Tag Archives: Africa

Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

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Dust Tracks on a Road #BlackLit #Autobiography

Dust Tracks on a Road is Hurston’s autobiography, though it doesn’t read like a traditional autobiography. The book is broken into sections. First, it reads like the story of her life, but then she moves into chapters about friendship, collecting folktales in the Caribbean, bringing “true Negro dancing” to the the U.S., and what it means to be an individual instead of a member of a race. Hurston died in obscurity in (1891- 1960). As scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. notes in the afterward:

Hurston’s fame reached its zenith in 1943 with a Saturday Review cover story honoring the success of Dust Tracks. Seven years later, she would be serving as a maid in Rivo Alto, Florida; ten years after that she would die in the County Welfare Home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prize-wining autobiography virtually “disappear” from her readership for three full decades?

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In 1975, Alice Walker (the author best know for The Color Purple) wrote an essay about Hurston, which was published in Ms. magazine. The article launched a Hurston revival, and more people have read Their Eyes Were Watching God between 1975 and today than did between 1937 and 1975.

Dust Tracks on a Road begins with a bit about the development of Eatonville, Florida, starting with two Brazilians. For reasons not fully clear to me, black and whites worked together to help black folks create Eatonville, which is sort of attached to Maitland, Florida (the geography is confusing). Hurston explains, “Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town — charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” For this reason, Hurston is not aware of racism to the extent that other black Americans are; not once to my memory does Hurston mention an incident involving race in this book.

Unexpectedly, I visited Eatonville a few weeks ago. I visited my ol’ Granny for spring break, leaving behind the mushy Indiana weather. One day at breakfast, while wearing my “Zora t-shirt,” I began to discuss the writer and explain her hometown. A quick tango with Google revealed we were only about an hour from Eatonville, so we made the trip.

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We didn’t stay too long, but we ate Jamaican lunch at Momz’s, visited the Zora Neale Hurston museum, and tried some key lime cake at Be Back Gordon’s Fish House (don’t you love that name??). Some things had a Maitland address, while others were Eatonville, though all locations were within blocks of each other. Everyone simply calls it Eatonville.

 

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Understanding Eatonville is key to understanding Dust Tracks on a Road. It’s also important to know about “the Dozens,” which Hurston doesn’t explain in detail, but is a game played in black communities that has become part of the culture. I cover “the Dozens” when I teach African American literature. “The Dozens” is cleverly insulting someone, and while the person doing the insulting may not have any formal education, people get creative. When Hurston first goes north, she learns that she is different. Southern children are “raised on simile and invective. They know how to call names.” Here is a great passage that may help you next time someone has it coming:

It is an every day affair to hear somebody called a mullet-headed, mule-eared, wall-eyed, hog-nosed, gator-faced, shad-mouthed, screw-necked, goat-bellied, puzzle-gutted, camel-backed, butt-sprung, battle-hammed, knock-kneed, razor-legged, box-ankled, shovel-footed, unmated so and so! Eyes looking like skint-ginny nuts, and a mouth looking like a dishpan full of broke-up crockery!

There is a mean little person in me that loves this list, mainly because I have learned from my own story-driven kinfolks that name-calling is one of the richest places to get inventive. Hurston uses idioms the entire book, making it a rich read.

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Hurston has a book titled I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…& Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive (ed. by Alice Walker)

This is an autobiography full of storytelling, because that’s the heartbeat of her community. One time, her “Aunt Cal’line” tripped a lady off the church steps to see if she was wearing underwear; the woman was not, so Aunt Cal’line spit on her naked bits and rubbed the spit in with her foot. One time, Hurston tried to kill her stepmother with an ax. One time, Hurston interviewed one of the last living slaves who came from Africa. He was in his 90s and wondered if his kinfolk in Africa still missed him. Sadly, Hurston’s studies revealed that whole village had been murdered the day he was captured by a rival African village and sold into slavery.

It’s possible that Hurston’s unique upbringing is what makes her one of the most independent thinkers I’ve ever read about. She fits with almost no one from her time. When other blacks in America (and not all are African American, hence I use “black”) are fighting for equality, Hurston sympathizes with the black man who owns a barbershop that served only whites. One day, a black man comes in and demands to be served, but everyone throws him out. If rumor got around that the owner had served another black man, his white clients would not only ruin his business, but he would have to close the 6 other shops he owned. Hurston argues that helping one black man achieve equality wasn’t worth all the jobs the black employees had.

In fact, Hurston took a while to even begin writing a book because she was told “Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem.” She argues she doesn’t want to talk about the “Race Problem” and spends an entire chapter explaining why — mainly that she judges folks individually, not as a group. Hurston gives explains the feeling of “hopeless resignation”:

For example, well-mannered Negroes groan out [“My people! My people!] when they board a train or a bus and find other Negroes on there with their shoes off, stuffing themselves with fried fish, bananas and peanuts, and throwing the garbage on the floor. . . . Now, the well-mannered Negro is embarrassed by the crude behavior of the others. They are not friends, and have never seen each other before. So why should he or see be embarrassed?

