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Firsts

Firsts

I’m about to devour From Heaven Lake, Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, the first book Vikram Seth ever wrote. I’ve only gotten through the foreword as of now, a foreword Seth wrote for the 1990 edition to put the contents into perspective. This is going to be an important book for me, because in the past one month or so, my reading has gone for a toss. You can probably blame it on being homeless. I have several books that I intend to read and haven’t gotten around to. I’ve chosen From Heaven Lake, for two reasons – first, I’ve never read a travel book before, second this is Seth’s first ever published book and I have a certain soft spot for the first books of great authors.

Every book is a labour of love, but surely there’s a special spot reserved for the first. Especially when you consider the space, both physical and mental, from where they came. From heaven lake came from the pen of a much younger Seth, not the spry old guy we know now, but a wandering college student who was growing his hair and not really doing what he was supposed to do. Seth was being a typical 20 something – questioning his decisions, his path, buying time, writing, struggling and thinking. The book came out of a road trip and it’s interesting to note that Seth who has a profound insight into human character, and an astounding knowledge base about everything under the sun, started out by publishing a frikking journal he wrote while on a road trip.

On the other hand, take The Bluest Eye, which in my mind set the tone for whatever fiction Morrison was to write in the coming years. I don’t like to put writers in boxes, but there’s a strong activism in everything she writes. It’s kind of fitting that she started out by exploring the wrongness of what America believed with the whole black is beautiful phenomenon. In every book that followed The bluest eye, there was a theme that was at odds with the nice things people were saying, or the judgements people were casting.

Whenever I daydream about my first published book, I wonder what it will say about me. Will it come out of pain? Will I be in a space in my life where I’m happy, or restless or content? Will I write as a woman, a lover, an orphan? (That sounded scarily Alaniss Morrissette, but you know what I mean.)

Just as Art can’t be viewed in a vacuum, the artist can never be totally divorced from his work. There is a lot of weight attached to a created work. For starters, it means you’ll forever be referred to as so and so of so and so fame. It also means that for all eternity (that is if you produce something good enough to last for all eternity) no one will read your book, listen to your song or look at your painting and not wonder what you were thinking at the time of its creation. Art can make you vulnerable and your first may end up defining you forever. And if that’s not pressure, then The Wire is not the greatest show on earth.

Beloved: A tribute to Toni Morrison

Beloved: A tribute to Toni Morrison

I know that some of the readers of this blog, sorry website, used to be my classmates or seniors at St. Xavier’s College, where I spent three years studying and falling in love with English Literature. Those readers will remember that in the third year there would be certain mornings where the thirty of us who were also getting a degree in functional English would settle down for our American Literature class where two mornings a week we would spend an hour reading and discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Those classes were not classes. They left us exhausted, emotionally drained and completely disoriented. We would talk, we would listen, fall silent and mull over feelings that were alien to our 20 year old selves – feelings of loss, anger, displacement, regret and pain. One particular class, the scene when Sethe’s milk was stolen, a girl broke down and cried. As a reader, I’d always been amazed at how words could move me despite myself, but never in my life had I experienced something like those classes, nor, I venture to say, will I ever. With Morrison, and right through those American Literature sessions that thirty 20 year olds sat through, I knew unfailingly I was in the presence of genius.

I’m at a loss to explain just how much of an impact Toni Morrison, who was christened Chloe Wafford, has had on me. I own a copy of the bluest eye and beloved but I have also read, actually devoured, Tar Baby. Each time I pick them up I experience awe, definitely, but mostly wonder. What’s great about each of these books in their own ways is that they voice the fears and aspirations of a community against a socio-political background, without overtly doing so or making a big deal out of it. Incidentally, this book, the authors first, was written at a time when America was awash with slogans like “Black is beautiful.” “I was trying to say, in The Bluest Eye, wait a minute. Guys. There was a time when black wasn’t beautiful. And you hurt.””

In The Bluest Eye, you read a scene about a girl wanting something she can never have, but you see, through other characters and several powerful scenes, why she wants it. The basest human action (spoiler alert)- a drunken father raping his youngest child, or a mother brutally murdering her newborn  – is portrayed with the “why” firmly in place. There is still a sense of justice, an overwhelming sense of “but this is wrong”, but we are made aware, very subtly, that this wrong is a result of what man has made of man.

Toni Morrison baulks when gushing journalists call her work poetic, but seeing as she’ll never meet me personally to slap me for doing this, I’m going to go out on a limb that it is. Not in terms of the language,(her novels aren’t prettified prose, in fact, the idiom in dialogue is downright grassroots) but in the structure. Events unfold with the imagery and subsequent back story of an epic. In Beloved, Sethe is relieved of the baby ghost by the arrival of the an image of four horsemen from the Apocalypse. Sweet Home, belying its restful name, was a plantation where all manner of unspeakable things happened. 124, (the number 3 conspicuously absent) was a house where these unspeakable things came back. There is a kind of depth, a complexity, to the way novels present themselves to the reader. Call it whatever you like, say its too difficult, but it’s awesome and you can’t escape it. She’s awesome. Toni Morrison is AWESOME.

 

– Sheena

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