The Beloved Toni Morrison

Writer’s writer: Morrison devoted pages of text to the reasoning behind a single sentence or two   -  REUTERS/ STEPHEN CHERNIN

A tribute to Toni Morrison (1931-2019), the African-American writer who died on August 5

The word that comes to mind when I think of Toni Morrison is instructive. I first encountered the African-American writer in college where her novel Beloved (1987) was part of the syllabus for a class I didn’t end up taking but was interested in. I read Beloved with some regret that I wouldn’t be among those studying it — it was that rare prescribed text along with Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines (1988) that broadened not only my academic understanding of literature but also my sense of what is empathetically possible in fiction.

At the time, I was learning that certain novels were particularly persuasive tools in understanding how context shapes and warps people. Reading Beloved, set during the years of the American Civil War (1861-65) and the subsequent abolition of slavery, reiterated to me that freedom and the passage of time did not mean that the past ceased to have power. She wove the complexity of all that a person may be laden with (history, gender, sexuality among others) into her sentences making her novels pertinent across geography and context.

Remembered for its powerful historical reimagining and staggering emotional depth, Beloved is littered with quiet moments between two former slaves, Sethe and Paul D. They still bear the scars of repeated abuse, and are plagued by memories of the brutality of life under slavery. But what they have between themselves is a chance for redemption. At one point, Morrison writes, “the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine”. Interspersed with the devastating events within Beloved are a multitude of moments where characters try to bring one another back to a centre that will hold.

Over time, I became acquainted with Morrison’s other novels, but it was Beloved, and to an extent Sula (1973), and her non-fiction and interviews that have stayed with me. She was a writer’s writer who wrote extensively about the process of researching and writing her novels, devoting pages of text to the reasoning behind a single sentence or two. Her novels are accompanied with preludes that explain her motivations for writing the story. This dogged documentation of process and reasoning demystified her fiction to the degree where I understood the work that had gone into the writing, but I could also appreciate that the leaps of imagination her writing took were a magic unique and known to her alone.

Morrison saw the role of the writer as the one who remembers. In her essay The Writer Before The Page, she wrote, “...to remember this world is to create it.” Reading that essay, I was reminded of the difficult relationship with memory that Beloved’s characters had. The remembering in Beloved is slow, leashed by caution. The recounting of those individual memories to others is even more closely guarded. At one point in the novel, Morrison writes of the silence, “The whites didn’t bear speaking on. Everyone knew”. I was struck by the way the remembering she recognises as dangerous or futile for the characters is one she makes possible through her fiction.

In both Beloved and Sula, there are moments that perfectly capture the estrangement between two people, singular moments weighted so heavily that they can collapse an entire relationship into their selves. In Morrison’s deft handling, estrangement is a living, unambiguous, venomous entity. Take this terrifically cruel but true line spoken by the titular character in Sula to an estranged friend, “Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”

Reading Beloved at night, in the wake of Morrison’s passing, I am afraid for a moment to turn off the lights. In the novel is a haunted house, referred to by number — 124 — alone. Its inhabitants have long been shunned by their neighbours. People’s shadows play out scenes unmatched with reality. The unease that lingers with me after reading the novel stems partly from the supernatural, and partly from the thick malevolence that emanates from within the story.

In the novel, Sethe tells her daughter that the latter can never be on the plantation where her mother was forced to work. She says, “If you go there — you who never was there — if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again; it will be there for you, waiting for you.” In Beloved, everything is a little bit more alive than it should be — dead people, memories, even places long abandoned. Sethe’s memory is so alive that the pure force of it would strike her children down should they ever venture to the site of it.

There are stories that only fiction might be able to make room for, and there are stories only a writer like Morrison could have remembered into being. In a eulogy for the writer James Baldwin, she wrote, “I was always a bit better behaved around you, smarter, more capable... wanting to be steady enough to witness the pain you had witnessed...” The company of her writing makes me better, more muscular in my thinking, and more ambitious in my visions for what a writer can be.

Urvashi Bahuguna is the author of Terrarium

Published on August 15, 2019
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