Interview with Sharony Green on her New Book: The Chase and Ruins: Zora Neale Hurston in Honduras
by Writing Workshops Staff
4 months ago
We are thrilled to have an interview with professor and writer Sharony Green, whose book, The Chase and Ruins: Zora Neale Hurston in Honduras, will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press on October 3rd, 2023.
Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist and writer best known for her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, led a complicated life often marked by tragedy and contradictions. When both she and her writing fell out of favor after the Harlem Renaissance, she struggled not only to regain an audience for her novels but also to simply make ends meet. In The Chase and Ruins, Sharony Green uncovers an understudied but important period of Hurston's life: her stay in Honduras in the late 1940s.
WW: What initially inspired you to explore Zora Neale Hurston's stay in Honduras and write a book about it?
SG: I was actually doing an origin story, the same one on which I was working during our writing workshop with Isaac Fitzgerald in Iceland. Since 2013, or since I started working at the University of Alabama, my beginnings in Miami, Florida, have been on my mind. This makes sense. I am getting older. I started this new career as a professor as an older employee. My family members are getting older. I guess we often look back trying to figure out how we got to wherever we are. I was also interested in Miami because I went to the University of Miami whose football titles in the eighties were often clinched with the help of a lot of students from Florida. Alabama won titles a lot shortly before and even after my time here. How does this all get us to Hurston? Well, two things: while interviewing black Miami residents including ones who lived in South Florida right after the Second World War, I was reminded of how this overlapped with Hurston working as a maid down there. I was curious about why she was there. Surely she didn’t go there to recover from that awful accusation that nearly led her to commit suicide. Why there? I learned she was actually on a ship docked on Miami Beach trying to get to Honduras. She’d been there for eight months in 1947-48. The same Englishman who promised to take her to Central America on his boat back then but didn’t was lying to her about taking her while she was in South Florida between December 1949 and the summer of 1950. She eventually realized it wasn’t going to happen but she had to feed herself. She was a famous writer but she’d clearly fallen on hard time after that trial in Harlem. Her passport proved she was in Honduras when the alleged harm to an underage boy was said to have happened. Even though the charges were dropped, her career was pretty much tanked. I started thinking about how she was surviving that difficult time and how black people period survive difficult times especially in the otherwise prosperous postwar years. This was the moment when the GI bill was supposed to help any vet buy a home, go to school and so on but ongoing racial hate made it hard for black vets to do that. All of this folded back into my research, which involved me interviewing members of my own family. I descend from people who migrated to Miami from the Bahamas, Georgia and Mississippi since at least the early twentieth century. Hurston was an anthropologist who had done field work in the South and the Bahamas. We were the people she was studying. She knew the Florida peninsula like the coaches recruiting in the states after integration. She worked for the WPA, interviewing folk. She knew Lake Okeechobee, the muck where some of those recruited players grew up. I used to fish there with my grandparents. All sorts of things began to overlap. As is sometimes the case, the Miami book took a back seat to the Hurston book. The Miami book was supposed to just be a black housing scholarly kind of book but it was hard to divorce my own life from what I was discovering. It was also hard to divorce Hurston. I actually saw an ad in a black Miami newspaper showing she spoke at a church in Liberty City, the very community where lots of ball players were being recruited when Miami won those first titles in the eighties. She did so as a moderate speaking on behalf of George Smathers, a white moderate who was running for a Senate seat. Like Dr King, Hurston was a member of the Republican party to her last breath. She died in 1960 a political conservative. This was the case even if she, not unlike King, saw the richness in black life. She was impatient, however, with liberals and Communists who she thought used black people as pawns. So unlike a lot of African Americans who moved over to the Dems during the New Deal, she stayed put.
WW: Can you describe your research process for uncovering the details of Hurston's time in Honduras? What sources did you rely on, and how did you approach interpreting them?
