Wednesday, March 07, 2012

142. Sula by Toni Morrison

In Sula (Plume, 1973; 174) Morrison continued her brilliant portrayal of the sad history of African Americans in a manner she alone could handle. Morrison's mind is different and the circumference of what is possible is wider than any other, except perhaps writers of science fiction and paranormal. And this is what makes Morrison a unique writer; for she sets her unique happenings in the midst of ordinary people and write of it (or them) as if it were normal everyday affair. In Song of Solomon it was about Macon Milkman Dead following the 'wing-trails' of his ancestors who were deemed to have flown back to Africa to escape slavery (which is rooted in history). It was also about a Pilate, the woman who was born without a navel and who walked extremely great distances and did things that ordinary people cannot and would not be able to do. In Beloved it was about Sethe and her love for her children even after they escaped treachery and torture from Teacher. It is also about the ghost of Beloved, a daughter she killed to avoid her being taken back into slavery. Both of these stories trace the life of an individual, mostly a woman, who in a period of need or dilemma takes a drastic decision that would define her path and her relationship with the wider society, both African and Whites, forever. Mostly, whereas the Whites shun the blacks, the blacks shun this family and its decision-maker forever because she is different from them and have done things that aren't 'normal'. Yet, the protagonist in all these acted on the premise of love, absolute love, purest love untainted with personal gratification. Both Sethe and Pilate were selfless, they loved people, they offered their souls, they were unique and blessed with preternatural qualities.

Perhaps both Song of Solomon and Beloved took roots in Sula. In Sula, Morrison analysed what it takes to be a woman and black in the period just after slavery. Her keen observation and unique narrative voice, style and how she juggle with words, make reading Sula both beautiful and sad. The story centres around four main women: Eva Peace, Hannah Peace, Sula Peace and Sula's friend Nel Wright who lived at Bottom in the Medallion. Bottom was assigned by the Whites of Medallion to blacks and it's on top of the hill where farming is nearly impossible. It was described by the givers as the bottom of heaven. Eva raised her four children all alone when her husband BoyBoy took off and left Eva with nothing. Eva had to scrape to survive, had to depend entirely on people as she was unable to work because she was nursing Ralph (Plum) and the distance between where she lived and the nearest place where work could be obtained meant that she had to leave the baby with Hannah, the oldest, who was only five years old at the time. One day Eva left all her children with a neighbour promising to come the next day, only to appear eighteen months later with one leg. To take care of her children, Sula had thrown one of what she loved most, the only thing she was proud of - her legs - under a train to earn insurance and a monthly allowance. And it is through this that Eva built the house on Carpenter's Road. Pearl (Eva's third daughter) married at fourteen and moved to Flint, Michigan; Plum went to fight in the war. Hannah married Rekus; he died when Sula was about three years.

Eva's house became open to everybody, strays, strangers, and people looking for a place to spend the night.  But the women in the house loved men and this brought them under the foreboding eyes of the people of Bottom, though they love the maleness for its own sake. Thus, even though Hannah slept with most of the men of Bottom she never really loved them to take them from their wives. She simply refused to live without men and hers was a natural kind of love unaffected by conscious enticement, either of movement, speech or of self-beautification. And all along Sula was observing. When Eva burnt her own son, Plum, after he had come from the war and had hooked on to drugs, possibly heroin, Hannah questioned Eva of her love to them. This incensed Eva but it troubled Hannah so that when one day Eva - sitting in her bed room on the first floor - saw Hannah burning she jumped out of the window to cover her burning daughter with herself but landed badly. 