Hurston goes on to argue that the “well-mannered Negro” feels so badly because people focus on race instead of pointing to the folks dumping the trash on the ground as problematic individuals. I know that this viewpoint will cause a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of race solidarity, but I applaud Hurston for arguing her point carefully. She has an entire chapter entitled “My People! My People!” in which she discusses what she calls race pride, race prejudice, race man, race solidarity, race consciousness, and race. “My people” is always said with an “ermehgerd” sort of tone, as if the person can’t believe how embarrassing other people in their race can be.

Overall, whether you agree with her opinions or not, Hurston brought African dance, music, and stories into the United States. She made it okay for black men and women to write using their own tongues (dialect, idioms, words that live under the words) when many authors thought they had to write in Standard English to be accepted (I wonder if some of those writers thought, “my skinfolks but not my kinfolks — my people!” about Hurston…).

If you love language, you have to read Zora Neale Hurston. If you love independent women, you have to read Hurston. My only regret is that I can’t describe and quote everything I highlighted. I’ll end with a Fun Fact:

This independent lady was a writer and an anthropologist, and it was rumored that when she would hang out with famous poet Langston Hughes in Harlem, she would stop random people and ask if she could measure their skull circumference.

Extra Goody: listen to this five minute interview in which Hurston describes what a zombie is. She met them in Haiti, you know…

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture

This post is to update you on whether or not I was brave enough to ask for an autograph at the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lecture I attended last night at Saint Mary’s College. During the summer, between semesters, I work at the front desk in dorms at this women’s college; therefore, I know the place pretty well. I arrived a bit after 7:00 to find the entire lobby of the building packed. I moved to the front and got my will call ticket, which put me right by the doors that would soon open so we could all enter the auditorium. Like I said, I’m familiar with the buildings on the Saint Mary’s campus, so I was able to walk right to the front and get the closest possible seat. The seating was not assigned, which I always think is a mistake for a popular event.

Somehow, two undergrads from the University of Notre Dame reserved their seats. The young man, a junior, was hard core fan-girling. He said, “Oh, my god” about a dozen times in a row (literally). I told him I was auto-correcting him in my head. He then apologized, thinking I was upset that he was using the lord’s name in vain in a Catholic college setting. It wasn’t that, I said, but the fact that he was stuck on repeat.

Two young students, women of color, asked me if the seats on the other side of me were taken, and I said no. They were so surprised because the whole place was packed. They wouldn’t stop saying “Shut. Up.” “Shut. Up. Oh, my God, shut. Up.” I remember doing what people now call “fan-girling” myself upon seeing the faces of Salmon Rushdie, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Jeanette Winterson, and Lidia Yuknavitch. But I felt different, more grown up. Like I’ve reached the age that even though I know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a big deal, I also know she’s a person. And I’ve been to so many lectures and readings that they’re starting to sounds the same, no matter where the person is from.

First, Adichie delivered a 30 minute lecture. Then, she took questions for an hour. I discovered there were a number of Nigerian students in the audience who had come from nearby colleges, students whose parents are from Nigeria, but they are not. Here are some of the main points Adichie made during the event. I tried to get the wording as close to her’s as possible, but really it’s all paraphrased because I couldn’t record the lecture.

She made the point that feminists can’t just critique, they have to do something. Here, I was immediately reminded of my experience reading Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I’d read Gay’s articles online and always found them insightful but puzzling. Why, I couldn’t figure out. When I read a collection of these essays altogether, I realized what it was: Gay has many things she critiques, but rarely in her book did she have some sort of suggestion to do something about the problems.

Women are complicit in demeaning women and hurting feminism. This one is easy to see in everyday life. Women constantly tear each other down, and I’m sure you all see it.

Women shouldn’t worry so much about what men who aren’t feminists think. They’re going to think it anyway. Worry more about raising children to be feminists. Adichie also added the point that a wife can find a fairly balanced man and then shape him by teaching him. Hoping that a whole generation of women across the globe will raise their sons differently is beautiful, but this also neglects the effects of other people who are not in the same age cohort as children raised as feminists. Adichie was responding to a question from the audience, and it seemed like the real point was ignore the trolls.