SG: Well, I read. A lot! I read everything I could find about her. I wanted to see how other people, scholars included, understood her life. I read all of her books including Seraph on the Suwanee which she wrote while in Honduras. It’s the most ignored Huston book because she is focusing on poor white southerners in Florida at the turn of the century. She got a lot of flak for writing about white folk. Even black people didn’t want her to depart from her earlier attention on black folk. But in this novel you can see how she wants to make money. At the time, Hollywood was really interested in what they call “crackerphilia,” or books about southern whites. Hurston’s friend Marjorie Rawlings made it big with The Yearling, which put this group into view. So Hurston was trying to make money in this manner, too. But she was also trying to find that Maya ruin as an anthropologist. She was always an academic who was a better known novelist. She’d received two Guggenheim grants for her work in Jamaica and Haiti but no grant for Honduras. By the 1940s, she was angering a lot of white editors. She’d earlier upset many of her black male peers when she used black dialect in her published work. While this dialect was popular during earlier published slave narratives, some of her peers wanted a more polished way of offering black language. They forgot she was an anthropologist and folklorist. She was a storyteller intrigued by the sounds she heard. She wanted to honor them like she was honoring the stories, dances, music and customs of black folk wherever she found them. She was ahead of her time. Impatient with so many around her, she just left the country. She could have secured a long term teaching position but she was impatient in that kind of setting, too. She was a free spirited person. So I need to know her. I also need to know basic history about the Maya, Honduras and Central America. A Newberry Library grant helped me spend a year obtaining that kind of knowledge. That year happened to coincide with my sabbatical and the initial COVID lockdown so I was at home just reading away. I also made a lot of artwork. Sometimes when I am not writing, I can sort through what I am digesting. I can feel narratives. So I made seven dioramas. Five of them were made of all that cardboard arriving as Amazon boxes during lockdown! Since I could not go to Honduras, I wanted to be there in an imagined way. I wanted to celebrate Hurston. So I made these little rooms that I decided were some night club or bar off some beaten path in some unknown place south of the border. They are very dark. You see the aftermath of something. You feel the aftermath of Hurston’s biggest moment. But I also used confetti and little Barbie doll shoes strewn here and there to suggest she’d had some fun somewhere. In one of her letters – yes, I read her surviving letters, about twelve in all from Honduras – you get the sense she could have had a great love affair, if she wanted. Before she left, she once said she had plenty of men willing. She cracked me up. Hurston was so alive even she was down and out. She had by then married three times. In fact, the third husband left when she was living on a houseboat docked on Daytona’s Halifax River. That’s where she met not one but two Englishmen who wanted to go to Honduras. The first told her about this ruin on the east side that no “white man” had ever seen. He’d read her work and decided she could go find it. I also read poetry by Central American writers. I think poetry helps me to also anchor myself in a particular place and get away from my academic head. I played a lot of music, too. I even ordered a postcard from eBay. It was once owned by a white serviceman sent to Honduras. He was writing to his likely future wife – if he got out of there alive. I even bought a dumb tourist handbag with Honduras sewn on the outside. Since I could not go there, I wanted to touch what tourists wasted their money on. I wanted to see and feel all of the good and bad that happened in this country that is but one of many where imperial powers have gone, left our handprint but also great suffering before leaving. The babies at the borders also got in me in a sad headspace for a bit. I was writing the book for them and all suffering people including the tired, among them tired black women. We are having a moment in this country, in this world. I was emoting with Hurston who was tired, too.
WW: In your book, you discuss Hurston's attempt to appeal to Hollywood with her novel "Seraph on the Suwanee." How did you navigate the complexities of analyzing this aspect of Hurston's work, considering the cultural and racial dynamics at play during that time?
SG: I just told the story. And I told it carefully because Hurston was a storyteller herself. So if you’re relying on her letters and what-not, you can’t always believe how she is always narrating her life. And also, because so many scholars and fans tend to focus on the big narratives about Hurston, I had to really take a step back and be careful with this Hollywood bit. I really appreciated Hazel Carby saying that Seraph was “experimental.” I am not sure it was just that. I think Hurston was trying to get paid. Period. She was always pushing boundaries. I am a filmmaker and I can see her going out west to work for Warner and them being really interested but also looking at her with disbelief. Like how can you come from an all black town—the first incorporated black town in the country -- and have such a strong sense of self? You’re not allowed to be this way. As hard as it is to believe, I daily live this very thing. I grew up initially on the so-called west side of Miami’s Coconut Grove. We didn’t call it West Grove. We just said the Grove. But it was a very close community. A walkable community. I didn’t see a lot of white folks aside from Dr Cason, a white doctor in the Village on the white or east side. What they used to call White Town. She called all the black kids “my babies.” So when you grow up in a place where