The complete stories, by Zora Neale Hurston (New York, HarperPerennial, 2008)

To read the edition of the complete short stories of Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1860) in chronological order is perhaps one the most enlightening aspects of this collection, because it gives us the opportunity to follow her evolution as a writer through the span of almost 40 years. She starts with stories that overflow with the lightness of fairy-tale but matures into the brutal social fabric of family and community life, artfully exercising a vernacular vocabulary that gives her work historical significance and a unique flavor.

The published stories also have a striking difference to the unpublished ones in terms of toning down the ebullient sexuality of her prose. There are some structurally complex stories, like “Spunk” and “The six-gilded bit” that evoke some of the main themes in Zora’s imaginary: love, justice and redemption for the oppressed. The small-town intrigues of “The Eatonville Anthology” reminded me of “Winnesburg, Ohio” (1919), by Sherwood Anderson, but expressed in a way that was particular to the culture from where it sprung. “High John the Conquer” is a symbol of peaceful resistance and a fantastical renovation of old slave myths – the slaves sing to make the work lighter but also to avoid bowing to the master and to maintain an integrity of the self.

The mystical church described in “Mother Catherine”, with its collage of religions and traditions, is a place of laughter and well-being that faithfully depicts the ambient one can find either in the Cuban Santeria or the Brazilian Camdomblé, where the spiritual leader is someone who is closer to the faithful and religious experience can be a naturally joyous endeavor. The structure that Hurston chose to frame the short story is also very elegant, bringing us into this world by bits and images. Only after she has immersed us in the sacred grounds is that she briefly introduces herself as the narrator. I thought that was an absolutely organic way of starting such a vivid portrait.

There’s only so much that someone can write about these short stories with too little time, but it has to be noted that some of the unpublished work in this collection do Ms. Hurston more justice as documents than literary works, being in a very incipient state – I’m talking about the last two stories, “The seventh veil” and “The woman in gaul”. They seemed more like fragments of a future romance than complete stories in themselves. Overall, the book presents a strong sense of Hurton’s modernistic experimentations and of her own fictional universe, while allowing us to glimpse her evolution as an artist and researcher.

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