Writings of the general word's body

Monday, September 03, 2007

Zadie on Zora

Zadie Smith wrote about Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God in Saturday's Review, ahead of the publication of a new Virago Modern Classic edition (Hurston remains on the ascendant; I have a 2003 Virago Modern Classic of the same book. It's to be a VM classic for the repeated time, it seems). Smith contends with the potential limitations of critical perspectives on Hurston, which insist that only a black woman can fully identify with her writings. Smith seems bent on departing from the path taken by Hurston champions like Alice Walker, talks all around it, and then concludes that in fact, her own very personal reaction to Their Eyes Were Watching God - is precisely because, like many have argued in the past concerning Hurston, "She is my sister and I love her."

Excerpt - In the high style, one's loves never seem partial or personal, or even like "loves", because white novelists are not white novelists but simply "novelists", and white characters are not white characters but simply "human", and criticism of both is not partial or personal but a matter of aesthetics. Such critics will always sound like the neutral universal, and the black women who have championed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the past, and the one doing so now, will seem like black women talking about a black book.

It feels important to distance myself from that idea. But by doing so, I misrepresent a vital aspect of my response to this book, one that is entirely personal, as any response to a novel shall be. Fact is, I am a black woman (I think this was the point my mother was trying to make) and a sliver of this book goes straight in to my soul, I suspect, for that reason. And though it is, to me, a vulgar absurdity to say, "Unless you are a black woman, you will never fully comprehend this novel", it is also disingenuous to claim that many black women do not respond to this book in a particularly powerful manner that would seem "extra-literary". Those aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God that plumb so profoundly the ancient build-up of cultural residue that is, for convenience sake, called "Blackness" (as, say, Kafka's The Trial plumbs that ancient build-up of cultural residue that is called "Jewishness") are the parts that my own "Blackness", as far as it goes, cannot help but respond to personally. At 14 I couldn't find words (or words I liked) for the marvellous feeling of recognition that came with these characters who had my hair, my eyes, my skin, even the ancestors of the rhythm of my speech. (While working in Florida, Janie and Tea Cake befriend the "Saws", workers from the Caribbean.) These forms of identification are so natural to white readers - Of course Rabbit Angstrom is like me! Of course Madame Bovary is like me! - that they believe themselves above personal identification, or at least that they are identifying only at the highest, metaphysical levels. His soul is like my soul. He is human; I am human. White readers often believe they are colour-blind. That is, until they read books featuring non-white characters. (I once overheard a young white man at a book festival say to his friend, "Have you read the new Kureishi? Same old thing - loads of Indian people." To which you want to reply, "Have you read the new Franzen? Same old thing - loads of white people.")

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