I was recently gifted with (and essentially forced to read) my first Toni Morrison. Toni is a renowned female black author that has gripped the hearts of many avid readers.
Sula is one of her literary fictions. After my baptism into Toni Morrison’s work, I have to admit that I finally understand the deep respect many hold for her work.
In Sula, Toni Morrison fiercely defies social conventions- not only through her characters and the message Sula forces one to confront- but also in the manner that she writes the book. In a period when black authors had a box that they needed to conform to in terms of how they tell stories, Sula is a breath of fresh air in its strong refusal to be classified as anything other than good fiction.
Sula is a story about two friends, whose race and gender-though the critical points of contention in the story-Toni fights to make irrelevant. Sula and Nel live as they want to, with an intentional disregard for social norms and confines. This is until a tragedy occurs which gradually leads Nel to gravitate back to social norms to mask her role in the incident and to play the role of the ‘good’ one in the aftermath of the tragedy. Sula on the other hand does not change, instead, as her compatriots like Nel grow into their set social norms, Sula’s blatant refusal to regard her gender or race as things that come with preset definitions renders her even more repulsive to the conservative community.
It is in this brilliant contrast between the gravitation of Nel to the role of ‘good’ and the community fiercely fighting to keep in tact their preset definitions of ‘good’ versus Sula and her family’s refusal to pay any attention to the demands of social etiquette, that Toni Morrison clearly brings to the surface how biased and preconceived our binary definitions of ‘good vs. evil’ are.
Sula forces you to look internally. At some points, I saw parts of myself in Nel and some of my deepest longings for freedom in Sula. This spectrum of Sula to Nel really proves that the fight within us isn’t just between good and evil, rather, it is between freedom to be truly ourselves (however grotesque that is) and the pull to fit into social conforms.
For fear of giving away too much, I would like to explore one personal key takeout from the book as alluded to above: the attempt to erase binary views on good and evil.
Toni Morrison, through the characters of Sula and Nel along with the supporting characters beckons us to confront the spectrum of good and evil. She forces the reader to question the purist idea of either or in looking at these two concepts. While social convention defines one thing as ‘good’ and another as ‘evil’, Toni Morrison counter argues that things are not that simple. Sometimes goodness is worn to mask the evil that one really has within them. So in order to keep intact these binary views, people at times wear the mask of a certain side (good/ evil) within the confines of social conventions and definitions. Through the character of Nel, we see how this perceived superior position of ‘good’ is synonymous with social convention. In Sula to contrast, we see how the the perceived position of ‘evil’ is synonymous with being fully comfortable in one’s crude self. It is through this spectrum that we see the pivotal role of the other characters in the book that Toni Morrison uses to drive this point of no simple ‘black and white’ home. The brilliance in her writing unfolds the story beautifully and forces you think critically.
In closing, I would like to give a warning: the book is not for the lazy/ passive reader. It forces you to dig deeper within yourself to try make sense of the story and to connect the dots. Toni Morrison gives no easy way out for her readers nor does she write a typical and cliché narrative. She is resolute in writing the way she likes and forcing you to dig deeper than you would like to. It is for this reason that I absolutely would recommend this book to anyone tired of reading a typical and predictable narrative.