Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston

Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston
Lucy Anne Hurston

Because the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston are important to the theme of my second novel, I’ve been rereading her novels and exploring recent biographies of her life. Among the literary gems I’ve had the joy to discover is a slender volume titled, Speak So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Lucy Anne Hurston.

Written by Hurston’s niece, this book has the feel of an intimate, family scrapbook. Short on text, but not on scholarship, Speak so You Can Speak Again, can best be described as an interactive package that traces Hurston’s journey from Eatonville, Florida, to her emergence as a literary star and bestselling author and cultural icon during the Harlem Renaissance and her subsequent decline into obscurity after her death in 1960. The pages are generously laced with beautifully crafted facsimiles of Hurston’s historic papers, handwritten notes, and photographs. As readers we are able to hold and read drafts from her novel, pages of handwritten poems, Christmas cards she designed, as well as, letters illuminating her relationships with other writers like Langston Hughes and Dorothy West. A CD of radio interviews provide an opportunity to hear Hurston talk in depth about her life as a writer, and we are able to hear her sing a chant she learned while collecting folklore in the Deep South. About the only thing missing from this impressive mix of artifacts and information are recipes, and as a foodie I really wanted to learn about the favorite meals of a literary genius.

When I first heard Hurston describe her writing process on the CD I was filled with more than a bit of awe. However, the document that truly touched my writer’s soul was the facsimile of two charred sheets from the draft of her novel Seraph on the Suwanee. The blackened pages, appearing as if they have been nibbled by flames around their bottom edges, are to me a poignant reminder of how even great genius can be crushed or destroyed by racism. In Seraph on the Suwanee Hurston wrote about white characters and their lives. The novel almost didn’t see the light of bookstore shelves because publishers of that era couldn’t believe that a black author, even one as talented as Hurston, could write about whites.

Hurston became a passionate fighter for the rights of black authors to write what she described as “incisive and full dressed stories” about African American culture. In 1950 she published an essay in the Saturday Evening Post, titled “What White Publishers Won’t Print.” The essay expressed her frustration with the publishing industry refusal to portray the full diversity of the black experience in America. Much of what she wrote in that essay is still true today and I believe she would be indignant that this is a battle that black authors and their allies are still waging.

The lack of recipes aside, Speak, So You Can Speak Again: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, is a wonderful slice of history that can be savored alone or used as an appetizer before the reading of a weightier biographies like Wrapped in Rainbows: The True Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd or Zora Neale Hurston’s own autobiographical feast, Dust Tracks on the Road.
Karen L. Simpson is a fantasy writer, quilter, historian, foodie, horse lover and soon to be author. My first novel will be published by Plenary Publishing in 2011. Chat with Karen on Twitter.


tanita✿davis said...

What a beautiful title. I find so many of the words of this woman ponderable and quotable. Great review.

Tayari Jones said...

Hi there, Sorry to reply in your comment block, but the email you sent me didn't have you email address! (I think the problem was with my software.) Thank you for posting the link to GWN on your page. I'd love to talk to you about ways we can collaborate. Please send me an email directly.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Interesting: I bet it never occurs to historians to look for recipes.

I love reading about the Harlem Renaissance. It always sounds like such an exciting, stimulating time - it really makes you wish you could have been there!!!

Unknown said...

I have this book - thank you for the reminder - I will pull it out of my library and revisit it!

Mrs. Pilkington said...

one of my all-time favourite titles! this is a great little book, thanks for featuring it.