I am currently obsessed with women authors of colour. The stories they tell are unique to their reality, stories that no one can tell but them. In Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Adichie, Jacqueline Woodson, Arundhati Roy, Maya Angelou, Sandra Cisneros, and Roxane Gay I discover a sisterhood that transcends time and space. My most recent love is Zora Neale Hurston.
When I was fifteen I read Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book blew me away, but I was unable to pinpoint how. Perhaps it was the way the characters came to life, almost as if they had been real to begin with. Perhaps it was Hurston’s writing style, a celebration of Southern folk traditions. Through her writing, Hurston wasn’t trying to be anything but herself. Perhaps it was the love story embedded in the larger narrative.
Like me, Hurston was a cultural mutt, a product of colonial rape and patriarchy. Like me, she told stories. Like me, she was lost, misunderstood, torn between worlds. I liked her, because she was a writer who seemed human. Connection was important to my fifteen year old self, and Hurston and I, we clicked like the final two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Now, nearly two decades later, I read her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. It was published in America in the early 1940s, when race was still an issue and the second World War was around the corner. It was dangerous to be fearless and Hurston was afraid.
In his introduction to Dust Tracks, Robert Hemenway criticized the woman who – according to my teenage memory – had been nothing but herself. “Dust Tracks fails as an autobiography because it is a text deliberately less than its author’s talents, a text diminished by her refusal to provide a second or third dimension to the flat surfaces of her adult image. Hurston avoided any exploration of the private motives that led to her public success. Where is the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God?”
I sat with Hurston in my mind, I held her hand, and I urged her to tell her story however she wanted to. It was her story. It was okay if she didn’t want to reveal her date of birth, if she spoke to blacks one way and to whites another. If was okay if she switched between her Southern, folk ways and her academic, writer life. It was okay if she hid parts of herself.
Hurston, in my imaginary conversation, really did become a sister. We spoke about discovering our voices, of being misunderstood. We spoke about conflicted relationships with parents and siblings, about colour taking up more space than it needed to (“I am not tragically coloured,” she said). We spoke about what it meant to be a woman in the times we occupied. We spoke about sadness (“People can be slave ships in shoes”). We spoke about love. And through it all, Hurston gave me – along with millions of her other sisters – the gift of uncertainty, of being human.
“I don’t know any more about the future than you do. I hope that it will be full of work, because I have come to know by experience that work is the nearest thing to happiness that I can find…I want a busy life, a just mind and a timely death.” Zora. Meaning ‘dawn.” Zora. That’s what I call her now.
(Pragya Bhagat is a spoken word poet and the author of two books, More Than a Memory and Yarn: An Interwoven Memoir. You can follow her work at facebook.com/PragyaWrites)