Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Zora Neale Hurston: Jump at the Sun

I have something rather scandalous to admit: I don't like Zora Neale Hurston. My dislike is twofold: I don't like the body of work the woman left, and I don't like the woman.

This is pretty terrible, because I am a Florida woman writer, and there is no Florida woman writer better known and more respected than Zora Neale Hurston. But everything I've ever read by her includes very meticulous phonetic dialect, and I absolutely despise reading things written that way.

Now I recognize that Hurston was "better at it" than, say, Harriet Beecher Stowe, that she studied the way people really did speak with academic thoroughness (and credentials), that she was no Stephen Foster, that she recreated spoken language with respect and care, not racist derision or in an attempt to caricature. But for me it doesn't matter. Books written in dialect make me want to tear my eyes out.

When words are misspelled in writing the effect created in the reader's mind is the opposite of the writer's intent: the characters are almost certainly not speaking slowly and haltingly, yet the reader hears it this way in her mind because the words take longer to read and are misspelled. In other words, by trying to be more true, the author creates an impression that is false. It's like recording people's real-life lunchtime conversations and then including the transcriptions in a book. You might be going for "real! lively! true! immediate!" but the effect is almost certainly going to be repetitious and distant and fake-sounding. Art is a strange world: photographs sometimes lie, photoshop sometimes tells the truth.

I'm sad to report that I'm completely in the mainstream with these opinions, at least when it comes to the opinions of writers. Writers today don't use dialect. We see it as an ill-conceived fashion from an earlier age, like bustles: uncomfortable and regrettable. Probably the best living writer who even comes close is Tim Gautreaux, and most others don't even try to do what he does, which is to just slightly change maybe just one word's spelling in a sentence, control word choice and rhythm, or use a repeating phrase to give the "impression of an accent." It makes the characters seem to be talking very quickly and casually and with a bit of a lilt. It is not anthropologically accurate, but it creates the right effect (and it is insanely difficult to do!).

So while Their Eyes Were Watching God is enjoyable (it's an uneven book -- poetic and literary at the start, then a sensational page-turner until nearly the end -- tho I enjoyed its turn from poetry to drama and back again), every time a character opens his or her mouth and starts to speak, I wish I weren't there.

Then there's Hurston herself. I knew much less about her before I watched Jump at the Sun. I basically knew that she was known for writing columns with reactionary politics and was pro-segregation. I know now that that's a pretty simplistic take on a very complex person.

I met Kristy Andersen, the writer-producer of Jump at the Sun, at a Creative Capital workshop, and she was generous enough to hand out copies of the DVD to anyone who wanted one. (The documentary originally appeared on PBS as part of its American Masters series.) I will admit I put off watching it for months, mainly because I've never had much of a taste for Hurston. What a mistake. A person doesn't have to be likable to be fascinating, and a documentary's subject doesn't have to be likable for the film to be compelling, and this is one of the most fascinating and compelling biographies I've ever seen.

And Hurston is not the villain I previously believed: she was certainly on the wrong side of history when it came to school integration (she opposed it) and black-white relations (she signed letters to her white patron, "your favorite pickaninny"), but she had her reasons, and like all people, she lived in the world she was born to and she did the best she could -- and in the end she lived an amazing life. She suffered greatly when the world turned past her time, and she was punished for the opinions she held during her lifetime. Her life was tumultuous and exciting. Her life is probably the greatest story she ever wrote.

Except that, within this documentary, it's Andersen who got to write this amazing real-life character, with the help of a truly impressive all-star cast of interviewees (including Alice Walker and Henry Louis Gates Jr., among others), who put Hurston into the perspective of her own time and of ours. More than anything, I see Hurston now as a person who grew up a good way in a bad world, and as a result seemed hard-wired to believe that the cure for the bad world lie in the way she grew up; she could see no other valid way.

I think this is true of a lot of writers: they're sure of their world-view -- so sure they can recreate it in words and convince people it IS the world. Hurston was certainly a self-interested person, stubborn, very funny and charming but also quick to offend. It was her way or the highway. It seems almost beside the point that her world-view happened to include politics and aesthetics that have no place in the 21st Century.

But then again, it's not. What if America still had segregated schools and segregated towns? Even assuming that they were genuinely "separate but equal," the segregation itself would change the kind of country this is. The US is by no means a perfect country, but I personally place a great moral value on the fact that we do not officially segregate ourselves in any way. Paving the way to the future always means cutting a path through long-entrenched bias -- just look at what's happening with same-sex marriage today! -- Hurston didn't like that process. It's a process that brings out the ugliest people in a society, sets them square in the face of the best souls, and has those twisted, hideous people spew their venom (and worse!) with spitting breaths. We ought to all be above that. Unfortunately, those in love with the past want to make us pay them for the better future we hope to make. Hurston was ambivalent towards the goal and disapproved of the price. I disagree with the positions Hurston took, but I can better see why she felt that way.

The documentary also includes a lot of film that Hurston shot herself of church meetings and children playing -- it makes a very interesting window into the past, but it also lets you, almost literally (since Hurston was usually running the camera) see the world through her eyes, see what she saw, how she saw it. It's a different world, but it's the world we came from. And her story, Zora Neale Hurston's story, is one of the best ever told. Kudos to Kristy Andersen for telling it so well!!

PS: I highly recommend this documentary -- it is entertaining and fascinating, a real masterpiece! You can buy it, rent it, or go to a screening.

EDIT/ADDED: If you want to show Jump at the Sun in an educational environment, contact California Newsreel (

1 comment:

nonooz said...

Amy, I've been out of town for two wks. and just now saw this interesting post of yours. Thanks for the mention, and for so thoroughly thinking about this. I'm glad no one has bashed you for your contrary opinions (as they did Zora). I would love to hear you and Zora go head-to-head about this - two opinionated tongue-wagging women - but I'll have to wait for the afterlife. Keep up the good writing. Kristy