Zora Speaks by Eden Royce

When going through the editing process for my debut novel Root Magic, my editor informed me they didn’t publish dialect in fiction, especially not in middle-grade fiction. I’ve been a fan of Zora Neale Hurston’s work for decades. Her dedication to preserving stories of Black Southern life, including dialect, helped immensely when I fought for the right to include Gullah, the Creole language I grew up with, in my book. 

Zora Speaks

I’ve danced with witchdoctors on the hard-packed earth.

I’ve listened to the last slave alive speak of capture and betrayal, and of making a way when there was none. Tell your horse.

If you ain’t got no horse, betta ride your cow.

Some call it dialect. Some call it pidgin. The Niggerati call it ignant. They told me, Don’t use that language, it keeps us down when we trying to come up. Scratching and surviving.

But every tongue got to confess. Ain’t that right, Tea Cake?

I call it authentic. The words of those who held my hand in trust through rituals most don’t get to see. Smoke in my lungs and in my eyes, helping me see clearer. And their words, a cadence that can’t be matched. English and Kreyòl and French swirling from the mouths of white-garbed initiates. Vodoun in sound and speech. The language of spirits. How can I not give you the sound of their words? For you will never hear them speak.

I call it true. The words of the South, syrup slow. Chew on them like sugar cane…tough as the lives we’ve lived here. Hard, but sweet enough to live on. The husks of cotton bolls are sharp metal leaves, piercing flesh to leave blood. Gullah and Loo-siana Creole. The words of swamps and marsh and hush-hush magic. How can I not give you the words of the slave? His story is ours. History is ours. And you will never hear him speak.

My words are true, but who wants to hear truth? Publishers didn’t. They wanted glossy clean words, easy to understand, easy to print, but so hard for me to write. You say you want the truth, but that is a lie. The Black Experience must be this way or that. Turned toward the sun. Tidied up, presented on a silver platter for those too good to sit on the dirt floor.

I said no. I wrote it for you to read, for you to see. My sweat went into those words. The sweat of Haiti, the sweat of the South, the sweat of this woman who told them all — no, I will not clean this up. These words, these lives, this speech, this dialect is true and dirty and clean and right.

For this, I died alone, penniless, my grave unmarked, unremarkable, unvisited. My words buried for all but the most dedicated to see.

Until a Walker came.

She gave me a stone, returned my name, which had been lost to time.

Now, I speak again in the words of the voodooienne, in the words of the enslaved, which are still the truest I’ve ever heard.

Eden Royce is a writer from Charleston, South Carolina and a Shirley Jackson Award nominee. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative FictionThe Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & HorrorStrange Horizons, and Lightspeed Magazine. Her debut novel Root Magic is a 2022 Walter Dean Myers Award Honoree and a Nebula Award Finalist for outstanding children’s literature. Find her online at edenroyce.com.


Art: World Telegram photographer no known restrictions to the public domain ALT Image of Zora Neale Hurston beating a hountar or mama drum


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