Author Interview: Rae Chesny

The Rising Tilde had the amazing opportunity to interview Rae Chesny, the author of Zora’s Garden.

Here’s how it went.

What does ‘imagination’ mean to you?

Imagination is the intangible art form of coming up with new ideas and finding new ways to envision things. With imagination, anything is possible; there are many ways to birth what you imagine into tangible forms.

What advice do you have for children today who are struggling with imagination?

I don’t think that lack of imagination is a problem most children have. Children I have worked with often feel unsafe showcasing their imaginations or feel unsupported in being imaginative. Instead, I think we live in a world that doesn’t value imagination or the conditions necessary for the imagination to flourish. Instead, it values the tangible form of what that imagination produces, which, even as an adult artist, is something I struggle with. The solutions are found in honoring the imagination itself and not expecting an output. Focus on nurturing the imagination itself, especially with children.

To children, I say your ideas and the way you see things are a gift. Hold onto that gift because it can change the world.

We heard that Zora inspired your affinity for gardening. Could you tell us about your garden?

Zora Neale Hurston gardened throughout her life. Even as a child in Eatonville, FL, her family had 5 acres of land where they grew food and raised livestock. This is the setting for my children’s book Zora’s Garden. Throughout her life, gardening seemed to be the practice that sustained Zora’s mental health. After reading 600 hundred letters written by Zora and feeling her pride in her gardens, I decided to start one with my then 3-year-old son during the pandemic. This is our third year gardening, and we seem to have quite the green thumbs (or red and purple thumbs, as my son says.) Each year our garden expands, and I am thankful for how it supports my own peace and mental health practice. This year we have broccoli, lettuce, sweet peas, carrots, beets, bell peppers, cucumbers, pumpkins, corn, watermelon, strawberries, cherry tomatoes, pears, and peaches. We added a raised bed of colorful flowers to welcome pollinators. Unexpectedly, it’s become a home to the wild bunny rabbit who sleeps there but luckily hasn’t eaten anything from our garden thus far. My son Cam has named him (or her) Bunnyhop.

The shipping of Zora’s Garden has begun. What are you most excited about, and what made you want to give out flower and vegetable seeds with each copy of Zora’s Garden?

Zora’s Garden is the best story and book I have ever produced. I am immensely proud of the multi-faceted ways it honors the life, legacy, and essence of Zora Neale Hurston. Sharing her legacy has been my life’s work since 2018. Welcoming children into this work means everything to me. Though there are children’s books that adapt her work and a beautiful picture biography, Zora’s Garden is unique because it blends fact and fiction in a way that hasn’t been done before. There are so many layers that even adults, historians, writers, and educators versed in Zora have fun trying to cherry-pick out the facts versus the fiction. As a Zora Neale Hurston Scholar and storyteller, the mix is something special that I am honored to share. I hope that all readers feel my deep love for Zora through how the story is crafted. I am probably most excited for readers to “meet” Zora through the pages and begin their own research. Finally, I hope that children find the inspiration to begin telling stories too.

The decision to gift a packet of flower or vegetable seeds with Zora’s Garden probably stems from my work as a social education expert, mom, and gardener. Gardens are an excellent educational space through sensory play, STEM activities, and exploration. Seeing something grow from a seed is truly a miracle. Having a hand in that miracle is a gift. Plus, it’s another way to connect with Zora by allowing children to do something she loved. It also ties to the book’s plot, which is my thing. I strategically couple children’s literature I write with hands-on activities to extend the experience. 

How would your life have changed if you didn’t miss reading “Their Eyes Were Watching God” when you first had the chance? 

I am a huge proponent of the belief that everything happens in its time. I hadn’t thought about it before, but my life was very tumultuous when I was assigned Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school. I was in the midst of moving away from home and grappling with all the fall out of that decision. I don’t think I had enough peace to read such an important work at the time.

In hindsight, I think reading any of Zora’s work before I did would have negatively affected the way I came to know her. In turn, my presentation style and confidence in my writing would also have suffered. I first got to know Zora as a Black woman and artist. The lens through which I present her hinges on our deeply personal connection through those commonalities. Had I read any of her work first, I don’t know if I could have ever gotten over her immense genius to find the value in her remarkable humanness. I highly doubt it. I didn’t read her work until I had done my second year of Zora Neale Hurston presentions. That was a gift.

