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Reflections on Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

Reflections on Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

Sometimes I can’t thank providence enough for making me a person who loves reading. If I didn’t read, my life would be horrible and empty and if I have ever known a single truth, it is that literature has enriched my life in ways I cannot describe.

I recently finished Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, a layered, slim novel (only 165 pages) published in 2008. Though it took me a week to read it, I found that it took much longer for me to mull over it and sort of digest the contents.

A Mercy is set at least a century before the events in Beloved, her better known work, took place. In 1690, America was on the brink of the kind of civilisation from which Beloved was born. It all begins with Jacob Vaark a white settler trying to make a living in a homestead, accepting a little 8-year-old slave Florens, as payment for a debt. He does this despite his distaste for “trading in flesh,” (Which is ironic given the arc the story takes later) but soon Florens is absorbed into life on the Vaark homestead. There’s Vaark’s wife Rebekka; Lina, a Native American slave and a simple-minded foundling Sorrow. The Vaarks, surprisingly, are not the evil-whitey motifs, that you find in a lot of narratives about slavery. They treat their slaves pretty well all things considering – no terrifying stories of beatings and torture. In fact, if you were very dumb, you might even call them a family. Except, of course that they’re not. The word slave runs deep. Morrison uses the story to really explore the beginnings of slavery, to find out the meaning of what it means to be free. She explains, in this discussion at the New York Public Library, that she wanted to eliminate race from the equation completely.

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The story really takes a turn when Jacob dies of small-pox and Rebekka catches it too. Florens must undertake a journey to find a freed man – a blacksmith of African descent- who is some kind of a marvel with medicine. The journey has personal reasons tied up with the obvious; Florens, now 16, is hopelessly in love with the blacksmith. Back stories come through the narration of other three women – Rebekka, Lina and Sorrow and in their stories we get creepy insight into what freedom really means, how slavery was born, what nurtured it and how it stayed untouched and unquestioned for so many years.

It is not a good idea to read Morrison novels and examine your feelings right away. The intensity will mess you up. You have to pause, breathe, read up on your history, re-read and only then can you search your soul to identify the depths that the story and the narrative offer. I did all of that and I was amazed at the things I discovered. Popular culture hasn’t even scraped the surface of what the modern world knows of slavery. Florens’ mother, who in the beginning of the book, begged Jacob to take her daughter, (she sensed that Jacob was a decent man, who would keep Florens safer than she could) was shipped over to America and the book ends with her perspective. “It was there that I learned how I was not a person from my country, nor from my families. I was negrita. Everything. Language, dress, gods, dance, habits, decoration, song – all of it cooked together in the colour of my skin.”

A Mercy is the kind of book that stays with you for days afterward. Its short but it hits so hard, it leaves you breathless. Read. It.

P.S: A shout out to The book lady’s blog that lead me to a bunch of insightful post-book reading.

 

 

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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

That can’t be right: Magic realism and the practical mind

That can’t be right: Magic realism and the practical mind

I just finished re-reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved a couple of days ago. Try reading a book you’ve studied as a text and with each word you relive whole chunks from your life from that time. Suddenly, a damp Bombay breeze turns into a sudden blast of dry Gujarat heat and the leaves outside your first floor Bandra balcony could be the leaves of the Neem tree outside Lecture Room 14, St Xaviers College, Ahmedabad.

As with all good books, I discovered new things and also had different reactions to old things, but one thing hadn’t changed. At 24, I’m still as baffled with the concept of magic realism as I was when I was 19. I found it difficult to digest then and I find it difficult to digest now. Truth be told, my mind is a little too rational to not balk at it.

If the term had to do with just fantasy, I would understand. I love and appreciate fantasy in fiction, but it’s fantasy. It’s supposed to have witches and ghosts and tall geniuses called Dumbledore. But magic realism, or what I understand of it, is a technique used in fiction that brings the decidedly unreal into the real world and turns a blind eye to the impracticality of such a bold move.

Take Beloved. You’re reading late into the night. Phrases like “The silence boomed about the walls like birds in a panic,” are jumping out at you and bludgeoning you with their sheer brilliance. The characters are so believable, their pain so fresh, their small joys so real, their circumstances so tangible and WHAM, just to fuck with you, there’s an element in there that can’t possibly be. Stop! your mind screams, this can’t be! And yet you know that it is so because, there really is no other way. Beloved, as those who have read the book will know, was taken from a real life story. In the Vintage International edition, Morrison explains in a foreword that she wanted the central figure to be “the murdered, not the murderer, the one who lost everything and had no say in any of it.” So that’s how we get 323 brilliantly crafted, breathtakingly poetic pages about a dead baby girl living as flesh and bone with the very mother who smashed her skull against a shed wall and killed her.

“Swallow it,” Morrison seems to be saying. “It’s their reality and it’s yours too.” But in my reality, the dead remain the dead and the living remain so until they’re dead and then new people are born and they live until they die and so on. I mean, that’s just the way it is.

 

Marquez’s One hundred years of solitude goes the same way. It’s perfectly acceptable for Prudencio Aguilar, dead, to converse with Jose Arcadio Buendia, alive. None of the other characters cares one whit. I mean, good god, didn’t One hundred years of solitude have enough characters in it already without Marquez bringing back the dead ones? To say nothing of course, of equally bizarre occurrences mentioned in passing, through the rest of the book.

And it’s not just ghosts either. Hands up if you re-read several passages from Salman Rushdie’s Midnights children, while you were reading it the first time. I thought so.

But forgive my confused rambling. Thus far I’ve mentioned three of the some of the greatest writers known to the modern world. Just goes to show that there’s some amount of genius involved in using magic realism, or any technique as bold, in literature. If I can’t get my head around it, it certainly isn’t because it’s badly written. A poor writer couldn’t possibly get away with it. Not that they don’t try. A certain book called “One night in a call centre” which is about exactly that plus some high handed preaching, has a scene involving a phone call from “God” to salvage a plot clot. Yep. Deus ex machina in the 21st century. That’s just how we IIM graduates roll.

Shudder. Sorry, that last paragraph left a bad taste in my mouth. Let’s rewind to where I say that Morrison, Rushdie and Marquez are three glorious beacons of unadulterated brilliance and have therefore with said brilliance, knocked mediocrity out of the world. Also they’ve earned the right to use as much magic realism as they please in their work. And though I may struggle with wrapping my unsophisticated head around it, I probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

– Sheena

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