A Century of Women Who Changed Literature: the 1930s

 

Commissioned by Ponder journal

 

Hurston, a prolific folklorist and novelist who documented the African American culture of the rural South, died penniless in 1960. Her writings were tossed into a fire outside her house after her death, left to burn until a passing friend salvaged them from the flames. 15 years later, the renowned novelist Alice Walker would stoke a different kind of fire when her essay ‘Looking for Zora’ led to widespread recognition of Hurston’s talents.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s most famous novel, is as politically relevant today as it was in the 1930s. The novel’s controversial use of language brings the voices of those who are often silenced into centre-stage. The novel follows the tales of its protagonist, Janie Crawford, as she relays her life to her friend, Phoeby. Janie leads Phoeby through stories of her domineering husbands, the claustrophobic micro-politics of porch-side gossip, the Okeechobee hurricane and eventually, to her final love and partner, Tea Cake. The story is part set in Eatonville, an all African American town in Southern Florida where Hurston herself grew up.

 

The book caused a literary backlash after its publication for its extensive use of African-American dialect. Across a 1930s America still plagued with the racist ideology that had legitimised slavery just decades earlier, “serious” literature was equated with standardised English (the language of the media, universities, the “educated”). The judgements given to certain styles of speech and writing were often steeped in racist and classist hierarchies as white supremacist ideology had influenced the mainstream to see African-American dialect as proof of a lack of education and “non-seriousness”.

Despite pressures from the literary world to do so, Hurston refused to translate the African-American dialect of the novel’s characters into standardised English. Such a move would have culturally misrepresented the groups within the novel. Beyond this ideological choice, Hurston artfully plays around with the voice of the book’s narrator*. While the novel’s narrator begins by using standardised English, as the story progresses and Janie rids herself of her misogynistic husbands, the narrator progressively picks up Janie’s dialect. By the end of the novel, Janie’s voice seeps into the narrator’s: ‘‘Janie fooled around outside awhile to try and it wasn’t so”. Janie’s increasing control over the book’s narrative is symbolised by her emboldening refusals to speak at the behest of others. As Janie sat in court at the novel’s close: “She didn’t plead to anybody”.

Janie’s growing empowerment is mirrored by Hurston’s as a novelist – both women refused to mould their speech or writing to the racist and patriarchal hierarchies of early 20th century America; predictably, the novel yielded little success after its publication in 1937.

As a doctoral student in Anthropology, Hurston’s work forms a guide for how I aim to write. Anthropology, which Hurston trained in, is about understanding how groups and individuals comprehend the world from their given perspectives. Within anthropology, language is seen as a crucial way through which individual or group identity is formed – it’s integral to how people organise and comprehend their reality. Unlike many anthropologists at the time, Hurston refused to speak over those she researched and wrote about, allowing her to thrust the voices of communities into a domain which often relied on representations of such groups by others, which were misinformed at best and unequivocally racist at worst.

Taking Hurston’s example beyond 1930s America and anthropology, how would present-day European xenophobia be different if people listened to migrants’ voices more than their representation by right-wing papers like the Daily Mail?

 

*the term used by the literary critics Barbara Johnson and Henry Louis Gates

*the narrator of many of Hurston’s novels is often a non-personal voice which narrates the main events of the novel, distinguished from speaking characters (who are identified by speech marks).

A couple of thoughts about anti-Semitism and Labour

 

1) I’m going to vote Labour and from my perspective as a non-Zionist Jew, I do not synonymies anti-semitism with criticism of Israel (I acknowledge the latter can tip easily into the former). I think though, as Leftist Jews try to make sense of the Right-wing media’s stronghold over accusations of anti-semitism via Zionist Jews and figures like the ‘Chief Rabbi’, we can’t just say ‘criticism of Israel is not anti-semitism’ or the chief Rabbi is making things up when he states many British Jews are anxious at the thought of a Corbyn government.

To deny these statements assumes there’s one definition of anti-semitism, there isn’t. Anti-semitism, like most terms and categories, is constructed through one’s sociocultural perspective. As Jews come from different sociocultural perspectives/ positions, they will have distinct notions of anti-semitism. They will also have different fears and hopes for Jewish life. I assume that for many Zionist jews, they see critique of Israel as anti-semitism, as Israel it very important, if not central, to their Jewish identity and they see Israel as central to the posterity/ safety of the Jewish people. A leftwing government which criticises Israel/ supports Palestine will accordingly threaten their identity and feeling of security. Their fear is real to them, as if enough governments which are pro-Palestine get into power then Israel could be threatened via things like trade sanctions. Secondly, Corbyn is anti-semitic via their definitions and threatens the existence of Israel.

As much as I disagree with this Zionist perspective, the intense polarisation and miscommunication between Left and Right jews will only grow without genuine acknowledgments of our different sociocultural positions and the different ways we construct and define concepts – such as anti-semitism – through our own cultural logics. When you shout at each other ‘this is’ or ‘is not’ anti-semitism, we may use the same term but we’re talking about two entirely different things. To simply say this or that is not anti-semitism, this or that is not real fear, will not get us any where.

The above way of looking at things threatens liberalism and cultural relativism to the extent of political inaction, I don’t agree with this, but I think inter-group discussion and intervention should come from a place of cultural understanding (but not in the historical European colonial ‘lets understand to conquer’ way, but lets understand to talk and change things way (also a problematic stance but less so))

2) As a left, non-Zionist Jews I feel like my voice, and my loosely bound community’s voice, have been erased and misrepresented by the right wing media. I find it sad that the majority of journalists either don’t care enough about (mis)representation of minorities to do enough research about Judaism to know that the ‘Chief Rabbi’ does not represent all Jews. Of course, it benefits the right wing press to show Jews as a homogenous block as it adds weight to Corbyn anti-semitism claims.

People write about cultures (entirely different from their own) far too easily and with barely any research (I know this is also because of poor working conditions for journalists etc). For most minority groups, they watch themselves be (mis)represented by majority groups, instead of being given mainstream platforms to represent themselves.

(I’m not disavowing anti semitism in the Labour Party / I know both Zionist and non-Zionist jews dont vote for labour solely on their Israel stance but other instances of anti semitism. I do think the anti semitism in Labour has been inflated and taken out of context of the anti semitism manifest in wider society)