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September 23, 2009
Washington, DC

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, courtesy Library of Congress

By the time of her death in 1960, despite early prominence as a writer and folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston had faded from the public eye. An article published 15 years later by Alice Walker in Ms. Magazine  is widely credited with igniting a resurgence of interest in Hurston's work. In this interview excerpt, Walker speaks about first encountering the groundbreaking writer.

Well, I believe I saw [Zora Neale Hurston's] name for the very first time in a collection that Langston Hughes put together called The Best Short Stories by Black Writers. I was in the collection; he had asked me to submit my very first published short story. And Zora had a story in the collection called ?The Gilded Six-bits.? I did not really pay very much attention because, at that time, people thought that men were the one to read, and you didn?t pay much attention to the women. And so, I was so shocked to look back at that collection and to see that, in fact, she was right there with Langston and Jean Toomer and Richard Wright and all these other great African-American writers.

So years after that, I was in Mississippi, and someone, a friend, said I just read this wonderful novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. And I read it, and I absolutely loved it. I think though, before, that I was writing a short story, and I needed some voodoo that was authentic. There was no authentic voodoo that I could find, and I saw Zora?s name in a footnote in a book written about black superstitions by a white person who wondered if black people had large enough brains. So I threw his book out the window, but I remembered her name, and I used some of her work as inspiration for the story that I did called ?The Revenge of Hanna Kemhuff.?

But it was [Their Eyes Were Watching God] that made me a lifelong devoted admirer, and I actually think of myself as a kind of niece of Zora.

Hear more from Alice Walker, Ruby Dee, Azar Nafisi, and others on Zora Neale Hurston and her work on the Their Eyes Were Watching God radio show.

Check out The Big Read calendar to find out where you can read, discuss, and celebrate Their Eyes Were Watching God near you!

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