Could you tell us about the 600 letters that Zora wrote?

Yes, it’s a beautifully and meticulously edited collection that Carla Kaplan published in her book Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Kaplan precedes each grouping of letters with context, which is an important addition. I preceded A Life in Letters with Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by the late Valerie Boyd. Wrapped in Rainbows is the leading biography on Zora Neale Hurston. The massive text baptized me into my Zora work. It also gave me a deeper context in which to understand Zora’s life, her letters, and some historical context to begin my own research. The letters are intimate and give a window into who Zora truly was, showcasing all of her contradictions, flaws, genius, unrealized dreams, and proclivities.

What do you think Lucy Hurston would say to parents raising a vivacious child like Zora?

Lucy Hurston was Zora’s greatest supporter and fiercest protector. She implored all her children to “jump at de sun,” which is another way of saying reach for the stars. But jumping is such a much more robust action than reaching, isn’t it? I believe Zora, who didn’t fit any of the expectations of a girl born in 1891, took Lucy’s words to heart the most out of all of The Hurston siblings. Under her mother’s protection, Zora held onto her fierce and relenting spirit, even when Lucy died in 1904. I often joke that with a son born 2 days before Zora’s birthday, I see the glory and what was required of Ms. Lucy as a mother. I think Ms. Lucy would tell all children to jump at de sun and tell their parents not to block their leaping. Watching their precious little feet leave the ground might be scary, but if you don’t encourage them to jump, you will never know how high they can go. A vivacious child needs protection and support because the world will try to steal that away and break them of that spirit. As their parent, it’s our job to ensure they get the opportunity to be their fullest self and maintain “jumping courage.” God help whoever tries to get in their way. I would like to think I have a little Ms. Lucy in me, and I hope that my fellow parents do too.

Where are you headed in your journey of keeping Zora’s legacy alive?

Regarding Zora, I plan to share her legacy for the rest of my life. This is living work, so there are so many possibilities. I have many books I plan to write that will offer insight into Zora in new ways while making that knowledge accessible and engaging for general audiences. I plan to continue giving Zora presentations as often as I can. Aside from that, I remain open. In a quote about my journey, Zora’s grandniece once remarked that along the way, “Zora does answer back.” There are so many exciting things in the works, and some I believe Zora herself is cooking up. So I remain open to the call and the journey. It has been beautiful and unexpected thus far. I can only imagine what the future holds.

Do you feel any pressure keeping Zora’s legacy alive?

I have never been asked this question before, so kudos to you for that. Lol. I honestly don’t feel pressure because I don’t think this work is a singular effort. You have the Zora Neale Hurston Trust, which has kept Zora and The Hurston Family Legacy alive for decades while generously sharing both with the world. Universities, educators, nonprofits, cultural organizations, municipalities, and grassroots organizations are working to keep Zora alive and celebrated. My confidence and clarity are rooted in the welcoming way I offer others a chance to know Zora. Their responses are what keep me inspired to keep going. 

I think it is important to remember that Zora does not belong solely to any one of us. Because of that, I find great pride in contributing to the work. As much as I can, I work to collaborate with and support others who are doing the same. With Zora’s Garden, school visits, and children’s events, I hope to inspire the next generation of Zora Scholars, storytellers, artists, etc. I am prayerful that some children I serve will take up the mantle one day.

Considering your experience in education and writing so far, what is your view of children’s education and books today? Could they be improved?

