I knew very little of Zora Neale Hurston before coming to this, save that she was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance and must-read of American literature. I’d been slow to pick it up, though, as I was expecting this to be the kind of book one needs to be feeling somewhat brave to read. In fact, though entirely conscious of the burdens placed on black womanhood, this is a book primarily focused on the richness of inner life, hard as its course might be.
After living half her life under the constraints of respectability, heroine (and that is exactly the right word) Janie travels south with her younger lover to work alongside him for a season’s growing. The astonishing fecundity of the Florida wetlands provides both setting and metaphor for Jeanie’s flourishing selfhood:
‘Everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobce, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild.’
Around the time I read Their Eyes Were Watching God, I also listened to Jhumpa Lahiri reading Primo Levi’s story ‘Quaestio de Centauris’ on the New Yorker Fiction podcast. Lahiri gives a captivating rendition, and Hurston’s depiction of farming on ‘the muck’ has merged in my mind with Levi’s account of the great shooting-forth after the flood:
‘When the waters retreated, a deep layer of warm mud covered the earth. Now, this mud, which harbored in its decay all the enzymes from what had perished in the flood, was extraordinarily fertile: as soon as it was touched by the sun, it was covered with shoots from which grasses and plants of every type sprang forth.’
In this blessed environment it’s love that enables Janie to realise her dream of herself, a dream she first had as a girl, of perfect harmony with the blossoming tree in her garden and, through it, all of creation. Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and ethnographer as well as a writer, and she renders the dialect of the South as a language of both day-to-day poetry and of rapture. Her characters are deeply realised and it is their speech – colloquial, warm, rich in wisdom and history – which carries the story. It is through these voices that a picture emerges of a world in which freedom, of both life and soul, is possible.
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee and published in the magazine June 15, 2015.