Professional women feel like they can’t talk about the surgery they did or the class they taught, but reassure everyone their husband is cared for in order to be forgiven for having a job. This is a point with which I am familiar, but I guess I never thought of it as feminist guilt. I always thought women were trying to show the world they are do-it-alls. This point definitely gave me something to think about.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel set during a war that is not far in our past. They people involved are still alive, and so when her book came out and she did her first event, people yelled at each other, which she said she found quite delightful because now they were talking about it. She also said that if a writer is going to write about a period in history, especially a recent and contested one, then they’d better get it right, factually. I enjoyed this answer Adichie gave to a question from the audience. I’ve read too many books and seen too many movies that romanticize tumultuous periods. It’s one of the main reasons I won’t go see the movie Race even though I love Jesse Owens. What are the chances that film ends with the true end of his story: Owens being so poor because he can’t get a job in American because he’s black, so he starts running races against horses to entertain white people?

There are so many problems in the world, and when people write back to those things, they are not writing art. I would have liked to hear more about this comment from Adichie. Many readings I’ve attended emphasize that when we see obstacles in life, writing will help us make sense of them. I came away puzzled by this comment.

A professor from a nearby college asked how to say the names of the characters in Americanah. One of the names is hard to say, Adichie told us, even in Nigeria, because Adichie likes to be difficult. She says she used to read Russian books growing up and didn’t even try to say their names, they were always “the one who starts with an I.” She thought this all was quite funny, and the audience did, too!

An African student who identified as a writer asked if Africans must write books that are political. Adichie said no, and said she knew a few African authors who write genre stories. There didn’t seem to be many examples, though! It was a good question!

A black student asked Adichie what her advice would be to women of color navigating college. Adichie’s first piece of advice was step 1, throw away the weave. The author laughed a lot and seemed delighted by the questions asked of her. She described watching YouTube videos about natural black hair when she feels stuck writing, and everyone laughed. There were a lot of women of color in the audience. She said natural black hair is about doing something for yourself, and pride.

After the reading, one of the fangirls next to me asked if I liked the event. I paused for a long time and said it was good. I’m sure she thought this meant I didn’t really like it. Who doesn’t just say, “YES!” right away?

I realized I was a million miles away from being a fangirl undergrad like I once was and that instead of being in awe of speakers, I forget they are famous and think about the messages, their practicality, and where I’ve heard those messages before. I’m constructing patterns in my head. The ideas about global perspectives and compassion that Adichie talked about reminded me of things Salman Rushdie said at a lecture in Lansing, Michigan, in 2005. He said, “For God’s sakes, open the world a bit.” Adichie also made a strong connection to the people of color in the audience (without ignoring anyone else) like Nikki Giovanni did at Central Michigan University in 2008. There were so many black students, both college and high school, at the Giovanni event who came to hear what she had to say about black lives in contemporary America. Adichie did the same, but added a multi-cultural perspective as a Nigerian.

In the end, there were no books for sale and no book signing. I think the many, many people I saw sitting around me, clutching their copies of her book eagerly, were super disappointed. I’m okay with that; I’ll head to the library.

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How They Spend Their Sundays

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How They Spend Their Sundays

how they spend their sudaysHow They Spend Their Sundays
by Courtney McDermott
Whitepoint Press, 2013
229 pages

Courtney McDermott’s first book, a collection of stories set in South Africa and Lesotho, comes in three sections: Part One contains story-length pieces of mostly straightforward narrative that focuses on experiences (work, love, education, racism, biological ties). Part Two contains flash fiction revealing a moment or a feeling, and Part Three is what I thought of as the genre section. Although all three sections are strong, I enjoyed the longer pieces more. The shorter pieces are not poorly written; it’s that the long pieces were places of escape that fully immersed me elsewhere. Appearing throughout are unfamiliar words, perhaps Sesotho, though I am not always certain. In some cases, the words appear to be defined just after the italicized foreign word, though this isn’t always the case, and it’s not always clear. Regardless, the use of the language strengthens the collection as a whole, increasing the ethos of the author.

There are stories that you read and then there are stories that transport you outside of your body; McDermott writes the latter. It’s entirely possible to forget you’re in public or how long you’ve been sitting while reading this collection. Part of it has to do with the way McDermott doesn’t overly focus on the setting, with which, I would take a chance and argue, most readers will be unfamiliar. Select images and items from the setting are described briefly, just enough to place the reader somewhere solid. These images and details represent a larger picture. For instance, whether or not someone has boiled water, a rusted-out car with a steering wheel made of wire, or shaved heads of children to dissuade lice. Instead, the focus is on the people and the way attitudes differ between characters. Although there is shared human experience, I would also argue that McDermott’s collection doesn’t try to argue that everyone is the same, either. There is a respect for the fact that humans do differ in their experiences and that those differences are of value. A few times it is noted that the ability to drive as a major life accomplishment, one that does not mean freedom to travel and visit friends, as it does in the U.S., but a successful life. In the first story, though, a group of friends, all of whom but one are gay or lesbian, gather secretly for a party, a fear that translates to other people, cultures, countries.

