This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Candlewick.
In T.R. Simon’s honest, humorous and equally heartwrenching middle grade novel, Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, a young Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Cassie, investigate a town secret that is tied to their community's roots in slavery. Alternating between Hurston’s childhood in Eatonville, Florida, in 1903 and the horrors experienced on a nearby plantation in 1855, this is an important and poignant story that is sure to become popular in classrooms. We spoke with Simon about the importance of Hurston's legacy, honestly discussing the dark parts of American history, the joys of girlhood friendships and more.
What was your first experience with Zora Neale Hurston’s writing, and how did it influence you as a writer?
I discovered Zora Neale Hurston my sophomore year in college when I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I remember coming alive to the words and how completely they conveyed the feelings of a young black woman in the rural south. It was also my first experience reading a book that posed and answered questions that made me know it was a book for precisely the kind of black girl I was.
As I researched Zora’s life, I learned that she was not only a novelist and playwright but also an ethnographer, a folklorist and an intellectual adventurer. I longed to understand the world, so I studied anthropology in graduate school, just like Zora. Unlike Zora, it took me a long time to own my desire to write, and then a bit longer to act on it.
There are some very honest and nuanced, yet graphic descriptions of slavery and physical abuse in this story. Did you feel it was important to fully investigate these horrors for your readers, which are so often glossed over in classrooms?
I don’t shy away from the physical brutality of slavery because it happened and because it is a reflection of the emotional brutality at the heart of the institution. Sadly, slavery is a ubiquitous fact of human existence and it has taken many forms throughout history. The race-based caste system of American slavery was particularly physically brutal. Black folks were seen as an ultimate other, so other that we were no longer considered human. Declared apart from the race of “man,” slaveholders believed we felt no pain, so action against our minds and bodies was not an action against a person. American slavery cannot be fully understood without understanding the hateful interpersonal logic that undergirded it. Glossing over the physicality of slavery allows it to become abstract, theoretical. By making the bodies of those impacted by slavery part of the story, I hoped to make the horror more personal, to force my reader to take a moral position. I was also careful not to make the slaveholders in this story mustache-twirling villains. And that is ultimately the point: Very regular people did very brutal things to other human beings under slavery. If we can’t understand that, we are at great risk of repeating the past.
What kind of conversations do you hope this novel opens up in classrooms and in homes about the ripple effects of slavery and the Jim Crow era?
I think we’re living in a very polarized time and many of today’s most pressing cultural disagreements are still rooted in American slavery. As Faulkner so famously put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In order to understand who we are as Americans, we must understand the history of America, and we have yet to do justice to an understanding of the hard parts of that history. We need more writing on genocide, slavery, Jim Crow and internment to sit side by side with the deeply researched and documented works on the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World Wars I and II. America was a slaveholding nation that also gave birth to modern democracy, which means freedom has been a very complicated issue for America since its inception. Slavery and Jim Crow sit in direct contradiction to the stated aim of the Declaration of Independence. The degree to which the idea of American democracy has shined like a beacon in the world is also due to the ways in which African-American bids for freedom and equality have shaped it. We can’t fully understand one without the other. These conversations and tensions are ongoing, and so our need to unpack this history is ongoing.
What do you love most about writing mysteries for children? Did you have a favorite mystery as a kid?
When I was young, my mother and I would watch all the detective shows together—“Ellery Queen,” “Cannon,” “The Rockford Files,” and “Columbo.” My favorite board game, hands down, was Clue. Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet Vane and anything by Wilkie Collins was my go-to reading. I loved superheroes and comics, too, but none of the caped crusaders could hold a candle to the superpower of brilliance. And that made Sherlock Holmes the unrivaled greatest superhero of all. I loved the idea that a person, using only their mind, could make narrative sense of purposeful subterfuge or an unlikely series of events. The power of observation and logic restored truth and justice in every mystery I read and that appealed to my young sense of karmic balance.
What is it about Hurston’s childhood in the South that sparked this series of novels? Did you grow up in the South yourself?
I’m from Washington D.C., and my father’s people are from North Carolina. My grandmother died before I was born, and I only met my grandfather once before he passed. I was three and we went to the house my father bought his parents with his World War II soldier’s pay. It was a little cottage sitting on the land they farmed, the land they had once picked cotton on. I remember how dark the night was and the sandy quality of the soil. I also remember my grandfather’s booming laugh as he bounced me on his stiff knees. His life, before he passed, bore a direct relation to the kind of childhood Zora had, in both the simplicity of living and the intricacy of the relationships between the people who lived with and near him. In writing about Zora and the turn of the century, I’m excavating a piece of my own agrarian history, my own connection to those Southern black folks whose whole lives depended on the land they stood on.
What do you love most about Carrie and Zora’s friendship?
I love that Carrie and Zora love each other. I love that Carrie sees everything that is special and complicated and brilliant about Zora, and that even when the sharp edges of Zora’s mind push Carrie out of her comfort zone, she’s willing to change and adapt for the sake of their friendship. I love that Zora sees Carrie’s fears and weaknesses and pushes her to be the very best version of herself that she can be. And I love that they are stronger and more whole because of their relationship. I think healthy, strong girlhood friendship is like a forcefield. Not only does it sow the seeds for supporting women in the future, but it lays the groundwork for self-respect in childhood. Good friends make each other better people. Zora and Carrie are better people for knowing one another.
What’s the most surprising fact you’ve learned about Hurston during your research and writing process?
Zora’s life is the most surprising fact of all: That a black girl from the Jim Crow south would come to be recognized as one of the great literary minds of American letters is a testimony not only to her ambition and brilliance but the powerful and enduring legacy that is the hallmark of book writing. Zora herself is a beautiful self-invention, and because she committed that invention to paper, we are blessed with the possibility of visiting with her mind through her books and letters.
What do you hope young readers take away from The Cursed Ground?
Last year, my daughter’s sixth-grade class was taught a relatively conventional story of slavery—that it was bad, that white people were trapped in an unjust system with black people, that it was passed down generationally, that it could not be ended until the nation engaged in a civil war. In Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground, I wanted to tell my daughter a different kind of story about slavery. I wanted to tell her a story that emphasized how participation in a system of injustice is always a choice for those who have power, that tradition is a choice, that complicity is a choice. I wanted her to understand the relationship between master and slave as a daily choice to dehumanize those we might otherwise respect, befriend, or even love. I wanted her to consider the idea that our humanity resides in our ability to see other human beings as people with the same feelings we ourselves have, and to actively choose in favor of their wellbeing as we wish them to choose in favor of ours. Slavery was not self-sustaining: It had to be enforced minute by minute, and each act of suppression represented a choice. When we understand that, we become capable of understanding just how much agency we do possess. We become free to choose love over hate, tolerance over intolerance, and genuine freedom over the privilege produced through oppression.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m playing with the outline of a historical novel about the aftermath of violence. It’s about a young black girl forced to piece her life back together after a riot. I want to examine how we’re shaped by violence and loss, and how human resilience allows us to overcome the things that were meant to destroy us. It’s easy to invoke love, but how do you put love back at the center of your life when hatred has taken away everything you love? It’s a story about hurt and healing and how we come to have and sustain hope not just for ourselves, but for our communities. And there is a crow. A very singular crow.