you don’t have anyone against whom to judge yourself as being inferior, you just become who you are and I think that’s what happened to Hurston. I understand her when she said she was not “tragically” colored. Since I have entered academe, I have had a hard time being the “black professor.” I am just me. Sure, I know I am black. Sure, I have certainly suffered because of this kind of ancestry but I just didn’t go through life showing up saying I am the black person in the room. Even in Iceland I was just me with few exceptions. I saw as much when I was there in 2017 and during our time there. Did I have moments when I sensed my blackness was being part of a narrative? Of course. One fellow writer said she had black ancestry and couldn’t believe me when I said it’s not a big deal if you can acknowledge the horrors and find meaning in how we live through them them even now. I am an antebellum scholar. I know the history. The race mixing still intrigues us. It’s often trauma porn. We love to stare at it and go “Wow.” Or “Can you believe it?” Well, yes, believe it. But then what do you do with it? How do you proceed through life with this kind of knowledge? Can you accept that a scholar who happens to be black knows quite a bit owing to surviving documents and isn’t going to spend time being intrigued? Well, this person was someone I adored and I didn’t go off. That we don’t know this kind of history or that we tip toe around it was an outcome of the orchestrated efforts of the dominant culture that still sets in motion all sorts of narratives. This is why there’s such an uproar now about what gets taught or not taught or published or not published or banned and not banned. We keep doing this ourselves. But even the most well meaning people are participating in this madness. Sometimes what the people who have the biggest opportunity to connect might do is just breathe. Look at each other. Sigh. Maybe talk some more. But mostly move beyond reactionary responses. I think I am straying from the topic but yeah, Hurston was impatient with reactionary silliness too and then she started engaging in it, too. She wrote an essay on what White Publishers Won’t Publish by Black Writers or some such title. She was angry about being silenced. Well, Hurston, there is a war going on. Things you could say during peace time aren’t cool when our men are coming home in body bags. You can say FDR is a piece of work but don’t expect publishers to be okay with it. And Hollywood was equally cautious with her stories. Too bad. She had a lot to say and was hushed more often than not after her heyday in the late twenties through the late thirties. Her 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most popular book. Still true. Funny, you have a self-determined black woman as a main character. But Hurston, a self determined black woman is being hushed not long after this book is published. Go figure.
WW: Hurston's time in Honduras seems to have been a pivotal period in her life. How do you think her experiences there shaped her identity and writing style?
SG: I think most people during her lifetime couldn’t wrap their heads around her even being there. The evidence shows that it was pretty much ignored. As for her writing style, I don’t see in Seraph anything lyrically or structurally changing. She wrote more journalistic articles after Seraph, her seventh and final published book in her lifetime. She rehashed some her earlier work on voodoo for that Ft Pierce black paper that let her produce a column in her final years. I think she was always gifted but terribly broken and that brokenness actually shows up in her surviving letters. She talks about her country and black people betraying her. She says as much after that trial in 1948. But even in her letters to white moderates, she is quite angry at black people for not knowing white men are as complicated as anyone else. That said her bitterness never diminished her core personality. She was a people person. She could talk to white politicians. She could talk to white patrons like Rawlings. She could talk to the wife of a Florida governor. She could talk to the black folk in Ft Pierce, among them, ones who may or may not have understood the enormity of her legacy. I don’t think she was ever too far above nor below anyone. She was always studying folk and I think she could let herself be used in the best sense of the word. I do not believe she was malicious but she was tired of being hurt and strangely sometimes set herself up to be hurt. When Carl Van Vechten and Jane Belo refused to go to Honduras with her, they could see her fragility. But even they knew they couldn’t stop her from unraveling. Her mother told her to jump at the sun and I think she was doing that even when she took her last breath. In one of her surviving letters she said don’t worry about me because you could never understand me, or something to that effect. I believe she left that planet feeling that way. I can so relate. Like Hurston, I am often an inside-outsider wherever I find myself. I can relate to others while wanting to be alone. Get my work done. She wanted to get her work done. She wanted to live in a cabin in Eau Gallie in present day Melbourne. She did. Twice. But the white folks there wouldn’t accept her actually owning it. Not that close to U.S. 1. All those tourists heading to South Florida were not supposed to see a black body that free. Florida is still very part of the south which is quite complicated. Hurston understands how southerners come together and part but also how folks from outside the south can buy into the most reductive ideas concerning what they think the south is. Hate is here but something else is here, too. There are moments to be boastful about how we all get along or fail to get along and I think she was navigating that in Eau Gallie.
WW: The title of your book, "The Chase and Ruins," suggests a journey and a search for something. Can you elaborate on the significance of this theme and how it relates to Hurston's story?