McDermott’s style is mostly straightforward storytelling, though she incorporates unusual images at times that show, yes, this is a Courtney McDermott piece. The beginning of “The Secrets of Mothers and Daughters” contains one such instance:

“There he was: a peeled apart version of the man simply known as my father. He was a man knocked apart and carelessly rebuilt. First it has stripped his appetite, leaving the skin in rows of dried petals sewn onto the bones that had been gnawed away. These bones (they had carried my brothers and sisters, had worked in fields, driven cattle) had been twisted apart from the joints, the blood drained from his face, his gums gored and left weeping blood.”

As the father dies, he comes apart like the organic matter he is, emphasized by words that could describe a dying plant, like “petals” and “twisted.”

There is much happiness in McDermott’s collection. A young woman makes love for the first time, knowing that disease, like AIDS, is a constant threat. It is worth it, though, for the experience: “As he reaches for her, she cries–out of happiness in love–but out of sadness too. That this may be her last time, as well as her first. But nonetheless a brilliant time, when her eyes are stars and he calls her name.” This is a strength of the collection: a good balance between the life experiences worth taking risks for and the reality of the situation. Children may live in desperate poverty, but they will find ways of enjoying each other’s company. Mothers may live in fear of human predators, but understand that all humans have needs that must be met.

McDermott’s collection is full of surprises, rich storytelling, and hard-to-forget characters. Her real talent is in respect for observation, and for that reason, I expect to see more books from her soon.

Interview with Courtney McDermott

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Did you journal a lot while in the Peace Corps? If so, what did that journal look like? (notes, sketches, full stories?)

Journaling is practically an essential part of surviving Peace Corps. Most Volunteers I know journal at some point during their service. I wrote in my journal most days.The journals I kept contained a series of vignettes, notes about people and places I didn’t want to forget, and ideas for stories that I wanted to write. Sometimes my journal entries were rants or doodles, depending on my mood. But mostly they were snippets of (personal) stories.

What made you decide to write genre pieces (Part 3 of your collection)?

“Genre” is a misleading term. Technically, “literary fiction” is also a genre. I didn’t set out to write pieces that qualify as “genre.” Rather, as with most everything I write, I start out with character and a set of questions. So for “Evenings With Hilda” I asked: how might someone deal with the AIDS epidemic in a complicated moral or “humane” way? Or for “An Apocalyptic Search for Water,” I  was inspired by my rural isolation in the village where I lived. At times, I felt like the last person on earth, and that got me wondering: what would it be like to be the last person on earth in a place which often already seems desolate? Because I read a variety of literature, and I enjoy fairytales and horror stories as much as the Classics, I am influenced by that range and I wanted to demonstrate that range within the collection.

What was your approach to including non-English words in your stories? Did you want them italicized, not italicized, explained, vague, etc?

Originally, I didn’t want any of the non-English words to be italicized. If my characters were native Sesotho speakers, then why would those words be italicized? Ultimately, I made decisions based on the narrative–whose perspective is relaying the story and would these words be familiar to them or not.

Has anyone ever challenged your “right” to write about South Africa and Lesotho culture as a white woman from the United States? I’m thinking of issues of representation and who gets to create the stories of whom.

No one ever has challenged me. Should people challenge me if I’m writing about a man? Or an 18th-century aristocrat? Or an American mother of two on welfare? I’m not a man, I’m not dead, I’m neither a mother nor poor, and yet few people would challenge me to write about these characters’ experiences. I write about people. I wrote a book about southern Africa because it is part of my life experience, and with any life experience, I write about it to understand it. The core component to making any story effective, in my opinion, is to have a rich imagination that allows you to fully empathize with people. My capacity for empathy enables me to write about the range of characters that are in my book. And I think part of the reason people don’t challenge me, is because they feel for my characters, see a sliver of themselves within them. My characters bear difficulties, fall in love, face their fears, experience boredom, dream, eat, have sex, laugh–and not because they are African or from a particular culture that is “Other” than mine, but because they are human. At the end of the day, I’m attempting to tell a good story. Period.

Are you working on any new projects?

Yes, I am! I’m finishing up two projects right now. The first is a novel set in rural Iowa, where I’m originally from. It’s a coming-of-age novel that tackles some of the pressing social issues of small-town America–everything from gay marriage to immigration to the role of organized religion. The second is a more experimental novella about a failed mathematician on a downward spiral. I’m currently writing it in a day planner, which has created the structure of the piece. It includes many word and number patterns and math formulas built into the text, which has been a fun and creative way of writing.

*Courtney McDermott and I attended the MFA program at the University of Notre Dame together in 2009-2010. Therefore, I’m sure unintentional bias exists in my review as a result of me wanting my peer to do well in her writing endeavors.