It's more than four months old, but it's still worth reading...
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Tell My Horse, by Zora Neale Hurston
I'm very absorbed in the life of Zora Neale Hurston these days. Coincidentally, this book on Hurston's travels to Jamaica and Haiti was a book group choice, based on a group desire to learn a little more about Haiti in the aftermath of this year's devastating Haitian earthquake. Although for me, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God remains the benchmark, this book proves how engaging a writer Hurston is in more ordinary circumstances. (Though how I can use "ordinary" in a description of a book that includes wild boar hunts and zombies, I don't know.)
Hurston is known most famously as a novelist, but she also studied anthropology under Franz Boas, and spent countless hours collecting African-American folklore throughout the south. Her journey to the Caribbean was of an anthropological nature as well. What remains interesting are her intent to keep her findings accessible to the general public and her viewpoint, which was detached without being remote, and treated the cultures she studied with an uncondescending respect.
"Tell My Horse" or parlay cheval ou in Creole, refers to the time when a person is 'mounted' by the spirit or loa, Guede. Possession or assumed possession by the loa gives the person a kind of permission to speak in the voice of the god, often saying things that he or she would not dare to say in real life. It reminds me a bit of the tradition of the Holy Fool in Russian Orthodox Christianity. I hadn't thought till now that Hurston's choice of this title may be telling.
Although the book is not the tightest she ever wrote, it is full of fascination. The fact that fascinates me the most, though, is one that doesn't appear in it. While Hurston was in Haiti--"after hours" so to speak--she sat down and wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in six short weeks. Personally, I consider the novel one of the great books of the twentieth century. Hurston wrote it so quickly and mentioned so little about the travails of doing so, it makes me wonder if she had any idea of what a gift she bestowed upon us.