Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

09 Mar 2015, 20:13 p.m.

Words About Words About Words

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2015 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I'm most of the way through Beloved by Toni Morrison -- my thanks to Debbie Notkin for causing me to take a deep breath and open it again.

Reading it now, I'm grateful for all the skills and context I've learned over my life as a reader, because Beloved rewards close reading, and because I could imagine being a more confused reader if I were less versed in the history of slavery in the US.

Spoilers ahead!

I am only partway through Beloved, but I can already venture a guess that a strong theme here is: the often racist inadequacy and deceptiveness of the written word. Sethe would have had "Dearly Beloved" written on the gravestone, not just "Beloved", but didn't think to ask for both words until too late. Paul D can't read, but he knows that "there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear." Baby Suggs didn't need to read aloud from a Bible to preach The Word, and "Jenny Whitlow" was written on her sales ticket but that doesn't make it her name. Beloved, speaking/thinking of past experiences, expresses sentence fragments and allusions, including "how can I say things that are pictures". And the schoolteacher measured Sethe and the Sweet Home men, and wrote down their particulars, and instructed his pupils to run data analysis on the two columns of Sethe's "human" and "animal" characteristics ("And don't forget to line them up.").

This book is a fantasy, that is, it has something magical/supernatural in it, and I want to find out how that resolves and read all the other work it's in conversation with, inside and outside of whatever genres.

End of spoilers.

Morrison's also discussing intimacy and bodies and homes and permission, and detoxing from belonging to someone else, and healthy and poisonous desires, and a bunch of other topics of course. The story has enough atrocities that I can't comfortably read it while eating, so, giant trigger warning for terrible things that happened to black people in the US in the nineteenth century. But if you haven't read it, I hope you will read it, so we can talk about it.