Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Paradise (Toni Morrison)

This book sat on my shelf for several years before I actually read it. I'd started it a few times, read the first chapter, had no idea what was going on, lost interest and put it away again. But when I actually sat down to read it (and dedicated myself to the task at hand), I discovered that I'd been missing out on one of the best works of literature I've ever encountered. Yes, it is a somewhat daunting book to read, a challenge of sorts, but more than worth the effort. I do feel like I had a slight advantage, though, as my original copy (the one that sat on my shelves) was misprinted and missing about 60 pages in the middle. Fortunately, I discovered this before I got to that point, so I was able to order a new copy online. Of course, since I couldn't force myself to stop reading until I ran out of consecutive pages, I still had to wait a few days for my new copy to show up. In that time, I went back and re-read the first 193 pages once and the first chapter several times - it made a lot more sense with each subsequent reading, and it provided me with a deeper understanding of the plot and a more intimate knowledge of the characters by the time I finally got to read the ending. But that sentiment sums up my entire feeling toward this book - I got to read this book. It was a privilege granted by Morrison - she wrote it and allows us to indulge in it, and we should be grateful she entrusted us with the opportunity. To say I adored this book would be a drastic understatement.

As I assume most readers do, I wondered which of the women at the convent was the white one. Re-reading over their stories, I realized it could be any of them. Of course, that is the way Morrison intended it to be. Then, because I really am a nerd, I looked up several critical articles about the book, and I found an interview with Morrison herself, in which she briefly touches on the her intentions with race in the book, and, once I put aside my pride and got over the feeling of being the only unenlightened person in the classroom who has the nerve and ignorance to say, "which one is the white woman?" I feel like I gained an entirely new understanding of the context in which Morrison wrote this amazing novel. I'll share a few quotes from the interview (with Time magazine from Jan. 21, 1998):

"There are racial differences among us. Exaggerated and exploited for political and economic purposes. And we have a great deal of baggage, personal feelings about other races because the society has been constructed along racial division.But in fact, when we meet another person one on one, and we know or recognize their race, we pull from that large suitcase of stereotypical information, of learned responses, of habitual reaction, which is the easiest and the laziest way to evaluate other people. The difficult thing and the important thing is to know people as individuals. So knowing that an individual is Asian or white or black is knowing next to nothing. It's knowing some cultural information which one can assume, but one must be wrong. But one must know much more than simply a racial marker. Knowing another person's race is like knowing their height or some other almost irrelevant piece of biological information.

"It was important to me to demonstrate that in "Paradise," by withholding racial markers from a group of black women, among whom was one white woman, so that the reader knew everything, or almost everything, about the characters, their interior lives, their past, their faults, their strengths, except that one small piece of information which was their race. And to either care about that, like the characters, dislike them, or dismiss the characters based on the important information which was what they were really like. And if I could enforce that response in literature, it was a way of saying that race is the least important piece of information we have about another person. Forcing people to react racially to another person is to miss the whole point of humanity."

Morrison succeeds in writing a book that is beyond race. Truly, the experiences and backgrounds of each of the woman are ambivalent to race. Their universal experiences which bond them together do so not just in spite of their race, but oblivious to it, which happens in stark contrast to the town of Ruby, just 17 miles to the south.

Aside from race, the central issue is that of a "paradise," which Morrison refers to as and idea "which is built on exclusion. Chosen people always being those people chosen by God to exclude other people. And fostering an idea of isolation, of safety and bounty is a very appealing idea. But in the Christian sense of the willingness to reach out to others who may be different is the argument of the book. The whole idea of disallowing people is the whole idea of the book." This calls into question the idea of Ruby as being a paradise (as it is both founded as a result of and as an intention for exclusion), the town in which no one dies, at least until the exclusionary tactics ooze outside the town limits to the convent. Do the women achieve their postmortem paradise? Was the convent their exclusive paradise? I probably need to read a few more critical essays about this beautiful novel and re-read it all again. At least I know I'll enjoy every word.

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