#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Toni Morrison

Blog Post 13: Sula (1974)

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In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighbourhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.

I first read ‘Sula’ as an undergraduate back in the 80s. It was one of the texts studied as part of the Women Writers unit that I took, standing alongside ‘A Room of One’s One’, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, ‘The Awakening’, ‘The Wild Girl’, and ‘Ariel’. It was utterly mesmerising and so different to anything I had ever read.

Morrison’s language is lyrical, outspoken, surprising; the subject matter disturbing, violent, joyful. ‘Sula’ is a short novel, spare and yet dense, packed with vivid imagery and epic wonder, forty-five years covered, back and forth, in a flash.

Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the rivers with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.

This is the summer the main characters, Nel and Sula, turn twelve. The summer that ‘they became skittish, frightened and bold – all at the same time.’ The story revolves around their friendship. They are so close they are like one, two halves – Nel, the conformer and Sula, the free spirit. Their bond sets them apart. 

Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be. Their meeting was fortunate, for it let them use each other to grow on. Daughters of distant mothers and incomprehensible fathers (Sula’s because he was dead; Nel’s because he wasn’t), they found in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for. 

Set in rural Ohio from the First World War to the Second, this African American community has to live off the less fertile and more exposed hills than their richer white neighbours down in the valley. In a society of segregation, we are shown the reality of this systematic oppression. Sula and Nel, their mothers and grandmothers, are doubly oppressed. To be a woman and black is something Nel ‘gets on with’. But this is not an option for Sula. She leaves town, travels across America, and ten years later returns. And maybe there is only one way this can end for the friends? Especially where Nel’s husband, Jude, is concerned.

A breathtaking read.

 

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