SG: She was chasing a dream. She was chasing freedom. She was chasing a story. She ended up in ruins. Financially and otherwise but not entirely. Again, I don’t think she ever felt sorry for herself. There were moments when she could be very honest about where she thought she went wrong. She had a lot of health issues. At one point she thought she had some “impure” water in Honduras. Then she thought her openness to vodun/voodoo had done her in. I like that she could be reflective even about the stuff she was sharing. Folk stuff. Not all of it was good. Not all of it was bad. It just was. Not all that traveling was good nor bad. Sometimes it was what it was. She was fine with that. At least this is what the record shows. How she really felt is another story. We often put on a brave face and why not? Few people will entertain hearing a sad song forever.
WW: Hurston's life was marked by tragedy and contradictions. How did you approach presenting her complex legacy in your book, and what do you hope readers will gain from engaging with her story?
SG: I was quite eager. I constantly tell my students we live in a complex world. She was part of that complexity. She went to Barnard and had white girls inviting her to tea. She had white patrons. For a while, she had the ear of black folk, famous and not. She was terribly smart and so accomplished only to see it all just go up literally in flames. Someone set fire to her letters! Thankfully, a passing policeman who knew her legacy put out the fire. I hope readers will be prepared to go beyond Their Eyes and inserting her to flatten stories about what they think being black or being a black woman is. The evidence shows Hurston would not have been entirely open to only that kind of storytelling. She said black women were the mules of the world. Janie Mae in Their Eyes knew that. But didn’t Janie leave two husbands and run off with Teacake only to kill him after he nearly tried to kill her while sick following that dog bite that led to rabies. Janie was fierce. It was her or him. Well, he was going to die anyway. But this was no tragic romance. No, Janie was going to live. That is a very human thing. So some things that are quite expected when it comes to how she interprets being black and black woman are there, but she was so much more than than the expected. So few people know she was a political conservative. She actually disagreed with the 1954 Brown decision! Were it left to Hurston, she didn’t want to sit beside anyone who didn’t want to sit beside her. Then again, she was six years away from her death. I have watched a dear relative show signs of dementia in her late fifties. We might consider how a decline in health and especially mental health can make us do and say crazy things.
WW: As an author and researcher, what challenges did you encounter while working on this project, and how did you overcome them?
SG: There were moments when I was angry with her. I literally left the Smathers Library after holding her letters in my hand. I couldn’t believe that she was that angry as she corresponded with prominent white Floridians toward the end. But in the end, I get it. I tell my students that in order for Marty McFly to get to the future, or 1985, he has to meet 1955 on its terms. I have to meet Hurston where she was when she did or said whatever. I didn’t walk in her shoes. I didn’t face all that she faced. We have a lot of in common. We’re both black, women, people who have taught in higher ed, rubbed elbows with the elite, black and white. We’re writers. She was born in Alabama but raised in Florida my home state (by the way, I want to reclaim her for Alabama. We don’t celebrate her enough here). We’re daughters of ministers. We’re daughters of ministers who married younger women. Yes, my father left my mom for the church secretary when I was a freshman at UM. It took years to process that. I saw so much that the church did right but also what it gets wrong. I really liked Isaac Fitzgerald's Dirtbag, Massachusetts because he gets at that kind of crazy while also extending grace to his parents. He's a recovering Catholic like I am a recovering Pentecostal. You can never entirely let go of your biography. I think Hurston was often dealing with that preacher’s kid thing. Let me see how much I can get away with. No one says these things. You just live it. You do the impossible. You push boundaries. You’re impatient with lack of imagination. You want to see better in the world. You want people to want better for themselves and the world. You wait and hope the world can catch up to you and your own brand of craziness, which might just be another way to describe hope. She had hope. I can relate. I do, too, even if I see craziness and steer clear of it. Doing so requires a lot of alone time. I left Iceland pretty sure I was staying off social media with few exceptions and this isn’t because there aren’t people I have not met who have absolutely made me feel less alone. It’s just not my real life. Something about it is fictive and I think there was some brand of fictive that Hurston was rejecting, too. She was shedding. I do a lot of shedding. After three days, I didn’t miss my luggage in Iceland. I was more offended by how Icelandair acted when it vanished. Even now, I have packed away a lot of stuff. Lived with less. Been like I was in Iceland a few weeks back. How do you live with two shirts and two pairs of pants and a sweater and four pairs of socks and underwear and sandals and boots? A jacket? A hat? Two scarves. A swimsuit. You live alright. You live light. Hurston once wrote about splurging on a black pair of pants. She once had a suitcase with maybe a change of underwear and a dress. You move a little faster through life and not fast as is in hurry but you get on it with when you carry less. So even if she made me mad, I kept learning stuff or doing stuff that made me realize we had a lot in common. Other challenges include just being impatient with people who think they own her story. Her legacy. No one owns her. She can’t be owned. I’ll leave it there. What we do with her is as important as what she did with herself. But we might spend more time getting to know her. Carla Kaplans’ letters are good place to start but keep in mind that letters like diaries and text messages are performance. She was a performer.
