"A writer and nothing else: a man alone in a room with the English language, trying to get human feelings right. " ~John K. Hutchens, New York Herald Tribune, 10 September 1961

Friday, July 23, 2010

How we write when we write about IDENTITY (The Bluest Eye - Toni Morrison)

posted by Noor

I have always thought of writing as a narcissistic activity. Many of my characters invariably start looking, sounding, and even acting like me. They are always conflicted - struggling with identity, roots, cultural values, treading two value systems at the same time, their senses continuously at war. It is often difficult to separate yourself from your writing, take a step back and view it from a stranger's eye - but you don't always have to. Sometimes, to preserve the integrity of the story you want to tell, you absolutely have to draw from what you know best, what you have lived through, what you have observed, witnessed, and learned. Most importantly, in order to recount a story and remain true to its essence, you must do so in an unapologetic fashion and write it not for the reader, but because the story deserves to be told. I learned this from one of my favorite authors - Toni Morrison and the genius that is her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye spans a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio. I am not going to recount the story for you all, because that will take me away from the themes that I want to cover today. If you have not read this book, PLEASE do yourselves a favor and get a copy. It is a very fast read, and though the story is tragic, the imagery is delightful. I was struck by the vividness and beauty in the images that Morrison has so effortlessly created. What I really want to focus on is the narrative organization and themes of the novel and how she has managed to create this book of immense power without actually victimizing or criminalizing any of the characters. You are simply told about the suffering and the way Pecola experiences and internalizes it.

1. "Writing without the white gaze"
Toni Morrison has written this book without being cognizant of a white audience. She has not explained herself or her characters. She has simply written this story without apologies or warnings. She has incorporated important elements of the black culture of Lorain, Ohio around the time of the second world war. She has talked about music extensively - both jazz and blues - to the point where you start to hear it as you're reading the book. Most importantly, she mentions in the afterword that it was very significant for her to use "speakerly" language.

2. Seasons in The Bluest Eye
The novel begins thus: "Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941." This is compounded by the organization of the book in seasons: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. Right in the first line, Morrison introduces this idea of something being wrong - and we all know it's not just about the marigolds. There has to be more to it, but she employs a beautiful distraction to develop her theme. By introducing this idea of nature and marigolds that did not sprout, Morrison has skilfully started to build upon the themes of seasons, the natural order, and the thought that "something has gone wrong." Right away, we learn that Pecola Breedlove is having her father's baby - the problem of marigolds skirts this horrific reality, which is mentioned in passing, perhaps to make it more bearable. This theme of seasons continues throughout the book.

3. Developing "foils" for the main character and explanation without excuse
(Foil: A character that by contrast serves to highlight the distinctive nature of another character).
Throughout the narrative of The Bluest Eye, we see many contrasts between the Breedloves and the MacTeers. Pecola's story is so horrifying and tragic that if it had been presented without the strength of Claudia and Frieda, perhaps we, as readers, would not have been able to accept and process it. So Morrison developed the characters of Claudia and Frieda as foils for Pecola's character. Claudia and Frieda shoulder the weight of Pecola's suffering because their positive experiences and their strength allows the reader to digest the horror in Pecola's story. Pecola by herself is too frail to carry the book on her own. Through their positive experiences alongside Pecola's harsh life, we are able to read the book with a sense of loss and despair, but without getting completely despondent. This is helpful because it allows the reader to see why the characters choose what they choose and how their choices are ultimately a reflect of their experiences.
Cholly, Pecola's father is a product of his circumstances. This is explanation without excuse. We understand how and why someone like Cholly might come to be. Morrison, at no point, makes excuses for his behavior, but when you learn about Cholly's experiences - how vulnerable he is made by all that he faced as an adolescent, you begin to understand his motives and why he committed the terrible act of sexually assaulting his daughter. All this is done by Morrison's organization of the narrative. It is important to pick up a few things here.
The narrative is organized so that we immediately assume that Cholly is a heinous person. Right from the beginning, we know that Pecola was having her father's baby - many of us immediately develop a bias against Cholly for this reason. However, as the narrative unfolds and we gradually begin to discover what brought Cholly to this stage in his life, we begin to understand his intentions and motivations. This is an extremely difficult task for a writer. To make your reader understand your character, think like your character, and realize that what your character does is a culmination and reflection of his/her life experiences is paramount! And very, very difficult. As I mentioned before, however, Morrison has done this effortlessly and seamlessly. The narrative flows from one character's story to the other's in a fluid manner.


There is a long list that I still have in my notes - topics that I wanted to highlight in this entry, but I think I should stop now and let you all mull this over. But if you take away anything from this entry, let it be the importance of organizing your narrative. The Bluest Eye is one of my favorite books, and I discover something new in it every time I read it. Please have a clear theme in your mind when you begin to tackle a story. Even if you know exactly what you are writing about, it is very easy to be distracted - adhere to the themes that you want to establish and develop in your work. Use creative ways to explore the nature of your characters. Develop foils - they do more for your characters and your story than you can possibly imagine! Write without apologies and explain without excuses and keep building on those themes.

Here's to writing like Morrison one day!

Random Trivia: The title of this entry was inspired by a Raymond Carver short story. GUESS WHICH ONE?

6 comments:

Blue Wit said...

Nice one, Noor. I picked up some good pointers from this piece. Unfortunately, whenever I read something like this it makes me even more painfully aware of how bad my in-progress short story is. Sigh. Maybe the trick is just to read more books like this one, so as to avoid making mistakes and then having to rewrite all the time!

Noor said...

I think it is totally OK to make mistakes and rewrite your story. I was reading something by Toni Morrison and she said something along the lines of how she is always thinking about The Bluest Eye not having done justice to the story she wanted to tell - despite its success and strength. I am sure your short stories will end up being wonderful!

Gin said...

I particularly like the "writing without the white gaze" section. Interesting because what Morrison writes about is the systemic oppression and "other"ing of coloured people by white people. It is difficult in an age of so-called "post-colonialism" and "globalization" to not internalize said gaze, and write unapologetically.

Incidentally, Morrison's characters have internalized the oppression (something discussed in detail in that last letter to god by a character who's name I can't remember) and yet Morrison handles these characters with utmost consideration of their humanity and personhood. Now I want to go read the book again :P

S.W. said...

I love the concept of foils. Thanks for sharing, Noor!

Omer said...
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Omer said...

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