The Power of the Porch: Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor and Randall Kenan

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Southern literature is often celebrated for its told, rather than written, qualities. Drawing on her own experiences of front-porch storytelling among family, friends, and neighbors, Trudier Harris looks across the generations of twentieth-century southern writers to focus on three African Americans who possess the power of the porch. In ways that are highly individual, says Harris, yet still within a shared oral tradition, Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan skillfully use storytelling techniques to define their audiences, reach out and draw them in, and fill them with anticipation. Considering how such dynamics come into play in Hurston's Mules and Men, Naylor's Mama Day, and Kenan's Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Harris shows how the power of the porch resides in readers as well, who, in giving themselves over to a story, confer it on the writer. Against this background of give and take, anticipation and fulfillment, Harris considers Zora Neale Hurston's special challenges as a black woman writer in the thirties, and how her various roles as an anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist intermingle in her work. In Gloria Naylor's writing, Harris finds particularly satisfying themes and characters. A New York native, Naylor came to a knowledge of the South through her parents and during her stay on the Sea Islands while she wrote Mama Day. A southerner by birth, Randall Kenan is particularly adept in getting his readers to accept aspects of African American culture that their rational minds might have wanted to reject. Although Kenan is set apart from Hurston and Naylor by his alliances with a new generation of writers intent upon broaching certain taboo subjects (in his case gay life in small southern towns), Kenan's Time Creek is as rife with the otherworldly and the fantastic as Hurston's New Orleans and Naylor's Willow Springs. The back and forth, the presentation and response of porch sitters and porch watchers, says Harris, is a power wielded skillfully by the best black storytellers of the South. Through tales of Brer Rabbit, John and Ole Marster, dog ghosts and other revenants, they have established and perpetuated an oral tradition that in turn shapes both the creation and enjoyment of the written word.