The Mother of Ethnographic Fiction: Zora Neale Hurston

When I first came to the field of anthropology I discovered the term ‘academic writing’ and found something distinctly unique about academic texts. Most were engaging, informative but often difficult to grasp. There was a new language to be learnt, but at the same time an obfuscation of the argument and the essence of experience. The ‘Writing Culture’ debate has been thoroughly explored and is ongoing since Marcus and Clifford edited their book on “the poetics and politics of ethnography” in 1984 and as reflexive, conscious and considerate as the writing of ethnography has become, there still exists a conformation to the convention of writing that deems texts as ‘academic.’ Although this style of writing is commonplace, there are many scholars whose work pushes against this rigidity and still manages to retain the ‘factual account’ whilst taking the reader on a journey.

Michael Jackson’s book “Life Within Limits, well-being in a world of want” (2011) comes to mind when I consider texts that are transportative as well as informative and Paul Stroller is another scholar whose work consciously embraces narrative and doesn’t hide from the unique qualities of fiction. To quote Clifford, “even the best ethnographic texts—serious, true fictions—are systems, or economies, of truth” (1984). It is this idea of ‘true fictions’, and the ‘economy of truth’ which makes me consider the role of fiction in ethnography and the woman who in my opinion brought the genre of ‘ethnographic fiction’ to the field of anthropology.

Zora Neale Hurston, literary giant (after her death), anthropologist and former student of Franz Boaz rarely gets a mention when researching the shift in representation and the role of narrative in the writing of ethnography. Even in Marcus and Clifford’s seminal text, Ruth Benedict and her poetry are mentioned but Hurston is conspicuously absent. Hurston is best known for her fictional work, “Their eyes were watching god’ (1937) which has become a classic, but her work as an anthropologist never seems to garner the attention it deserves.

She was many things, but most notably she was a storyteller, whether that be conducted through song, dance, theatre or writing she found a way to tell the stories which she gathered, embodied and then put back out into the world. Her book “Tell My Horse (1938) a hybrid ethnography feels at home among today’s scholars whose work straddles the line between ethnography and fiction. Her novelistic tone and prose bring her scenes to life and tell me not only about her relationships, but how she conducted herself in the field. It is consciously aware of its subjectivity, reflexive and highly detailed and like any good ‘novel’, evocative… conjuring sounds, smells and touch. The world Hurston researched in the 1930’s no longer exists, but in the pages of her book it remains alive.

Hurston was the vanguard in my opinion of this style of ethnographic writing, but at the time and even now there has been resistance. Instead “Western science has excluded certain expressive modes from its legitimate repertoire: rhetoric (in the name of “plain,” transparent signification), fiction (in the name of fact), and subjectivity (in the name of objectivity) (Clifford, 1983). But when we remove the poetry of reconstructing a world then we are all the poorer for it, we cannot feel it, taste it or touch it. Fellow appreciator of Hurston, Prof. Barbara Browning at the Tisch in New York spoke with me about narrative and I agree entirely when she says, “It seems to me clear that we are constantly either telling ourselves stories, or reading them out of what surrounds us – from our personal relationships to the larger political realm. And as long as we understand ourselves to be unreliable narrators – even to ourselves – all these stories help us to parse our lives.” Browning like Hurston writes at the tipping point between fiction and non-fiction but how does she walk this thin line? “I like to be as truthful as possible, even in my fiction.”


Audio from Zora Neale Hurston’s Field Work

Halimuhfack|Hurston, Zora Neale (performer) Jacksonville, Florida/ Library of Congress


Let’s Shake It|Hurston, Zora Neale (performer) Jacksonville, Florida/ Library of congress

      Let's Shake It

Description of lining track|Hurston, Zora Neale (performer) Jacksonville, Florida/ Library of Congress

      Description of lining track


Footage from Zora Neale Hurston’s fieldwork from the PBS Film – Jump at the Sun 

African Americans (including Zora Neale Hurston in Belle Glade, Fla., 1935 © Library of Congress

Scene’s From Zora Neal Hurston’s Field Work – PBS – Jump at the Sun

Scene’s From Zora Neal Hurston’s Field Work – PBS Deleted Scene


Work featuring or inspired by Zora Neale Hurston

Prof Barbara Browning’s new novel – The Gift (or techniques of the body)

Link to other articles on Hurston


Quoted sources in article:

Clifford. J (1983) “Introduction: Partial Truths” In “Writing Culture, The poetics and Politics of Ethnography.” University of California Press, Berkeley, LA, London

Clifford, J., Marcus, G, E., Ed (1983) “Writing Culture, The poetics and Politics of Ethnography.” University of California Press, Berkeley, LA, London

Hurston, Z, N.,( 1937) “Their Eyes Were Watching God. a novel “ Philadelphia, London, J.B. Lippincott company

Hurston, Z, N., (1938) “Tell My Horse” Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co.

Jackson, M, D., (2011) “Life Within Limits, well-being in a world of want” Duke University Press