Author: Toni Morrison
Publication date: 1987
Country/culture: African American
For this year’s Book Diaries, in a departure from my usual focus, instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’m looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing. (See my general blog to find out why I’m doing this.)
Sethe is a slave who has escaped slavery and come to lead a new life in Ohio, a free state. However, her home is haunted by spirits, one of which is believed to be the ghost of her dead baby, known only by the name Beloved. As the novel unfolds, we discover more about the horrors that Sethe experienced back on the plantation – and those which continue to pursue her even now she is free.
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What did I find out?
I discovered that, sometimes, you don’t realise how much a book is affecting you until you reach the very end and look back on what has just evolved in front of you. This was certainly the case with Beloved. I read the novel, taking it all in, stopping over certain passages to absorb their full impact and making sure I didn’t miss anything – and yet it was only right at the end, as I came to the closing chapters, that I was able to comprehend the sheer scale of Morrison’s achievement.
It’s very difficult to express how I feel about this story: it’s almost too complex to articulate with mere words. As I was reading, I found out that Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature: I’m not sure whether it was for this book, but I can only imagine that it must have played a significant part in the decision. It is a work of tremendous strength and compassion, forcing us to confront difficult questions, and yet also offering us hope for the future, both for ourselves as individuals and for the human race in general.
What do I now see differently?
As someone from, clearly, a very different background to the novel’s protagonist, I am very aware that there are certain subjects I am not equipped to write about. This has been a topic of some controversy recently, as it has been questioned whether any writer can authentically write (about) characters of wildly different backgrounds and experiences to their own.
On the one hand, we’re writers: getting under the skin of different people is what we do; and to some extent we have to do this, otherwise we’d only ever write our own biographies. For example, I’m not a man, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t include male characters in my novel. However, it has been questioned whether writers of, for example, a particular race can ever hope to fully understand a different race well enough to truly represent the lives of its people.
As far as I know, the themes I’m writing about (such as fear of difference, yearning for a life lost, etc) have resonance for the human race as a whole. However, perhaps because this is my first novel, I’m more naturally inclined to stick to what is familiar, and for me that means characters that are essentially Western. That said, it is a fantasy novel, so I’m also including characters that are dead, undead or supernatural: does this give me some leeway to experiment with the unfamiliar? My fae characters have a mishmash of names that I’ve drawn mainly from Norse or Celtic mythology, but my ghosts have an existence very similar to the one I’ve found described for ghosts in Mesopotamian religions. Is such a mashup acceptable? Does it add to the power of the story or detract from it? Will anyone other than myself find meaning in it?
Beloved has made me question whether my novel will have a reach (and engage interest) beyond the confines of the life I myself live; and, if not, whether that matters. Perhaps we can all only hope to articulate our own thoughts on our own world (inner or outer) – and then turn to other voices in order to find out about their worlds.
How will this inspire my writing?
I remember having particular trouble writing one passage in my book, as it was very different in style and tone to all the other scenes I’d written up to that point. It deals with the ethereal experience of one character’s soul flitting around the cosmos, looking for something to fix on to, and being open to connections with other spirits and creatures present in the void. I don’t think I’ve even described that very well – which shows how difficult it was writing the actual scene!
In order to express the fluid, incomprehensible nature of the experience, I’ve used very odd, erratic, disjointed language: not a linear narrative at all. I have no idea whether this will be accepted by readers as a natural way of articulating that episode in the story, or whether it will confuse the hell out of them. I was heartened, therefore, to discover a similar passage in Beloved, where the experience of the baby’s soul is described in a similar fashion: as it flits through what we assume is the spirit world, we’re not quite clear on what is happening, or where, or how, but we can tell who (or what) is involved, and we get a vague sense of what she is going through.
This has reassured me that odd passages like this won’t necessarily put off the reader. Obviously it remains to be seen whether I can find the skill to deliver my scene with the same impact as Morrison delivers hers in Beloved – but at least now I know it’s possible.
A musical interlude
At first I couldn’t imagine a song that would do this book justice. However, I was inspired to browse through the back catalogue of Nina Simone and came across this track – and it’s perfect in so many ways.