One of my university courses this semester is called Literary Classics: Texts and Tradition. It’s really quite interesting the way that this course is structured: it begins with Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Johnathan Swift and Jane Austen and then merges into Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie. There’s a lackluster lecture on literary criticism and theory thrown in as a filler in week six, and another one on postmodernism in week thirteen. The lectures aren’t great, but the tutorials are generally better as they facilitate more discussion and throwing-around of themes and ideas. Read: I heatedly discuss, challenge and every now and then agree with what the tutor has to say, while everyone else groans softly and rolls their eyes. Yeah, not much has changed there.
Skip back a couple of weeks from now and the novel of the week was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I’ve never attempted to read before (mainly because I couldn’t get through Paradise and only just scraped through Jazz the first time I read it), but am quite happy to have experienced. And yes, it’s a novel you have to experience, rather than read. Some interesting ideas emerged in our discussion, but the one that struck me the most was my lecturer’s comment on the value of looking at Amy Denver’s character in the novel. Amy is a girl who helps Sethe (the protagonist) escape across the Ohio River dividing the slavery-based south and the north, which had outlawed slavery some time before. Most importantly, Amy is a white character in a cast dominated by black characters. This is what made my lecturer’s comment so interesting to me. She had chosen to fixate on the one white character in a novel full of black characters, because, as she stated, she gives us “a different point of view” of the context of the novel.
In an interview about the book, Toni Morrison says that the reader of Beloved is “snatched, yanked, and thrown into an environment completely foreign… and I want it to be the first stroke of the shared experience that might be possible between the reader and the novel’s population. Snatched just as the slaves were from one place to another, from any place to another, without preparation and without defense.”  It’s the perfect example of Morrison’s writerly ethics. When she writes, she writes to decenter the white, to shake up the way her white readership looks at the world of her novels and the world they occupy. In her seminal interview with Jana Wendt in the ABC’s 1998 Uncensored series, she powerfully states “I stood on the border, stood on the edge and claimed it as central.”  Instead of, as Wendt suggests to her, moving her writing over to where everyone else is (ie. where the white audience is), she lets everyone else move over to her. It’s what makes her novels so powerful.
But apparently that’s too confronting for the primarily young, white and privileged Australian students enrolled in my course. Why otherwise would we be asked to look at the only “good” white character in the novel for a “different perspective”?
I was quite taken aback by that comment. Instead of letting the novel take us out of our comfort zones, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the world of the historical other, it’s suggested to us to look at the one positive (if a bit nutty) white character. Why? Presumably to comfort us with the knowledge that some white people actually helped slaves escape to their freedom, rather than oppressing people based on race and ethnicity. I don’t know. Is that demeaning to you? And just a little contrary to what the novel is trying to do? After all, it basically turns around and says “I don’t accept this position as being the center; I am going to take the center back to where I (and other white people) stand.” And even though the lecturer’s comment was most likely meant innocently enough, it still shows something about the way we perceive past racism and trauma, doesn’t it?
Side note: There’s a bit of a comparison to the Stolen Generations here in Australia that can be drawn too. Like the slaves on the middle crossing, the Stolen Generations were dislocated from everything they knew; family, culture, language. I don’t think white people understand how much trauma was actually involved. My understanding of that has shifted after reading Beloved. But that’s another story for another day.
So there are some thoughts to start off posting in this blog. Comments, suggestions or challenges? I’m happy to hear them!
 qtd. from Tally, Justine. The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
 Deans, Gary, Alan Hall, Jana Wendt, and Toni Morrison. Toni Morrison Uncensored. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 2003.
More stuff on Toni Morrison:
I discovered that Toni Morrison has her own Cambridge Companion, which is great for different approaches to her novels and her criticism. Morrison’s Nobel Prize speech is available here. I also recommend her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. The Toni Morrison Uncensored interview is also glorious to watch, right down to the camera angles. Enjoy!