whenever I think of them, they were two sleepy towns separated from the rest of the world by miles of orange groves and pine woods.
Boy, I was eager to get out of there.

Hurston was one of the great writers of her age. Despite the fact much of what she wrote had to conform to expectations, she found a way to speak authentically in a voice that still resonates today.

wordtryst said...

Wow, Kevin, that's amazing. What a coincidence. Small world, isn't it?

You knew at 13 or 14 that writing was your vocation? You're lucky. I don't think I was clear on anything at that age, or for a long while after. For many years writing seemed an unattainable dream. Even in my twenties I felt that I had seen too little of life to write anything worthwhile. Then there was the fear business.

Even though Maitland and Eatonville sound pastoral and romantic, I can understand why a young man would want to get out, and fast.

Hurston's conservative politics really worked against her during her lifetime. I always feel a special hurt for artists who died like she did, alone and poor, and very likely thinking that their life's work had been rejected and lost forever. I hope they have some way of knowing otherwise.

kim said...

Great thoughts and comments. I've heard of her, but never have read her books -- perhaps that will change.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Great post.

I have to go back and re-read some of her work.

PJ said...

Interesting post. I read Their Eyes Were Watching God about a month ago, and I was also struck by the similarities between the dialogue in the novel and that of Caribbean patois (especially just after my recent trip to Jamaica). I wouldn't even attempt to write dialogue in this way, as I know I would fail miserably; it's a real skill.

I found the protagonist to be a complex character; at times inspiring, and at other times infuriating. Her beauty liberated her yet also limited her freedom.

Ultimately I found it to be a compelling story about our choices and their consequences.

wordtryst said...

Kim, I hope you do. I've read only one so far, but I plan to get my hands on the rest.

Nyc, thank you.

Pj - welcome. Interesting comments. You're right about the difficulty of writing dialect. I attempt it only in very small bites. And yes, I found the character extremely compelling, partly because I saw aspects of myself in her, and because the story underscored a piece of hard won wisdom on my part: make your choices, but better be prepared to handle the consequences.