The following interview by Felicia Pride first appeared in the Back List (www.thebacklist.net), a publishing and literary newsletter of African-American interest.
What can you say about these two pioneering women? What can you say about their immense contributions to literature or their independent and unwavering spirits? It is undeniable that these two women writers have had profound effects on readers and writers around the world. Two of these admirers, Valerie Boyd and Evelyn C. White, have shown their gratitude by penning extraordinary biographies, which offer incredible insight into the lives of Alice and Zora.
Valerie Boyd's Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, was hailed by The Washington Post as the definitive Hurston biography; by the Boston Globe as elegant and exhilarating; and by the Denver Post as a rich, rich read. The biography won the 2003 Southern Book Award for best nonfiction of the year and an American Library Association Notable Book Award. Boyd recently received the 2004 Georgia Author of the Year Award in nonfiction. She is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and the former arts editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Evelyn White's Alice Walker: A Life is the authorized biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. White is also the author of Chain Chain Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1994) and editor of The Black Women's Health Book: Speaking For Ourselves (Seal Press, 1994). White earned a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard University and is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. For nearly ten years, she was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Currently, White is a Visiting Scholar in Women's Studies at Mills College in Oakland, California and serves on the advisory board of Ms. magazine.
Read how Valerie Boyd and Evelyn C. White explored and documented the lives of two dynamic and important American writers.
BackList: How did the opportunity to document Zora Neale Hurston's and Alice Walker's lives come about?
Evelyn C. White: In the early 1990s, after witnessing the controversy surrounding The Color Purple, I wrote a five-page letter to Alice asking if I could write her biography. At first, she said "no", very graciously. About a year later, she invited me to her house for lunch and said that if I still wanted to write the book, we could go forward.
Valerie Boyd: I felt a really strong connection with Zora Neale Hurston when I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1981, during my freshman year of college. I was just amazed that a book published in 1937 could speak to me so clearly and so resonantly through the decades. After that, I read everything I could find by Hurston and everything I could find about her, including Robert Hemenway's 1977 biography of her. By 1990, when the first Zora Neale Hurston Festival was held in her hometown of Eatonville, I had become a full-fledged Zora enthusiast. So I attended that festival with a group of friends. We had such a good time that we decided to make it an annual pilgrimage.
Then, at the 1994 Hurston festival, Hemenway gave a talk in which he critiqued his own book, pointing out things that he felt he'd missed -- as a man writing about a woman, as a white person writing about a black person. He said, "It's time for a new biography to be written, and it needs to be written by a black woman." Well, when I heard those words, I just had this knowing that this was something I would do. I had been a journalist for more than ten years by then, working as a writer and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and writing freelance stories. But the idea of writing a biography of someone as elusive and complicated as Zora Neale Hurston was daunting, and I couldn't figure out how to fit it into my life at the time. So I just put it on the back burner: "Maybe in ten years, I'll be ready to do it," I told myself. But it seems that Zora had other plans. About a year and a half later, I got a call, seemingly out of the blue, from a young literary agent, John McGregor, who'd gotten my name from a friend. He was looking for someone to write a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, and he wanted to know if I was interested. Well, at that point, I just felt that the big finger of Fate was pointing at me -- like this was something I was destined to do. So I had no choice but to say yes.
BackList: How did your journalist backgrounds come into play when writing the biographies? Can you two talk a little about your research process?
Valerie Boyd: My background as a journalist gave me the ability to write the biography in an accessible way. I wanted Wrapped in Rainbows to be the kind of book that would appeal to a wide range of readers: scholars and academics, sure, but also ordinary people -- the kinds of people Zora spent her whole career chronicling and celebrating. So, as a journalist, I was able to approach the writing that way: even though the book is based on nearly five years of research and contains hundreds of pages of end notes, the writing itself is very accessible, purposefully so. The emphasis is on narrative, on telling the story of Zora's life in a tone that matches the exciting and accessible way that she lived it.
My journalism background also helped me in researching the book, which was a twofold process. First, I had to interview anyone I could find who knew Hurston, who had firsthand memories of her. Because she lived from 1891 to 1960, anyone who actually knew her as a peer would have been quite elderly by the time I was doing this research, in the mid-90s. So I felt it was important to do the interviews first, while the witnesses to Zora's life were still around to tell the story. And, of course, my experience as a journalist helped me to track these people down and also to interview them effectively, to prod them to revisit and share their memories and experiences of Zora.
The second tier of my research was archival. I visited several archives where her papers are housed, collecting thousands of pages of letters that she wrote and that others wrote to her. Everything that was in her possession at the time of her death is at the University of Florida in Gainesville, so I spent several weeks there. Much of her Harlem Renaissance correspondence is at Howard University, several of her original manuscripts are housed at Yale, and the material she collected as an anthropologist is at the Library of Congress. So I spent several weeks in each of these archives, digging for clues to Hurston's extraordinary life.
