How we write when we write about IDENTITY (The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison)

posted by Noor

I have always thought of writing as a narcissistic activity. Many of my characters invariably start looking, sounding, and even acting like me. They are always conflicted – struggling with identity, roots, cultural values, treading two value systems at the same time, their senses continuously at war. It is often difficult to separate yourself from your writing, take a step back and view it from a stranger’s eye – but you don’t always have to. Sometimes, to preserve the integrity of the story you want to tell, you absolutely have to draw from what you know best, what you have lived through, what you have observed, witnessed, and learned. Most importantly, in order to recount a story and remain true to its essence, you must do so in an unapologetic fashion and write it not for the reader, but because the story deserves to be told. I learned this from one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison and the genius that is her first novel, The Bluest Eye.

Published in 1970, The Bluest Eye spans a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio. I am not going to recount the story for you all, because that will take me away from the themes that I want to cover today. If you have not read this book, PLEASE do yourselves a favor and get a copy. It is a very fast read, and though the story is tragic, the imagery is delightful. I was struck by the vividness and beauty in the images that Morrison has so effortlessly created. What I really want to focus on is the narrative organization and themes of the novel and how she has managed to create this book of immense power without actually victimizing or criminalizing any of the characters. You are simply told about the suffering and the way Pecola experiences and internalizes it.

1. “Writing without the white gaze”
Toni Morrison has written this book without being cognizant of a white audience. She has not explained herself or her characters. She has simply written this story without apologies or warnings. She has incorporated important elements of the black culture of Lorain, Ohio around the time of the second world war. She has talked about music extensively – both jazz and blues – to the point where you start to hear it as you’re reading the book. Most importantly, she mentions in the afterword that it was very significant for her to use “speakerly” language.

2. Seasons in The Bluest Eye
The novel begins thus: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.” This is compounded by the organization of the book in seasons: autumn, winter, spring, and summer. Right in the first line, Morrison introduces this idea of something being wrong – and we all know it’s not just about the marigolds. There has to be more to it, but she employs a beautiful distraction to develop her theme. By introducing this idea of nature and marigolds that did not sprout, Morrison has skilfully started to build upon the themes of seasons, the natural order, and the thought that “something has gone wrong.” Right away, we learn that Pecola Breedlove is having her father’s baby – the problem of marigolds skirts this horrific reality, which is mentioned in passing, perhaps to make it more bearable. This theme of seasons continues throughout the book.

3. Developing “foils” for the main character and explanation without excuse
(Foil: A character that by contrast serves to highlight the distinctive nature of another character).
Throughout the narrative of The Bluest Eye, we see many contrasts between the Breedloves and the MacTeers. Pecola’s story is so horrifying and tragic that if it had been presented without the strength of Claudia and Frieda, perhaps we, as readers, would not have been able to accept and process it. So Morrison developed the characters of Claudia and Frieda as foils for Pecola’s character. Claudia and Frieda shoulder the weight of Pecola’s suffering because their positive experiences and their strength allows the reader to digest the horror in Pecola’s story. Pecola by herself is too frail to carry the book on her own. Through their positive experiences alongside Pecola’s harsh life, we are able to read the book with a sense of loss and despair, but without getting completely despondent. This is helpful because it allows the reader to see why the characters choose what they choose and how their choices are ultimately a reflect of their experiences.
Cholly, Pecola’s father is a product of his circumstances. This is explanation without excuse. We understand how and why someone like Cholly might come to be. Morrison, at no point, makes excuses for his behavior, but when you learn about Cholly’s experiences – how vulnerable he is made by all that he faced as an adolescent, you begin to understand his motives and why he committed the terrible act of sexually assaulting his daughter. All this is done by Morrison’s organization of the narrative. It is important to pick up a few things here.
The narrative is organized so that we immediately assume that Cholly is a heinous person. Right from the beginning, we know that Pecola was having her father’s baby – many of us immediately develop a bias against Cholly for this reason. However, as the narrative unfolds and we gradually begin to discover what brought Cholly to this stage in his life, we begin to understand his intentions and motivations. This is an extremely difficult task for a writer. To make your reader understand your character, think like your character, and realize that what your character does is a culmination and reflection of his/her life experiences is paramount! And very, very difficult. As I mentioned before, however, Morrison has done this effortlessly and seamlessly. The narrative flows from one character’s story to the other’s in a fluid manner.

There is a long list that I still have in my notes – topics that I wanted to highlight in this entry, but I think I should stop now and let you all mull this over. But if you take away anything from this entry, let it be the importance of organizing your narrative. The Bluest Eye is one of my favorite books, and I discover something new in it every time I read it. Please have a clear theme in your mind when you begin to tackle a story. Even if you know exactly what you are writing about, it is very easy to be distracted – adhere to the themes that you want to establish and develop in your work. Use creative ways to explore the nature of your characters. Develop foils – they do more for your characters and your story than you can possibly imagine! Write without apologies and explain without excuses and keep building on those themes.