I absolutely believe that education and how we approach it needs to be expanded. Authentic and inclusive representation and access in children’s literature also need to be. We must go beyond the superficial appearances of diversity and reach into the areas of culture and language too. In fact, when I initially penned Zora’s Garden, I did so with all the standard, accepted English practices in mind. But then I thought about Zora’s work in her lifetime. As a trained anthropologist and writer, Zora wrote and recorded in dialect. She was ridiculed throughout her life for it. But the origin of her intention was to showcase language as an element of cultural expression that identifies the people who use it in a very vivid way. She saw the true language of a people to be poetry that contextualized their ways of life. Zora saw everyone’s language and culture as worthy and equal. This was a powerful stance in a time where troublesome race relations fueled the stereotypical way nonwhite people were viewed. Such views were pervasive in Zora’s own field of anthropology and, of course, education at all levels. She revolutionized anthropology with her great reverence for authentic diversity. So I changed Zora’s Garden to feature dialect to continue that work and celebrate my beloved grandfather, who held an accent from Mississippi. I did it to honor my ancestors and the tongue I use when I am among friends and family. That choice changed Zora’s Garden in a way I will always cherish. It allowed me to step into my place as a Language Justice Activist (a title Zora needs to be crowned with). Since its release, I have been amazed at how children engage with Zora’s Garden. Throughout my career, I have read my other works to 5,000 children around the world with varying attention spans and levels of interest in reading. But the way children in the communities I serve listen intently to Zora’s Garden without pause is unlike anything I have ever seen. I believe it’s because of the familiarity with the language. What would education look like if it were culturally responsive and linguistically inclusive? How many reluctant readers and learners would become enthralled in the learning process? As a formerly reluctant reader, I venture to say everything would change for the better. Zora gifted me my ancestry and a connection to my roots. But the general disapproval of using dialect and vernacular in Zora’s work is still present today. In fact, I have had several eager book reviewers refuse to review Zora’s Garden after receiving the story and seeing the dialect. 

How many books can we expect from you in the future?

I plan to be writing and publishing books for the rest of my life, so I couldn’t give an estimate. Let’s just say I am as excited to find out what texts this ever-turning mind and big dreamer’s heart will birth into the world.

What would you suggest should be the first book we should read if we want to get started with Zora’s books?

I suggest the following for different interest levels from different genres.

Fiction/Short Story: Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick- This short story collection challenges Zora’s literary legacy by offering an array of subject matter, including divorce, reverse migration, and domestic issues in marriage. My favorite short story of all time is Drenched in Light.

Nonfiction/Fieldwork: Barracoon-This work showcases Zora’s prowess as an ethnographer. In it, she records the personal account of Oluwale Kossula, aka Cudjoe Lewis’ experience as an enslaved person during slavery. Released posthumously, Barracoon is rich with the phonetic spellings of Kossula’s personal account from capture to life after enslavement. Reading it feels like sitting on the porch shaded by the hot sun, eating watermelon with them as you listen in.

Fiction/Novel: Their Eyes Were Watching God-Hold your own in discussions of the Hurston canon by reading about the interior life and quest for self-love by Janie Crawford. This is Zora’s seminal text and the most lauded. Alternatively, my favorite novel by Zora is Jonah’s Gourd Vine.

Nonfiction/Biography: Wrapped In Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston by Valerie Boyd-This beautifully crafted biography is equal parts scholarly research and a loving retelling of the life of Zora Neale Hurston. Packed from cover to cover with professional and deeply personal information about Zora, Valerie provides readers with a treasure trove of well-researched information.

Is there anything you would like to say to anyone reading this interview?

I first want to thank Rising Tilde for graciously and generously sharing its platform with me. Support for indie authors and independent scholars such as myself is so vital for the success and reach of our work. I extend infinite gratitude for your support of Zora’s Garden with the review and this author interview.

To the readers, I thank you for being generous with your time in reading this piece. I hope that it is evident that I am passionate about my work. I regard it and Zora as two of the greatest gifts I have been given in my lifetime. If you want to learn more about Zora Neale Hurston, please visit www.raechesny.com and select Zora’s Eatonville Resources and Offerings tab. Autographed copies of Zora’s Garden + complimentary garden seed gifts can be purchased directly through www.juniorstoyteller.com. Lastly, I greatly enjoy doing Zora Neale Hurston presentations for colleges, universities, libraries, book clubs, and school visits K-12. If you would like to book me for general audiences, specialized audiences, or school visits, please email raechesny@gmail.com. I am most active on Instagram at @raechesny and @zoras_garden.

Thank you for your time, Rae!

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