This year I am reading The Art of the Short Story by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn. There are 52 stories and essays from 52 writers and I am focusing on one each week. I was going in order, but as February is Black History Month, I have skipped ahead to read the stories from Black writers.
Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous story, “Sweat,” appeared in the only issue of Fire!!, a 1926 avant-garde magazine edited by Hurston, Langston Huges, and Wallace Thurman. The story is known for Hurston’s ear for the country speech of Blacks in her native Florida. Reading dialect is hard, and writing it is even harder. I had to read a lot of the dialog in this book either out loud or out loud in my head and after a few paragraphs, the characters had distinct voices in my head and I could hear them quite clearly.
Sykes words are short and punchy, like his temper. Delia’s sound tired, tired from being the one who is supporting the couple by washing the clothing of white families. Sykes disrespect for his wife darkens each page, while he complains she is too skinny, he doesn’t even try to help her with the burdens. Instead he uses the sweat of her brow to support another woman.
This story was written nearly a hundred years ago, and yet, it could have happened last week, maybe substitute taking in washing for house cleaning, or some other minimum wage, low respect job. There may not be the torture of leaving a rattlesnake in the house, but there are other ways that some men use their power to control the women in their lives.
The all-Black cities of Florida were not something on my radar. Thinking about it, of course they exist, but privilege speaking here, I just never thought about it until I read “The Vanishing Half” last month where there was another Black city, this one in Mississippi and for light skinned Blacks.
To me, this is what a story should do, make me consider things I didn’t know about, and then look for commonalities and ways to learn empathy. Stories are the way we learn to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. We read stories in school for that very reason. Although I still am not sure what my seventh grade self had to learn about in A Rose for Emily.
There are many scholarly articles that look at the role that children’s literature expands empathy in children. But what about adults?
Is our country’s fascination with reality TV, with the Real Housewives and the Bachelor, taking us away from fiction? As in stories, as I realize that reality TV isn’t real. But as we take in less stories, we are growing further apart. Maybe we need to come up with an anthology of stories, a common core, if you will, that will let adults read and discuss the lives of others, to see the hearts and minds of others. the Bible used to be that anthology, but since it is no longer read for it’s stories and sadly seems to be used more as a proof text for people trying to control the actions and thoughts of others (and that is a post for another day).
I think if everyone read a short story a week, from a diverse group of writers, such as this book, The Art of the Short Story, we could find more common ground.