Here’s to writing like Morrison one day!

Random Trivia: The title of this entry was inspired by a Raymond Carver short story. GUESS WHICH ONE?

Austin’s Favourite Haunt

posted by Afia

Picking up from Shehla’s blurb from last week, consider this the first in a line of completely unrelated posts. Now that we’ve started our group blog format, you can expect to see a LOT of randomness in this space: fiction, news, comment, observations on life and, of course, DWL updates. The only common feature in these blog entries will be that the team behind Desi Writers will be penning them. We’ll get to yap on everything under the sun, and you’ll get a peek into the sordid minds that run this place.

Experimental? So was LSD, a long time ago.

Speaking of tripping, I have a delicious story to tell. About three weeks ago, my husband and I made a dramatic, weekend getaway to Austin. Alright, so we had our toddler with us – but it was the weekend and we did get away from Houston and anything could be considered dramatic as opposed to this city. Unknown to me, ye ol’ better half had set up a real experience for us on our arrival (if you’re still thinking this is about drugs, you’re about to be sorely disappointed). He had booked us into the swanky Driskill Hotel in the heart of downtown Austin – one of the city’s most famous historic landmarks, a living testament to the opulence and grandeur of the South’s past, and widely known to be Texas’ most haunted hotel. Eep!

No, really. There is something about the Driskill that makes it exceptionally susceptible to ghostly activity (some of the staff likes to joke that it’s better than Heaven, so the dead don’t want to move on). Whatever the cause, incidents abound. Grown men (as if that’s supposed to be some measure of rationality) have reported waking up in the middle of the night to find all the faucets in their bathrooms on. Sounds have been heard of a little girl bouncing a ball on the hotel’s main staircase – these have been attributed to a US Senator’s daughter who fell to her death while playing with her ball on those stairs in the late 1800s. Even celebrities have had their share of ghostly experiences at the Driskill: Annie Lennox stayed at the hotel while visiting Austin for a concert, and apparently received some paranormal assistance in choosing what to wear for the performance (she laid out two dresses on the bed and went in for a shower; when she came out, one of the dresses had been neatly put away in the closet).

The story that really caught my attention was a classic case of unrequited love resulting in tragedy. It took place in Room 427, also known as the bride suicide room. In 1989, a young socialite from Houston had been all set to get married when her fiancé broke off their engagement at the eleventh hour. Heartbroken beyond consolation, she escaped to Austin, where she checked into the Driskill and then took the ultimate revenge: she went on a huge shopping spree on her ex’s credit cards and spent every cent of credit he had to his name. Amongst the many expensive purchases she made that day was a gun. The last time she was seen alive was when she walked through the hotel lobby to the elevator, laden with shopping bags.

Her body was found a few days later, crumpled in the bathtub of Room 427. She had clutched a pillow to her chest and shot herself with the very gun that her lover had unknowingly paid for.

Ten years later, two women on a vacation checked into the hotel and requested a room on the 4th floor of the Historic Wing. Some of the Driskill’s formidable array of ghosts were thought to make appearances on that floor. They were disappointed to find that the Historic Wing was closed for renovations. Not to be deterred by logistics, however, the two adventurers took the elevator up in the middle of the night, hoping to catch some paranormal activity. They found the floor dark and completely deserted, the walls swathed in black plastic sheets. A little unnerved, they reconsidered their plan and decided to return to their room.

This is where it gets really interesting. At the elevator, the two ladies were stunned to bump into a young woman who was evidently returning to her room after a full day of shopping. They called out to her and asked if the renovations had been bothering her. The woman stopped in front of Room 427 with all her bags, turned around slowly and replied, “No, not at all.” Sensing that their presence was not welcome, the ghost-hunting friends returned to their room for the night. They were determined to take on the hotel management the next day for refusing them a room when clearly other guests were being allowed to stay in the Historic Wing.

When they did return with the baffled concierge the next morning, not a soul was to be found on the floor (pun intended). The room to which the mysterious guest had gone was empty, save a ladder and a few paint cans. No one could explain why anybody would be returning from a shopping expedition at 2 am.

I’ve heard a lot of spooky stories in my lifetime (who hasn’t had those late-night, giggly assemblies with cousins where everyone’s terrified out of their wits but still strangely compelled to recount one ghostly incident after the other?) but somehow, this one really affected me. The thought of a jilted bride who took it upon herself to die by her own hand, alone in a hotel room, knowing that the only way she could touch the love of her life was through his wallet… it signified such terrible loneliness and absence of hope. Could it be that her spirit actually roams those corridors, reliving those final terrible moments over and over? Could she still be keeping watch over the last door she ever walked through?

We’ll never really know… but there are two women out there somewhere who have their suspicions.