The short, but incredibly impactful part of Beloved which changed the way I saw literature and writing.
Yesterday was a day of mourning. When the world loses a literary great, particularly one of Toni Morrison’s standing and ability, the literary world’s shared mourning experience produces this melancholic, reverent retelling of an author’s most poignant and important works. The day of collective mourning upon an author’s death is filled by Impactful quotes and retold memories by those whose lives were touched.
This, I suppose, is mine. I am not a novelist, I’m not an essayist, I’m barely an effective comedy blogger. But this is something I feel I need to share.
It was the Spring semester of 2017, the second semester of my senior year, which should’ve been my final semester, except I had effectively misused my Freshman year trying to pursue journalism, a career path which I figured out I was too meek to undertake a little bit too late. I was lucky to have a semester to go, though. At that point, I was in the midst of a too-rare period of my life, wherein I felt happy, secure, and I held an unclear but optimistic sense of the future. I had little in the way of a future track, but I didn’t care what the future held anyway.
I took English 340, an introductory class in literary criticism. In our literature unit, we covered two novels – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Frankenstein was the rare required summer reading novel I actually appreciated as a high-schooler, I tore back into it and back flooded memories of the surprise that came from Shelley’s incredible ability to make a horrid abominable creature so sympathetic. For a second, I felt again what it was like to be seventeen and melting down so many of my preconceived notions about what classic literature.
And Beloved, in much the same way, melted down and reformed the way that I understood literature. What enamored me was a combination of the layered characters Morrison wrote, embroiled in personal and existential struggles with the backing of hundreds of years of oppression weighing upon them, and her ability to move from narrator to narrator, changing the mood and tone of each chapter while maintaining the haunted air of 124 Bluestone Road.
It was deeply affecting, all of it. Each chapter brought something else, conflicting me between enthrallment, guilt, and a pain I’d never fully feel due to my own identity. Trying to fully understand even her most transparent characters – Sethe, Paul D, Denver, was fascinating because they were enigmatic and nakedly human at the same time.
Then I reached Chapter 22.
In the library copy of the book I was using, the chapters were not numbered, but someone in the past had scribbled chapter numbers in the book’s upper corners. Beloved’s twenty-second chapter, which begins “I AM BELOVED and she is mine.” is told from the perspective of Beloved, the enigmatic force behind the narrative. The unknown, the girl, the ghost, the woman, the daughter, the reborn.
Her narration was like nothing I’d ever read before – poetic, beautiful, affecting, terrible, terrifying, so personal but at the same time built upon hundreds and hundreds of years of history. Beloved’s narration is clipped, but rhythmic, at points feeling like the rocking of a ship, and the details that crack through her voice are evocative in a way that just floored me the first time I read it.
I was sitting in a chair on the fourth floor of the University of Kansas’ Watson Library. Something so simple struck me at that moment:
Toni Morrison wrote that. Toni Morrison sat down and wrote that. A human hand, from a human mind, created the work that was affecting me so severely. That passage, effectively, codified to me precisely what writing was, what it could mean.
I had to write about this chapter. I had to relate what Beloved’s voice made me feel, and I poured myself into the final term paper I wrote for the class, focusing on Beloved’s memories which at once seemed impossible to hold but impossible to strike from her. My professor really encouraged me to put everything into it, and what I got out from it felt so special, I was proud of it by the end. For a person like me, who’d spent most of his public school days fighting for good grades out of fear of parental punishment and had spent much of his university experience trying hard to find a real purpose in his work… That paper showed me that writing really could be something I could take pride in.
And those two aspects of writing coming together, the wonder at the skill of an incredible author and the passion to come from recognizing my own value, it gave me a motivation. From then on, I had to dedicate myself to showing others what writing can do for them. That is why I study rhetoric, that is why I put so much of myself into writing tutorial, and ultimately that is why I’ve made the teaching of writing my main focus in life.
The world has lost an incredible writer and person, but Morrison’s spirit will continue to thrive in the thousands of writers and readers her work has inspired. We are all incredibly to have lived at the same time she did, and those to come will be lucky to live in a world where echoes of her work and life continue to ring.