Author Rae Chesny finds inspiration in the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston

Rae Chesny’s book “Dear Zora” will be published as a work in progress, Chesny says, to show readers her process. Image courtesy of Rae Chesny

Zora Neale Hurston’s writing is influencing a new generation of writers. Author Rae Chesny has been studying and writing about Hurston since 2018.

Chesny will speak about Hurston’s life and work this week in a series hosted by the Eatonville Branch of the Orange County Library System: “Zora Neale Hurston, The Storyteller and Her Town.”

Chesny said that although she knew Zora Neale Hurston as a high school student, she didn’t get to know her work until she started researching Langston Hughes for a presentation at Michigan. State University in 2018.

“But while I was researching him, Zora Neale Hurston kept coming, and I was like, Oh wait, that’s the lady who wrote ‘Their eyes looked at God.’

Chesny said she wondered why Hurston didn’t get as much recognition as Hughes, even though the two were friends during the Harlem Renaissance.

“And so probably the feminist in me said, you know what, I’m going to start presenting on Zora. That first year I had to do Langston and Zora, but since then it’s been me and Zora.

As part of his research, Chesny travels to places where Hurston lived or visited.

“And I really like going to places that are relevant and meaningful to find work, even to see if I can feel his energy. I’m an author and a storyteller myself. So I love all that kind of stuff. And I like to travel and see what i can find.

Chesny said she takes a non-traditional approach to teaching Hurston to others.

“I think what’s happened is people who know Zora, they say the same thing I said, three and four years ago, oh yeah, the author of ‘Their Eyes were looking at God,” but the conversations need to happen, that she was a trained anthropologist, that she worked to preserve black culture, and how she did it, and then do it with her humor, do it with her nerve and do it with pleasure.

Chesny’s next book, “Dear Zora,” is a collection of letters she’s been writing since 2018 to connect with Hurston. She said she would first publish the book as a work in progress that readers could engage with before publishing the final work.

“So many people don’t write their stories, because they think I can never write a book. Because producing a book requires a lot of people. And you think, Oh, I’m comparing my draft with someone’s polished, finished work,” Chesny said.

“And so I want to show that transparency, and I hope that’s some form of inspiration.”

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