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Society & Success

Morrison tells story of poor black people without lens of pity

Morrison is known for writing books that are heavily centred on black American women. PHOTO | FILE
Morrison is known for writing books that are heavily centred on black American women. PHOTO | FILE 

Sula is the second book by Nobel Prize winning American author Toni Morrison, originally published in 1973.

I am embarrassed to admit that I finally finished reading it almost a year after picking it up. However, this is not an indictment of Morrison’s writing; rather, it’s because I sensed early on that this was a book I needed to be ready to read.

This is due to the depth that’s usually present in her story telling and the themes, which tend to be heavy and require being psychologically ready and receptive to it (at least in my view).

The story is centred on two women, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who are close friends despite being from different backgrounds.

While Nel is raised in a strict and almost too proper a household, Sula is the wild child of a most unusual home that includes a promiscuous mother, a seemingly cold-hearted and one-legged grandmother (the story of the loss of this limb forms an unusual sub-plot) and the temporary inhabitants that treat their large home as an inn.

Yet despite these differences, the two girls are able to forge a tight-knit friendship, each one’s life intertwining with the other, much to the chagrin of Nel’s strict Christian mother.

We later learn that her mother’s discomfort stems from seeing the fiercely stubborn and independent nature of her own mother, who was a call girl in the big city, in both girls.

As they get older, Nel conforms more and more to societal rules (her mother has succeeded in stamping out any fire she had within her) while Sula goes in the complete opposite direction.

Nel settles down and has a family while Sula, with seemingly nothing in the world to anchor in or hold her back, reaches full self-actualisation as an adult.

But will the two now polar opposite girls be able to maintain the friendship as it was before? Sula returns from the city after a long separation from Nel and it is at this point that the story really begins.

The book takes you on a journey that culminates in a surprise ending that I don’t intend to give away.

Morrison is known for writing books that are heavily centred on black American women and their experiences without leaving much room to the white or male gaze, and this one is no exception.

Sula is set in an all-black neighbourhood called The Bottom, and while it is in a town in the State of Ohio, you will be hard pressed to find any main characters that are not African American.

Similarly, the greatest character development in the book is reserved for the two female protagonists in the group, Sula and Nel, who sometimes become antagonists.

This is important to note because in contemporary literature, aside from books set wholly in Africa, you will find it difficult to find western literature that completely devotes the main story to marginalised poor black people, especially black female characters, without giving in to the white gaze.

This is no mean feat, and is laudable because not many writers are able to present the lives of lower class black people without using a lens of pity and in the process dehumanising them.

Because, as Morrison teaches us, poor people are more than the sum total of their unprivileged existence.

Morrison instead allows us to see them as we see ourselves, regular people who despite their material circumstances carry on rich and fulfilling lives.

It’s also not a coincidence that Morrison’s body of work has been hailed by some as being fundamental to the emergence of feminist literary criticism.

I could not recommend this book more.

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