As a creative writer there are books that have left an indelible impression on my heart and mind: for their prose, use of metaphors, symbolism, and complex character development, just to name a few.
It is not often these works of literary genius cross my path, but when I find one, I cherish it forever. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of them. Out of the nine books I read this summer, this is one I wish I'd read 20 years ago.
Their Eyes is set in what I thought to be a fictional Eatonville, Florida. Hurston dropped her fictionalized characters into the setting so seamlessly it was hard to believe that Eatonville actually existed. It does and is, just as she describes in the book, the first Black township in America, established in 1886.
The heroine, Janie Crawford, tells a story of self-exploration, self-empowerment and self-liberation. She details the loss and then reclamation of her innocence as she grows and learns from her many experiences with gender issues and racism. Janie is strong and resilient in spite of the verbal, mental and physical abuse she receives from her husbands. She is rewarded when she meets the love of her life, Tea Cake, and marries him.
Hurston's use of metaphor was exceptional: the pear tree and the "dust-bearing bee" that "sinks into the sanctum of a bloom" represents Janie's first example of sexual intercourse – something she later finds missing in both previous marriages but discovers with Tea Cake.
Janie's grandmother compares to Black women to mules because "de is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see," which becomes ironic because both of Janie's husbands treat her as they treat their own mules: as a labor mule and status symbol.
Then there's Janie's hair, which is long and thick and beautiful, and catches the eyes of the town's men folk. Joe, Janie's second husband, makes Janie cover her hair shortly after they marry because her hair suggests she "had an inside and an outside now and suddenly knew how not to mix them." When Joe dies, Janie burns every head rag she owns in an act of liberation.
The most amazing part of the book was the dialect. I have always found it troublesome to read books written in dialect, usually because the characters came off sounding ignorant and stereotypical. I was pleasantly surprised to find it an easy read, and the characters were smart, witty and wise.
I fell in love with Their Eyes Were Watching God, because for the first time in my life, I read a book by and about Black people in which the characters were complex, complete and human; where a Black woman's character was based on self-exploration, self-empowerment, and self-liberation and how she constantly learns and grows from her complicated experiences with gender issues and racism.
After reading this book, I wanted to put down my pen and never write again. Of course, I realize I can't compare myself to other writers, I just have to learn from them.