Evelyn C. White: As a journalist, I understood, as Robert Frost wrote in his poem, "Mowing" (1913) that: "The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows." I turned my attention, immediately, to investigating the "who, what, when, where and why" of Alice 's Walker 's life story. I understood that my first task was to interview the major players in her life who were elderly and/or confronting life-threatening illness. Additionally, I knew that it might take a while to secure interviews with the famous people connected to Alice 's life -- i.e. Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Danny Glover -- essentially the folks in the film version of The Color Purple. I wrote letters to all those people early on, apprising them of my project and requesting interviews. I made it clear that I understood the demands on their schedules, but would drop everything to interview them when they gave me the greenlight. I interviewed all of them eventually. I also subscribed to the Sunday edition of The New York Times -- suspecting that there would be much information in the paper that would be of use to me over the years. I hired, early on, a woman to transcribe my tape-recorded interviews. That also helped enormously.
BackList: Valerie, in what ways did you want to expound upon Robert Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography ?
Valerie Boyd: Hemenway's book was a great roadmap for me. It was a foundation upon which I could build. Hemenway clearly set out to write a scholarly book, a literary biography. I wanted to write about Zora Neale Hurston as a writer and a woman in full. I wanted to delve into every aspect of her life, whereas Hemenway seemed to have some reservations about exploring her personal life, her friendships with women, her spirituality and other things that he himself has pointed out as omissions from his book. Because I am a black Southern woman, I felt very close to Zora, as if I could paint a picture of her life almost from the inside out. I wanted to give readers a sense of what it was like to be Zora, to walk in her shoes, to live inside her skin. I have had readers tell me that, when reading my book, they felt like they were walking beside Zora every step of the way. I love hearing that, because that was my intention. And Hemenway himself -- who is an extraordinarily generous scholar -- has told me that he felt he got to know Zora better from reading my book than from writing his own. Given how important and essential his book is, that's the highest of compliments.
BackList: Evelyn, what kind of pressure did you face to ensure that you were able to tell the story of Alice Walker's life honestly and accurately? How did Walker receive the finished biography?
Evelyn C. White: All of my pressures were self-imposed. I did not want to fail my African ancestors. I was able to hand-deliver the biography to Alice on Friday, September 17, 2004 -- backstage after the Atlanta try-out premiere of The Color Purple musical -- which is scheduled to open on Broadway in Fall 2005. It was a wonderful moment. Alice has since told me that she loves the book and cries every time she reads it. She called the book "a model of love and integrity." As you can imagine, those words mean a great deal to me.
BackList: Both books have a wonderful mix of reportage, interpretation, storytelling and literary writing. How were you able to achieve such an impressive balance while bringing to life such complex women?
Valerie Boyd: Thank you for your kind words about the book. I think some of it had to do with my background as a journalist, as someone who's made my living as a writer for the past twenty years. But much of it was grace. You know, everyone who sits down to write a book wants it to be beautiful, to be the best work they can do at the time. For me, the stars were aligned, Zora's blessings were with me, and I was able to write the kind of book that's been well reviewed and that I can be proud of. I was somehow able to manifest my intentions on the page. And for that, I can't take too much credit. I can only be grateful.
Evelyn C. White: As mentioned previously, I understood that my book had to be steeped in fact. I wrote what I would have liked to read. And then, I just surrendered to the ancestors and other cosmic forces and let them guide me. I also wanted to write a book that would entertain and inspire Lorraine Hansberry, in gratitude for her pioneering work. I knew that Lorraine and Alice would have been friends.
BackList: Let's talk about the editing process a little. With so many details about Hurston and Walker 's lives, how were you two able to decide what to include?
Evelyn C. White: I allowed the narrative to progress naturally. My editor at Norton basically let me do my own thing. There were some trims, but basically, the story I delivered to Norton was the one published.
Valerie Boyd: My goal was to include everything but to not get lost in the details. So, I tried to make the attention I gave to any particular detail, proportionate to its importance in Zora's life. For instance, I read one review in which the reviewer complained that I gave too little attention to Zora's second marriage, that I breezed right through it. Well, Zora breezed right through it! She gave little attention to it; most of her friends didn't even know about the marriage. So, I gave it a similar amount of attention in the biography as she gave it in her life. How important something was to her determined how important I made it in the biography. So I tried to include everything, but I let Zora's example determine how much weight I gave it in the book.
BackList: Valerie, Wrapped in Rainbows begins with, There was never quite enough for Zora Neale Hurston in the world she grew up in, so she made up whatever she needed. How did this imagination and determination influence her life?