Sula and Nel had also been friends with some bad had happened between them. Sula, playing with Chicken Little, had swung the boy around but their hands disengaged and the boy had landed in the river and had died. They kept this secret to themselves. With time Nel married Jude Greene and Sula left Bottom. Years later Sula would come to Bottom with an attitude that would not sit right with the people of Bottom, both the black men and women. Sula might have inherited her grandmother's incorrigibility and her mother's sexual indulgences and together with the burden of that accidental murder of Chicken and what she had heard her mother say one time that hurt her so much that she could stand and watch with subtle glee in her eyes when Hannah burnt, might have caused her to live this kind of experimental life. For back at Bottom Sula slept with almost every man she could get and the first of which was Jude Greene which was chanced upon by Nel leading to a break in their friendship. Sula had looked at Nel as her other self and so she never thought of causing her pain by sleeping with Jude. They had always shared: comparing how boys kissed; what lines they used. When they were young they had always doubted that women were jealous only afraid that their husbands would find out that there is nothing unique about them. Having lived in a mainly women-dominated household where none was married, Sula knew very little about marriage and possessiveness. And all these together had shaped her life. 

But people began to talk about her, about how the pigeons that greeted her reentry into Medallion and then Bottom foreboded evil and how they should stay away from her. In fact, Sula's presence changed how the people of Bottom behaved. They began to love and cherish everything that Sula does not have. They showed uncommon love towards their husbands, their children, grandparents and more. So that when she died this bond dissolved and the people went back to their usual lives.

In Sula, Morrison - as in all her characters - never set out to create a perfect, pure, and irreproachable protagonist. At least not by the standards people judge others with. Her protagonists live by their own standards, norms and values and so does Sula. Sula was no man's pet and would not succumb to no one and took no nonsense from any man. She believed that whatever she makes of her life would be her making and not those handed down to her by some man.

Sula is a beautiful book but not an easy one not in the read but in the reaction of the reader to the events that unfold, as with both of Morrison's books I have read. She extends the boundaries of the novel. Sula is a book that examines what it takes to be black and a woman. Very much recommended.

10 comments:

  1. I agree with you, Nana that this novel portrays characters that do not conform to convention or what others expect of them. Nevertheless, I think Sula is a deep novel, digging deep into the lives of black women who have been forced by their circumstances, mostly poverty to carve out thier own code of ethics and live by it. Sometimes, love, and a strong desire to see that your children turn out right can drive a woman to excesses. But her code of ethics make those excesses seem right.

    Eva lived by her own code, one that her children would not live by as they also lived by thier own code. Sula tried to live by her own code and that of her mother and grandmother. But did it work for her? I wonder what happened to her in the end. Good review, Nana.

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    1. I believe Sula had her code that's why she remained unmarried and lived (and died) 'freely'.

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  2. I have not read anything by Morrison yet, but have heard her work praised almost everywhere. If I were to pick up just one of her works to try, which would you recommend, Nana? By the way, this was a really wonderful review!

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    1. Hi Zibilee, I've only three of her books so I can definitely tell which of her books is best suited as an introduction to Morrison. However, Beloved is considered her greatest (if there is anything like that) book. The prose is sweet and varied. More like an extended poetry. Her subjects (in all the three i've read) are difficult to take; they cause physical pain and she excruciatingly portrays an equally painful period in America's history. Song of Solomon is also sweet and so too is Sula. If you are not a fan of the 'para-normal' (which I never had any problem with) you might start with Sula first. But once you graze through Beloved, all the others become open to you.

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  3. I read Sula for a Women in Literature class I took in college. I thought it was powerful, and after reading your review, I want to read it again!

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  4. I've only read this and The Bluest Eye, and I've read half of Beloved a few times (!) but I think her work is amazing. Sula was a selection for a small F2F bookgroup that I was in, and it led to some intense discussions about the nature of her character and the choices that she made; I think it would be a great re-read because there is so much substance to Morrison's storytelling.

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    1. I have the Bluest Eye but have not read it. I can imagine the argument this will generate because Morrison's books aren't easy with a thin line between what is appropriate and inappropriate.

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  5. I have Sula and a couple of her books on my shelves. In fact they've been there for sometime, I am wondering when I will have to pick any. This sounds like an important book though!

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    1. Morrison is not an author I'd suggest you keep her book for more than a month. It should move forward on your TBRs.

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