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.