Adrienne Williams Boyarin
Assistant Professor of English
Affiliation with UVic English: Faculty
Special Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
When did you first read this book: September 1992, at the beginning of my junior year of high school.
Which sentence from this book has special significance for you?
“They passed a dead man in a sitting position on a hummock, entirely surrounded by wild animals and snakes. Common danger made common friends. Nothing sought a conquest over the other.”
“Janie, you’se yo’ own woman, and Ah hope you know whut you doin’. Ah sho hope you ain’t lak uh possum—de older you gits, de less sense yuh got.”
What does the sentence mean to you?
In 1992, I lived near Miami, Florida with my mother, who had recently left her second husband and was dating a guy I didn’t like much. We had just barely lived through Hurricane Andrew, which nearly destroyed our home and did destroy the homes of most of our neighbors and friends. My English teacher assigned *Their Eyes Were Watching God* at the start of that school year (less than a month after the hurricane, when it was still thickly hot and most of us had no power), and it was the first book that really meant something to me. The Okeechobee hurricane that Janie and Tea Cake survive was so vivid to me that I could barely read through tears. I thought that no author could ever have written it without living through a Florida hurricane. What’s more, Janie somehow seemed so much like my mother (despite obvious superficial differences!) that I was certain I understood my mother better because of that novel, as if Zora Neale Hurston had explained everything for her. *Their Eyes Were Watching God* was also the first book I ever recommended to my mother, in fact, and after she died (in 2011), I found my high school copy on her bookshelves…
This book changed everything for me, really. I hadn’t realized before that that literature could do that – collapse time, space, race, class, dialect, and history to speak directly to me about something personal and real. Before that, I especially liked *King Lear* and Tennyson but mainly because I thought they were beautiful, and because people I admired also liked them. But *Their Eyes Were Watching God* was different. It hit me in the gut. It still does.