I’ve been meaning to read more of Toni Morrison’s work for a long time – as a matter of fact, I plan to read my way through her complete works, piece by piece. Sula, first published in 1973, is the second novel of this winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, whose writing offered up a multi-faceted language about Black experiences, and which continues to serve as a great source of inspiration to many. Sula is set in a Black neighbourhood on a hill called “Bottom” on the outskirts of the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. Through several characters, readers encounter, chronologically, the details of life in the neighbourhood between the years 1919 and 1965, a time starkly determined by the World Wars. The character of Sula Peace plays a central role for the place, even if she does not always appear directly. Sula defies social structures and is secretly admired for this on the one hand, but at the same time serves as the place’s scapegoat.
The location and the division of the residential areas delineate the dividing lines between the Black and the white communities. The story also focuses on the role of Black women and the sometimes oppressive gender norms of the time. Sula grows up in a female household with her mother and grandmother, each making their way through life in their own way. The grandmother is rumoured to have deliberately thrown herself in front of a train in order to receive a pension for her lost leg. It remains unclear until the end – but somehow she manages, after her husband leaves her, to raise her three children and survive as a one-legged woman. Sula’s mother, Hannah, is also single and enjoys lust and sensuality throughout her short life. Sula, who despite her criticism of them, in some ways emulates both women by appearing unscrupulous and sex-positive and never wanting to marry, incurs the wrath – and secret envy – of the other residents in the village as an adult. This family constellation and the different survival strategies represented centre questions around love, sexuality and (in)dependence that are as relevant today as they were when Morrison wrote the book.
In addition, the novel illuminates the friendship between Sula and Nel. The two have been inseparable since childhood, not least because of an unspeakable secret. They are portrayed as profoundly different ends of a spectrum, who nevertheless blend together in their friendship. When Sula disappears for 10 years and returns, however, Nel turns against her, as does the rest of the village. Only after Sula’s death does Nel realize that their friendship was the most intimate relationship of her life. All of the novel’s female characters open up different perspectives on womanhood.
Morrison’s writing style, despite the often violent events, is marked by a dark humour – it both startles, and makes the horror easier to read. It is this style that drew me in most strongly to Sula as I read. I devoured this little book in no time at all, and am still thinking about the funny yet terrifying scenes it describes. I look forward to reading through Morrison’s complete works one at a time – a friend already lent me Jazz.
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