Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine VMC No. 276 (1934)

Two of Zora Neale Hurston’s published works are books of folklore and perhaps it was her background in anthropology that led her to recreate dialogue just as it was heard rather than consistently in “the King’s English”.

It was a fundamentally important decision and one which remains controversial: by using dialect (and isn’t that a complicated term as well? for don’t we all speak dialects but what the “ruling group” speaks is accorded an official, sanctioned propriety?) she can be viewed as either perpetuating stereotypes or as insisting on a new standard of value and reclaiming and celebrating her heritage.

It’s complicated.

Having read countless books on “how to write”, I have seen this warning many times: “don’t write in dialect”.

Certainly the majority of those advisors were white writers, so it’s important to consider the various influences behind this oft-repeated prohibition in considering its validity, but the question of whether fewer readers will read a book with sections that will slow their eyes’ movement across the page remains.

With a stack of 28 library books currently at hand, in addition to hundreds of my own TBR candidates constantly clamouring, I always consider how demanding a read will be when I debate including it in a reading month.

And, when debating whether to include Jonah’s Gourd Vine as one of my four choices for Black History Month reading, I did have to allow that Hurston’s novel would require some extra time.

Although just over 200 pages long, I knew it would take me longer to finish reading it than Dorothy West’s The Wedding or Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony (which are about the same length) and likely longer than Christina Longford’s Making Conversation and Ray Robertson’s Moody Food (each about 100 pages longer than J’sGV).

But just because sections of the dialogue are reproduced phonetically doesn’t make this particular reading experience any more demanding than that of Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (a novel half the length of J’sGV but written in poetic prose) or Ray Smith’s Century (an experimental novel recently reissued by Biblioasis which is also shorter than Hurston’s novel).

So for impatient readers, perhaps lyric prose and experimental novels should be added to the list of Reading to Avoid along with Hurston’s novels, but for those who love a good story and the sense of inhabiting another world while you’re reading it, Zora Neale Hurston’s writing is well worth the time.

For me, her dialogue adds to the verisimilitude of the story and, in the case of her first novel, both John and Lucy expanded beyond the page in part because of this additional dimension.

The characters at the heart of Jonah’s Gourd Vine have parents who endured slavery in the United States, and violence continues to permeate their everyday lives.

In the opening pages, John’s mother declares: “Lawd, Ah speck you done kilt yo’ pappy, John. You didn’t mean tuh, and he didn’t had no business hittin’ me wid dat raw hide and neither chokin’ me neither.”

We are drawn to John, who protects his mother, in this scene, but as the story progresses this, too, shifts.

John says, as a young man, “Naw, Ah don’t choose beatin’ lady people. Uh man is crazy tuh do dat — when he know he got tuh submit hisself tuh ’em”, but even in this statement it’s clear that the question of power — who has it and who does not, who wields it and who submits — underlies every facet of his life. It’s complicated.

“You think it’s dead but de past ain’t stopped breathin’ yet,” one character announces toward the novel’s close.

If you’ve already read Hurston’s wonderful Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), some aspects of J’sGV will not be surprising to you, but saying more than that would reveal too much about Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel.

And while John is clearly at the centre of it, it’s Lucy I will remember (just as I remember Janie and not so much Tea Cake,) primarily for the practical and touching advice she passes to her daughter. I’ll share the beginning of that passage here, but you’ll have to read the novel for the rest:

“…’member tuh git all de education you kin. Dat’s de onliest way you kin keep out from under people’s feet. You always strain tuh be de bell cow, never be de tail uh nothin’.”

Take some extra time for Zora Neale Hurston’s writing: it’s worth it.