Happy Women’s History Month! This March, our Reading into History Family Book Club is celebrating women’s history with a story about one of the most remarkable women of the 20th century: Zora Neale Hurston!
In 1928 Zora Neale Hurston graduated from Barnard College at Columbia University in New York City. She was not yet one of America’s most influential writers and anthropologists, but she had already accomplished amazing things—at the time, she was the only African American student at Barnard! When it came time to begin her research as an anthropologist, she pursued a project close to her heart, writing in the introduction to her book of Florida folklore, Mules and Men, “I thought about the tales I had heard as a child.”
At this month’s Reading into History Family Book Club, we’re exploring one of these Florida tales in Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon’s Zora and Me, a fictionalized imagining of Zora Neale Hurston’s early life. Bond and Simon’s book introduces us to a brilliant, curious young Zora, who is convinced that a mysterious local death is linked to “the gator-man,” a shape-shifting creature of lore. As we join Zora and her best friends on the case—and through a history of the Jim Crow South—readers come to see that truth is very complicated.
Join us on Sunday, March 10, to discuss the book and meet Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon! Both authors will be here at the Museum to chat about the book. Afterwards, together we’ll go on a special guided tour of Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean in our Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery to see art related to the book.
Meanwhile, check out our interview with Victoria Bond, and we’ll see you on Sunday, March 10!
DiMenna Children’s History Museum: What inspired you to embark on this project together? How did each of your different backgrounds, in anthropology and creative writing, inform the writing process?
Victoria Bond: A few months before Tanya [T.R. Simon] shared her idea with me for the Zora and Me series, I had been working on a novel that was going terribly. I asked Tanya to read it, and she also thought it wasn’t working. However—and I don’t know if she remembers this—she did say that one aspect of the failed manuscript that succeeded was the scenes where kids were front and center. Besides our friendship and highly compatible world views, I think that was a factor in her inviting me to work on the series.
On a different note, the thing that I brought to the first book, especially as someone who back then had just finished an MFA, was the conscious development of what I had been studying by way of tone and voice. After I agreed to co-write the series, I sat down and drafted the same scene from the perspective of different narrators. The one that narrates the first book, our Carrie, was the best to emerge from that exercise.
DCHM: What sort of research did you have to do to learn about Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood?
VB: I read Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on the Road along with two wonderful biographies, Wrapped in Rainbows by Valerie Boyd and Zora Neale Hurston by Robert Hemenway. Familiarity with Hurston’s life and work prepared me to occupy and script the world of her childhood. At the same time, the blanks in Hurston’s work and autobiography about her childhood sparked my imagination and helped me to establish ownership of our version of Eatonville.
DCHM: Hurston dedicated much of her career to collecting and recording folklore. Of all the tales she had in her collection and you consulted, why did you select the gator lore to weave into your book?
VB: It appealed to us mostly because Hurston, as a child, invented the Gator King herself as opposed to hearing the story in her youth or documenting it as an adult. At the start of Dust Tracks on the Road, Hurston writes of the Gator King and links the figure to a man in Eatonville called Pendir. For us, that link became a fundamental plot point.
DCHM: Zora Neale Hurston’s imagination and compassion very much drive the narrative of Zora and Me, but young Zora is not the narrator of this story. Instead, we see the world through the eyes of her best friend Carrie. What prompted you to write the story from Carrie’s perspective?
VB: Two things. First, I think we thought it would be a fool’s errand to try to write in Hurston’s voice, especially because we hold her in such high esteem and also because she was such a supreme stylist. Only Zora could ever do Zora! Second, Hurston’s life was full of so many broken relationships and hard feelings that out of our respect and love for Zora, we wanted to give her the friendship that she didn’t seem to have in life—one free of competition and built on a bond that could never be broken; a shared and sacred childhood.
DCHM: What five words would you use to describe Zora and Me?
VB: These are more my hopes and prayers for the novel than my description: wise, honest, compassionate, compelling, intelligent.
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Written by Caitlin O’Keefe