As I mentioned in this space last week, I’m currently reading The Storied South, a book that compiles interviews from southern writers, photographers, musicians, painters, and scholars. In the sections featuring Margaret Walker and Alice Walker, both women talk about the influence of Zora Neale Hurston. It’s been many years since I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I decided to read it again.
I remembered it as a powerful story. I remembered the use of strong dialect. What I’d forgotten somehow was the humor. My goodness, it’s funny. I read every night in bed, sometimes for fifteen minutes and sometimes for an hour. My husband reads at night too, but he often turns his light out before I do. He doesn’t mind my bedside lamp glowing while he sleeps. If I were to give someone marriage advice, it would be to find a partner who isn’t bothered by your reading light. Even better if they don’t complain when you burst into giggles while they are trying to sleep.
Last night I read this line: “Y’all ain’t got enough here to cuss a cat on without gittin’ yo’ mouf full of hair.”
My poor husband was already snoring when I laughed loudly enough to make the dog lift her head. Not forty pages in and I’ve belly laughed a half-dozen times. This is a story that deals with oppression and violence, but there is humor throughout.
The ability to “write funny” is something some writers have and others do not. I’m not sure humor can be taught or learnt. You either have the ability to make people laugh or you don’t. And sometimes people who are funny as all get out at a party aren’t the least bit amusing on the page. Alternately, I know some people who’ve never made me laugh in person, but whose writing sparkles with humor.
There’s plenty of deadly serious writing worth reading. I’ve read many very good novels that never inspired the least chuckle, but my preference is for stories with a bit of humor. I’m not looking for slapstick or easy jokes. If a writer can make me laugh while the world falls apart, I’m all in.
This preference for dark humor might be in my blood. My father, a man not often accused of optimism, could be very funny. When my first book came out, we traveled to Daddy’s childhood home of Natchez, Mississippi, for a reading. Before leaving, we decided to go searching for the fabled “Devil’s Punch Bowl,” a deep depression along the bluffs of the Mississippi River. The ravine is not marked with any sign. We took one turn and another and somehow ended up in front of a church in the middle of the woods. I wondered who would travel down so many narrow dirt roads to worship when there were more churches than you could count in every town for miles. Daddy said, “You can’t go far enough into the woods of Mississippi to escape the Baptist church.”
It was very funny and it was true.
That’s the thing with writing humor, it has to deal with truth. Even better if it delivers a hard truth. In the first chapter of Hurston’s novel, Janie and her friend Phoeby talk about a group of gossipy porch sitters. Janie says to Phoeby:
“They just wearing’ out yo’ sittin’ chairs.”
“Yeah, Sam says most of ’em goes to church so they’ll be sure to rise in Judgment. Dat’s de day dat every secret is s’posed to be made known. They wants to be there to hear it all.”
“Sam is too crazy! You can’t stop laughin’ when youse round him.”
“Uuh hunh. He says he aims to be there hisself so he can find out who stole his corn-cob pipe.”
There, in just a few lines of dialogue, Hurston lays down the truth about religious hypocrisy, gossip, judgment, and self-righteousness. The porch sitters are passing their judgment on Janie in this scene, and she knows it. Rather than wring her hands and try to defend herself, she finds a way to laugh about it. Hurston finds a way to make the reader laugh. And, just like that, we’re with Janie and Phoeby. We’re on their side. Humor is hard to resist.
I was speaking with another writer this week who worried that being funny while writing about tragic events might seem flippant. It’s something to consider. In most cases, though, when a writer has the gift of humor, I don’t think she’ll go far wrong in using it.
And, frankly, I’ve been reading a lot of doom-and-gloom stuff lately: articles and stories from writers responding to the current political nightmare, apocalyptic tales of climate destruction, stories about families divided by idealogy. I get it. Nothing is funny while it’s unfolding. But I look forward to the day when we are far enough past current events for someone to write about it with some humor. No doubt it’ll be gallows humor, but I’m fine with that.