The Sundial Book Club is reading Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" this March. The book, which is a favorite for high school students across the country, takes place in the real Central Florida town of Eatonville and follows a middle-aged black woman named Janie Crawford.
Eatonville is a special place for writers who make annual pilgrimages to honor Hurston and her contribution to American literature. There's an annual festival and a museum dedicated to Eatonville's favorite daughter.
N. Y. Nathiri is the Executive Director of the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.) and General Manager of the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities. She also has a unique link to Hurston. Nathiri started by sharing the unique relationship the writer has with the community.
Nathiri: We say that for Zora Neale Hurston and the Eatonville community there is a symbiotic relationship. If you look at your hand you have two sides. On one side we say there is Zora Neale Hurston and on the other side there is the town of Eatonville because, as she's called it her village, her home village, her native village.
Zora Neale Hurston is a charismatic writer, folklorist, and anthropologist and what she did in her writing was to really bring to life the primary research that she dedicated her life to, documenting the folkways and the traditions of people of African ancestry in the rural south, in the Caribbean, and elsewhere. And so in her literature there is a continual reference to the people of Eatonville and the community of Eatonville. Zora Neale Hurston has made Eatonville popularly known as the oldest incorporated African-American municipality in the United States and because of the dynamism and her fantastic storytelling. In fact Eatonville has become and is an internationally recognized literary destination.
WLRN: For people who haven't been, this is a small town that's just a few miles away from Orlando. How do you describe it to people?
We describe Eatonville as a jewel, a treasure that is representative of unique small town Americana. Some of your listeners may be familiar with the condensed Reader's Digest. Years ago there would be a standing article or component of that publication that featured out of the way, or little known treasures, of Americana, places that you might stumble on and once you had visited you were really enamored with the place. EATONVILLE is that historically significant part of the American saga. Maybe a little known, but because of Zora Neale Hurston, celebrated because of its history its heritage and its culture.
You have an interesting connection to Zora Neale Hurston. Please tell us about it.
I'm assuming you're referencing my mother. God willing, on April 20th [she will be] one-hundred and one years old. She knew Zora Neale Hurston as a child and in fact she and her sisters are referenced as the pretty Johnson girls in one of Zora Neale Hurston's folklore collections, Mules and Men. And so Zora Neale Hurston was a part of my family lore as I was growing up because my grandmother would talk about her and about how she was a famous person. In part my grandmother did that because she wanted to instill in us that just because we came from a little community it did not mean that we could not accomplish wonderful things.
When did you start reading her work?
Honestly, I started reading Zora Neale Hurston's work after the birth of my first child. So I was 25 or 26. I knew Zora Neale Hurston's folk tales from my grandmother because she would tell them as a part of our bedtime stories. But I did not read Their Eyes Were Watching God until I think I was probably 26. I read it when it was a Penguin Classic that cost 99 cents. The book now retails for, I think it is $14.95.
Thinking about the stories you grew up listening to from your relatives about Zora Neale Hurston, how did that shape the way you read, Their Eyes Were Watching God?
In fact I was very comfortable in reading it and I say that because on a consistent basis we hear teachers and sometimes readers say that they are a little bit uncomfortable initially with the dialect. Zora Neale Hurston writes Their Eyes Were Watching God in narrative but she is recognized as a master of the use of dialect as lyrical language. And so for me it was not a difficulty. And we always say to people if you read it aloud, don't trouble yourself with the apostrophes. But if you read it aloud you will really understand it very easily because it is the language without the Ds the Ts and the Es necessarily but easily understood because the word that's being written translates, as as it were, into comprehendible English.