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How Zora Neale Hurston rewrote the rule book

Exploring the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance writer, who went on to influence generations of writers, from Toni Morrison to Bernardine Evaristo.

Only a few authors are lucky enough to have their latest release heralded as one of the most anticipated books of the year – it is nearly unheard of when they have been dead for six decades. But Zora Neale Hurston was no ordinary writer and there is much in this new edition of her short fiction that is deserving of the attention, especially considering her singular style, the times in which she lived and the influence she has had on others: there are echoes of Hurston in the work of novelists from Toni Morrison to Bernardine Evaristo.

Born in 1891 in Alabama, Hurston was the grandchild of slaves. The family moved to Florida when she was three. As a young woman, she worked as a maid, childminder and other odd jobs while she changed her age (making herself almost a decade younger) in order to complete high school. She went on to attend Howard University in Washington, DC, where she published some of her first short stories, before moving to New York to become one of the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston led a colourful life in which she crossed class and racial boundaries. She travelled across the US and the Caribbean working as an anthropologist and gathering folklore, which served as source material for her fiction. Hurston was friends with many of the well-known writers of the time, from Langston Hughes to Countee Cullen, but was not always considered in step with her peers, because of what was seen to be her lack of focus on black people’s exploitation and misery. Her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), for which she is best known today, was not a commercial success during her lifetime and was judged superficial by the novelist Richard Wright.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick is a fine collection of Hurston’s short fiction written between 1921 and 1937. Pulling together this collection took ten years of meticulous work by the editor Genevieve West, including the careful transcriptions of several “lost” stories retrieved from African-American journals that are no longer in print.

The 21 pieces are presented in the order in which they were first written, starting with Hurston’s earliest stories set in her rural hometown of Eatonville, Florida – one of the first all-black towns in the US, where her father became mayor – and then moving to the urban setting of Harlem, where she later lived. They range from the bittersweet – “John Redding Goes to Sea”, a story about a man who longs to travel – to the whimsical: “Drenched in Light”, featuring a precocious young child who likes to sit on her grandmother’s gatepost dreaming of the world as she watches it go by.

A longing for what lies beyond the narrow confines of a character’s world is a thread that runs through this collection. While most are fully drawn short stories, some, such as “The Eatonville Anthology”, read more like sketches for characters or scenes. Sections of these do indeed appear in later novels or plays, and their publication here gives the reader insight into Hurston’s development as a writer.

Perhaps emerging from her background as a sometime anthropologist, folkloric elements feature in many stories. “Magnolia Flower”, one of the strongest stories in the collection, is told from the perspective of a river. It’s a story within a story – a love story fraught with the legacy of slavery and racism.

Another story with folkloric elements is “Black Death”, which is also one of several cautionary tales in which a philandering man reaps what he sows or, to use the language of Delia from another cautionary tale, “Sweat”: “Whatever goes over the Devil’s back, is got to come under his belly. Sometime or wruther… everybody… is gointer reap his sowing.”

Hurston’s writing is often poetic and humorous, with a noticeable flair for anthropomorphising nature. Of the brook in “Magnolia Flower”, she writes: “When it encountered hard places in its bed, it hurled its water in sparkling dance figures up into the moonlight.”

For stories almost a hundred years old, it is astonishing how modern many of them feel. Several feature female characters that defy traditional gender norms, including Delia whose “habitual meekness seemed to slip from her shoulders like a blown scarf” as she stood up to her abusive husband, and Isis, the 11-year-old heroine of “Drenched in Light”, who refuses to behave in the manner expected of the “female persuasion”.

These characters anticipate Janie, the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel about a woman’s search for self and love. They may also reflect the author, who was as unconventional in her writings as she was in her own life (she married and divorced three times, the second and third lasting just a few months). It is perhaps no coincidence that in many of her stories the community at large is a character in its own right – a prying, judging, and often meddlesome presence that also appears throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God.

During the time that Hurston was writing, many of her contemporaries worried that her choice to use black vernacular was not presenting black people in a flattering light. Her insistence on using black idiom also proved to be what prevented her from publishing Barracoon at the time that she completed it. The book is a stunning, first-hand account of Cudjoe Lewis, one of the last people taken from Africa to the US as a slave. It opens with Lewis’s words:

“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me my name from cross de water but you. You always callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”

This one-of-a-kind story would remain unpublished until 2018. Today, the ability to write in various Englishes (and frequently the English of the marginalised) is widely admired in writers such as Marlon James, Anna Burns and Junot Díaz. Hurston may simply have been ahead of her time.

Hurston’s stories are contemporary not only in her use of idiomatic speech and in their concerns – be they race, class, or gender – but also sometimes in their experimental form. A few stories are written in a mock biblical register, as illustrated in these lines from “Monkey Junk”, a satirical take on court procedures in a divorce case:

46. And the young Pharisee questioned her gently and the jury leaneth forward to catch every word which fell from her lips.

47. For verily her lips were worth it.

By elevating her characters through biblical language, Hurston is also cleverly refuting the historical racist beliefs that black people are three-fifths of a person or descendants of the cursed sons of Ham.

Just as with Shakespeare’s plays or the celebrated works of Toni Morrison, there is added delight in hearing Hurston’s work read aloud. While few can read with the flair of the late Ruby Dee, whose narration of Their Eyes Were Watching God is an audio masterpiece, Hurston’s words beg to be spoken.

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick ends with a folkloric, exodus story, “The Fire and the Cloud”, featuring an imaginary conversation between the biblical character Moses and a lizard. As the story concludes, the lizard asks Moses why he is leaving his rod behind. “Joshua will pick it up,” says Moses. Reading this story as allegory, Moses might be Zora Neale Hurston and the rod her pen, left for future writers to take up. Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr – the first to collect Hurston’s short stories for a modern audience – writes in the afterword to The Complete Stories: “Hurston’s ideas about language and craft undergird many of the most successful contributions to African-American literature that followed.”

This includes the work of writers from Alice Walker who, in the mid-1970s, brought Hurston back from obscurity and found her unmarked grave, to the novelist Tayari Jones, who provides a terrific foreword to this edition. Many other authors, including Zadie Smith and Edwidge Danticat, have written compellingly about Hurston’s influence on their work.

While Hurston is of special significance to black women writers as a pioneering chronicler of ordinary black people’s lives, the universal themes of her work and the beauty of her language are for us all to enjoy. As Hurston herself once wrote, joyfully unabashed, “How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me!” 

Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s novel “Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” is published by Cassava Republic Press

Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick
Zora Neale Hurston
HQ, 304pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 19 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars