July 13th, 2013


July Books 1) The Complete Stories of Zora Neale Hurston

Unpleasant things were ahead of Laura Lee Kimble, but she was ready for this moment. It might be the electric chair or the rest of her life in some big lonesome jail house, or even torn to pieces by a mob, but she had passed three long weeks in jail. She had come to the place where she could turn her face to the wall and feel neither fear nor anguish. So this here so-called trial was nothing to her but a form and a fashion and an outside show to the world. She could stand apart and look on calmly.
A couple of years back I was fascinated to read Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, and then back in January someone on my f-list posted a glowing review of this book (in a locked entry). This is, as I hoped, an awfully good collection. There are some journeyman pieces about love, lust and death in a small town; there are some awesome character sketches, a great story written in Harlem slang, and an unfinished novel telling the story of John the Baptist's execution from Herodias' point of view. I chose the quote above, from an account of a black person being wrongfully prosecuted for attacking a white man, for its eerie resonance with the racially charged trial currently taking place a hundred miles farther south. Some things take a long time to change.

The stories are topped and tailed by essays by Henry Louis Gates, but the gold nugget at the end, mysteriously not even mentioned on the contents page, is Alice Walker's account, "Looking for Zora", of how she tracked down Hurston's grave in 1973, 14 years after her death in 1959. It's an incredible tale of erasure, hidden history and exclusion. For the moment it's online here and well worth reading. It finishes:
There are times — and finding Zora Hurston's grave was one of them — when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. Partly this is because I have come to know Zora through her books and she was not a teary sort of person herself; but partly, too, it is because there is a point at which even grief feels absurd. And at this point, laughter gushes up to retrieve sanity.

It is only later, when the pain is not so direct a threat to one's own existence that what was learned in that moment of comical lunacy is understood. Such moments rob us of both youth and vanity. But perhaps they are also times when greater disciplines are born.
body paint

July Books 2) A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf

I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee's life of the poet. She died young--alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.
I wish I had read this twenty years ago, or perhaps better twenty-five years ago when I was still a Cambridge undergraduate myself. I wish, indeed, that Cambridge would make it compulsory consciousness-raising reading for all students (and perhaps academic staff too). It is a tremendous, passionate, witty and forensic analysis of the barriers faced women who try to get anywhere in literature, or indeed in almost any other way of life. One of the great feminist texts, and at 112 pages mercifully succinct.