WW: What aspects of Zora Neale Hurston's life and work do you think are particularly relevant and resonant for readers today?
SG: I think that sense of wanting to run from it all like she surely had over and over again, especially when she went to Honduras, is relevant. She was tired. She was tired of talk about race. I think a lot of people wish we could get on from the bickering. The cultural wars and so on but to do so requires a shift in who we are and a shift in the things we support and the people we support. That’s a lot of work. Caring for someone else is a lot of work.
WW: How do you see Hurston's experience in Honduras shedding light on the broader political and social context of postwar America and America's relationship with Central America?
SG: Oh! That. Now that is what I’d love to spend more time delving into and I only have transnationalism as a third field of expertise, which is to say, I teach the entire arc of U.S. history and African American history and the correspondences between people living on the Caribbean Rim. And that rim, to some historical geographers and cultural geographers, includes Honduras. In Miami where I grew up, you have to hear someone speak with their family to know where they are truly from. You could be as black as me and be from Honduras. And yet, as I say in the book, Honduras is just down there. Down there. It’s where all these folks are from. Who are these folks? Are they only victims? Are they victors? We have to unflatten their pain. Pay close attention to how they fit into all sorts of narratives concerning what it means to be this or that and so much of this and that is constructed. You’re black. You’re Latino/Latinx/Hispanic. Down there could mean you’re indigenous. You’re from the mountains. Your distant relatives were from Africa or Spain. Same is true elsewhere on this side of the pond and elsewhere. But you hear just one story. So you ask yourself who’s telling the story and why? Lots of complexity there. In the end, I can’t get my mind off the children. Especially the ones separated from their parents. I remember waking up in a supermarket and my mom was not there. She left me sleeping at the bottom of her cart. This was in the early seventies when you can leave a kid like that and ask a store manager to watch her because you left your wallet at home. I can’t tell you how terrified I was when I awakened. I was screaming when she returned. I was about five years old. She was pregnant with my baby sister. She must have heard me crying from the parking lot. Oh how she hugged me when she saw me. Can you imagine being left in a cage. A cold cage? I say this carefully. This country we call home has been asked to do a lot for this world. I tell my students that Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came over here in the early eighteen-thirties and was like What? Who are these folks? Americans? So young. So fierce. So determined. We did so much in such a short time. Hurt each other and others along the way. I get it. But children? When Marvin Gaye sings Save the Children, I cannot help but cry. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I was the eldest granddaughter. I baby sat not only my sister but my aunt’s three children. From six years old to ten years old, changing diapers. It’s no wonder I have no children today. I am a teacher! I am with other people’s children. Such wise babies until some of us just don’t do right by them. They don’t vote. We teach them this and that. Oh! I say all of this carefully. But yes, oh!
WW: Finally, what do you hope readers will take away from "The Chase and Ruins"? Why do you believe it's important to revisit and reimagine Hurston's life at this particular moment in history?
SG: I just said it. The children. The fatigue we’re all feeling. Hurston was tired, too. When does the running here and there stop? When does all the pointing fingers stop? I sound Pollyannish. I get it. I am not expecting any kumbaya moments. But at some point we have to think about the next person. Was she that generous? No. She was hurting. Like us. But oh she loved writing skits and what-not and talking to young people. She could see the light in them. I see the same. We should let them run the world and then we get to eat Snicker bars and what not all the time. I am just kidding but you hear me. I see the light in my students and they don’t even know it’s there. They energize me and that’s not fair to them. I think in all of her running and being curious about the world while trying to stay fed she was energized by people. Studied them likely until her last breath. Probably never turned off that lil brain. Our maybe she did. Maybe her own eyes were looking at the sky watching God from time to time, too. Please pardon any typos. I wrote fast and tried not to edit myself. I hope I didn’t say anything that people are not able to fully hear. We are all so touchy and I get it. We’re tired. We’re scared. We could be both things and still be fierce – like Hurston. Like Zora. I call her both. The scholar in me says Hurston. The woman, person in me says Zora. The black woman in me says Zora, too.
Sharony attended Writing Workshops Iceland and we couldn't be more excited for her on the publication of her forthcoming book! You can order The Chase and Ruins: Zora Neale Hurston in Honduras and let us know what you think!
Sharony Green is an award-winning writer and associate professor of history at the University of Alabama.