Valerie Boyd: Her imagination and adventurous spirit -- nurtured in her all-black hometown of Eatonville, Florida -- were absolutely crucial to who Zora was as a writer and a woman. That's why I decided to start the book that way -- with her prodigious imagination being sort of the first thing I reveal about her, the first thing readers learn in the very first line of the biography.
BackList: Evelyn, Walker 's life was affected deeply by the childhood trauma she suffered after being shot in the eye with a BB gun. You believe that this incident helped Walker understand and convey human suffering in her literature. How do you think Walker uses her writing to combat human suffering?
Evelyn C. White: I think Alice understands that the human race is connected by suffering and the capacity to love. I think she views the honest discussion of pain as a prerequisite to the transformation into joy. She knows that there is medicine to be found in truth-telling. She does not sugar-coat anything. People find resonance in her honesty.
BackList: Alice Walker has been ostracized in the past for her writing, life relationships, and viewpoints. How much do you think the differences in how she views the world, have played a role in propelling her individualism?
Evelyn C. White: My research indicates that Alice is herself. Always has been, always will be. The message she imparts to people is that they would be wise to live as who they are, too!
BackList: Along those lines, Zora Neale Hurston was a woman who was misunderstood for a long time, particularly in her writing, life relationships, and viewpoints. Valerie, how much do you think these differences isolated her as a black woman writer, but yet propelled her individualism?
Valerie Boyd: I think being misunderstood was something Zora experienced throughout her life. It came to be something she expected; yet it never deterred her from being herself. There was only one Zora Neale Hurston, and she began to take pride in being so different from everyone else, so individual, so Zora -- and she admired this kind of individuality and independent thinking in others as well.
BackList: The 1980s saw a resurgence of Hurston's literature through the determined help of Alice Walker. Can you two elaborate on Hurston's encompassing legacy and its effect on writers like Alice Walker?
Valerie Boyd: Zora Neale Hurston was someone who had the courage to live the life of her dreams -- even when it was remarkably difficult, even when it didn't pay well, which was most of the time. With no examples of black women writers to model herself on, Zora was a trailblazer who blew open the doors for black women writers like me, or for those women I grew up reading, like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
Hurston spent her entire career -- spanning more than thirty years -- chronicling and celebrating the lives of rural, self-educated black folk. She showed us that these people's lives were worthy of literature that their language was poetry and worthy of being recorded. This was revolutionary at the time. She gave ordinary black folks -- the Negro farthest down, as she put it -- a place at the table of American literature. She gave voice to the inner lives of uneducated black women and men who had previously been silenced. In doing so, she expanded our notions of what American literature could be.
Evelyn C. White: Alice loved, appreciated and honored Zora's love and fascination with everyday, regular black folk. They were cut from the same cloth in that regard. I think Zora's work affirmed choices Alice had made about turning her attention to blacks in the South -- meaning, her people.
BackList: What have you two l earned from Zora Neale Hurston's and Alice Walker's life?
Valerie Boyd: Diving into Zora's life in a deep, substantive way gave me a greater appreciation for the sweetness and the fragility of life, helping me to see the importance of using my time wisely and of living joyfully. I also became more appreciative of all the opportunities I've been given. Zora became the most published, most successful black woman writer of the first half of the twentieth century, even though she had no literary role models and few black female peers. And, of course, it was very hard to be an artist in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, especially for a black woman. So, Zora didn't get the financial rewards that her work warranted. Yet she never wavered. So I think writing about Hurston's great life has given me more courage to live my own life more fully.
Evelyn C. White: From Alice Walker I learned: To thine own self be true. And to ask for what you want!
BackList: What's next for the two of you?
Valerie Boyd: I'm currently researching my next book, Spirits in the Dark: The Untold Story of Black Women in Hollywood. It's under contract with Knopf, and will be published sometime in 2008. In this book, I intend to trace the history of black women in film and television from the 1920s to the present. So I'll be writing about the lives and careers of many important women, including Nina Mae McKinney, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne, Hazel Scott, Dorothy Dandridge, Cicely Tyson, Pam Grier, Alfre Woodard, all the way up to contemporary popular performers like Angela Bassett, Halle Berry and others, famous and almost famous. My goal is to chronicle the remarkable contributions that these women have made to American culture, and to look at the extraordinary sacrifices they've made to ensure that our stories are told.
Evelyn C. White: Rest. Piano lessons. Perhaps a long train trip somewhere.
About the author: Felicia Pride is a graduate student in writing and publishing at Emerson College and the founder/editor of BackList (www.thebacklist.net), a publishing and literary newsletter of African-American interest.
Published in In Motion Magazine March 13, 2005
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