Kinship in “Looking for Zora”

In Alice Walker’s “Looking for Zora” the question of expressing someone as your kin despite the fact that you never knew them is introduced. Throughout her narrative, Alice expresses Zora as her kin in several ways. The most obvious being the fact that she lies about being her niece, her entire journey centers around looking for, finding, and helping someone who she never knew. At the end of her text, she describes,

“There are times–and finding Zora Hurston’s grave was one of them–when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels. It was impossible for me to cry when I saw the field full of weeds where Zora is. Partly this is because I have come to know Zora through her books and she was not a tear sort of person herself; but party, too, it is because there is a point at which even grief feels absurd” (115).

It really struck me that Alice expresses such strong emotions for Zora despite the fact that she never knew her. Yet, she claims to know her, as she states. And to fill in the blanks that Zora’s books leave, she searches for and questions everyone who knew Zora when she was alive. Yet, one must question just how much Alice really knows Zora. Those who knew and cared for Zora, including Dr. Benton didn’t mark Zora’s grave. Was this because they knew Zora wouldn’t care whether or not her grave was marked? If so, was Alice disrespecting the wishes of Zora simply because she thought she knew better than those who really knew her? It’s confusing to consider whether Alice or those who really knew Zora knew her better. Truly, Alice feels so strongly for Zora solely through reading her stories. Yet, those who knew Zora, too, feel strongly for her as seen by Dr. Benton, her neighbor, and Mrs. Moseley. So why didn’t they mark her grave, while Alice felt the need to? Was it simply to pay tribute to someone she so admired, whereas those who really knew Zora felt no need to pay tribute for they did while she was alive?

The question remains as to how kinship is expressed in this tale. It’s obvious that Zora had no biological kin, for she excommunicated herself from them. She had many friends and, as Dr. Benton describes, “Everybody around here loved Zora” (112). Did Zora express her friends as kin? Did she feel that she needed kin at all? If she knew Alice, and that Alice so admired her from her stories, would she have expressed Alice as kin? If Zora was still alive when Alice came to pay her a visit, would she have welcomed her, and praised her for claiming to know her through her stories? Or was the Zora in her stories and the Zora in real life very different? I believe that the fact that Zora is dead allows Alice to express her as kin. In this way she can uphold Zora as an ideal, and nothing that one can say can tarnish Alice’s view of Zora. If Zora was alive, Alice would be able to express her as kin, but to meet Zora would be to understand that the real Zora is, perhaps, different from the Zora in her stories. Yet, I find this problematic, for this allows anyone to express anyone else as kin without those who are expressed as kin knowing they are someone else’s kin. In this way, the person can’t really be someone else’s kin. We’ll never know if Zora would have expressed Alice as kin, and because of this, I don’t think Alice should treat Zora as her kin.

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9 thoughts on “Kinship in “Looking for Zora”

  1. Does this mean kinship necessarily has to be a mutual relationship? What about if we consider Hurston’s writings as an open invitation to join her kin? Does kinship only exist between physical bodies or can it incorporate ideas and writings? I guess, in essence what I am asking is if kinship is literal or figurative? Or both?

    • In this case, it seems clear to me that the kinship between Walker and Hurston is meant to be a powerful figurative one. Walker is searching for her mother’s garden–or rather, all of her mothers’ gardens. It seems as though there is this nebulous, unspoken female heritage that has produced her, and that is what Walker is calling her creative mother.

    • I was thinking the same thing about this seemingly asymmetric and sort of imposed kinship claimed by Alice Walker. And I think it’s really interesting to question the way kinship is commonly conceptualized as something that involves mutual recognition and many a times mutual responsibility. It’s also interesting to see how the idea of kinship almost necessarily accompanies exclusivity. If kinship is something that one can claim without explicit/implicit mutual agreement or recognition, how should we understand the meaning of “joining or being a kin” to someone?

    • I don’t think we can consider Hurston’s writing as an open invitation to join her kin. However, I think Walker uses the fact that both herself and Hurston are black females the basis for Walker taking on the role of Hurston’s kin. I think it’s very common for women to think of themselves as one global community of sisters. In her second piece “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” I think Walker builds the idea that women have this tradition of women to look at as artistic individuals. Cixous calls for women to write and I think that’s partially believes that we must begin creating a history of women authors and works for other women writers to build off of. In fact, it might be the responsibility of women to one another to write and create this history. This responsibility is what I see as creating this kinship between women artists.

    • I think, to Walker, Hurston was what Gilbert and Gubar would refer to as a female literary “predecessor”, and Walker formed this kinship with her accordingly.

  2. I think I would argue that Zora, as a black female writer, becomes a champion of sorts for Walker. I’m not sure if her fixing Zora’s grave is motivated by a need for validation of kinship so much as a desire to honor Zora for everything she represents- an unrecognized gift. There’s something unifying about this oppression that Walker can identify with. That being said, I definitely agree with what you write about Walker’s feelings toward Zora. I would say that for me, personally, kinship can incorporate ideas and writings- I feel a sense of kin with many women I don’t know personally but who are models of intelligence, wit, and strength.

  3. Your point about meeting your heroes versus idolizing the dead is really interesting, especially when you think about Alice’s reactions to various tidbits of news she finds out about Zora along the way. For example, when she first hears (mistakenly) that Zora died of malnutrition, and she’s utterly disappointed. Or when Dr. Benton describes Zora, and Alice is shocked to find that Zora gained weight in her later years. Imagine if Alice had had the chance to meet Hurston, and found her overweight, or found she didn’t always speak in the flowing prose in which she usually writes. Would that sense of kinship remain? Could she even express kinship to a living woman who didn’t reciprocate the sentiment? Are Hurston’s books really an invitation to join her kin?

  4. I don’t know if I was just reading too much into this but I almost felt like Alice Walker was projecting herself into Hurston. Walker’s identification with Hurston felt so natural, to me, that it didn’t occur to me at first reading to question otherwise. They were both black female writers–that, for some reason, seemed enough for me. I don’t know why though (which now seems problematic in itself).
    But what I got out of reading this story was that there seems to be a sense of anxiety on the part of Alice Walker. Her desperation to find Hurston’s grave seemed like an attempt to not let the same thing happen to her when she dies too. That may be the reason why she was trying to hard to relate herself to Hurston as “kin” whether figuratively or literally.

  5. I think Walker knew that she couldn’t realistically claim Hurston as kin and that is why she wanted to do something that her kin would usually do: mark her grave. As she realizes that she knew less about Zora’s life, her need to mark the grave becomes more and more imminent, and in a sense it feels desperate.

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