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.

I hope so.

12 comments:

  1. On a considerably less elevated plane, I was listening to Billy Eckstine over my weekend and came upon him singing the song “I Left My Hat in Haiti.”
    ================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  2. In case you’re wondering:

    I left my hat in Haiti
    In some forgotten flat in Haiti
    I couldn't tell you how I got there
    I only know it was so hot there

    She took my hat politely
    And wound her arms around me tightly
    But I remember nothing clearly
    Except the flame when she came near me

    Her eyes had the glow of surrender
    And her touch, it was tender
    And with someone as fiery as that
    You forget about your hat

    So if you go to Haiti
    There is a girl I know in Haiti
    If you can find her you'll adore 'er
    Just look around 'til you've found
    Someone who has a blue-gray fedora

    Her eyes had the glow of surrender
    And her touch, it was tender
    And with someone as fiery as that
    You forget about your hat

    So if you go to Haiti
    There is a girl I know in Haiti
    If you can find her you'll adore 'er
    Just look around 'til you've found
    Someone who has a blue-gray fedora

    ================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  3. You know, I just have a feeling that Zora would have liked that one.

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  4. Here’s my favorite part:

    And with someone as fiery as that
    You forget about your hat

    ================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  5. The hat does date it, though...

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  6. You're right about that, though I saw two guys yesterday wearing those annoying little hats that look like fedoras but with tiny brims. (I think Sylvester Stallone wore one in "Rocky.") Bloody affectations.
    ================
     Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
     http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  7. I know the hats you mean. The affectation is "rat pack wannabe".

    I saw my nephew at Easter and he was sporting a replica of a Russian military hat. Adding a pair of dark glasses, he looked a bit like a bodyguard, though not really muscular in that sort of way.

    Wonder why hats go in and out of fashion. We should probably all be wearing hats right now, because of the thinning ozone layer, but personally I find them cumbersome.

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  8. Someone once suggested that the wearing of hats had accelerated an evolutionary tendency toward baldness. Perhaps with the trend reversed, we will have especially hairy headed descendants.
    ================
     Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
     http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  9. I think not.

    This reminds me, though, of an odd pattern at the bookstore. One of the things that seems to inexplicably happen to my coworkers is that at some point most of the women dye their hair and most of the men shave their heads. Oh, and everyone gets tattoos. None of this applies to me, of course, but I'm stubborn that way. I'm always fascinated by these shifts, though.

    Today I was trying to help someone find something in the children's section, and I turned to see a young man there. He was quite shorn and at first I didn't know who he was. But in fact he was one of my fellow employees. He looked a bit like a convict escaped from a Russian gulag, but I didn't say anything.

    Musing on all this, I eventually asked him what it had all been in aid of. He said that it was actually a bit of a mistake. His mother had been using one of those hair clipping tools and had gotten the wrong setting. One long swipe and there was no going back.

    He seemed to take it in remarkably good cheer though. That's perhaps because he got a new shirt out of it.

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  10. One of the things that seems to inexplicably happen to my coworkers is that at some point most of the women dye their hair and most of the men shave their heads.

    Fashion statements or, in the men's cases, perhaps, a pre-emptive strike against incipient baldness.

    But hats? Could the decline in hat-wearing in American coincide with the rise in authomobile ownership? Less need for a head covering if one is in a car all the time.

    Oddly enough I recently received a shirt from my mother, but I did not have to shave my head to get it.
    ================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  11. It probably helps to live not so close to one's mother and the kind of zeal that goes with hairclippers for the nonprofessional.

    It might be a bit like bread machines.

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  12. I am content to visit a good bakery near me most days, and a barber less frequently. I don't think my mother would try clippers or bread machines even if I were living closer to home. No need for the latter with good Montreal bagels close at hand.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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