By Toni Morrison
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: Vintage
Asali Solomon writes:
I’ve been reading Sula since I was too young to understand much of what was going on. Reading it now, as a writer and a professor, it continues to give me the feeling that I’m moving in dark waters, sometimes treacherously deep, but always welcoming. There is still much I don’t understand. What’s up with the Deweys: three unrelated boys who become identical and never grow up? Does Eva really put her leg under a train track for insurance? Why do Sula and her best friend Nel drown the faultless Chicken Little? I keep going back, because Sula combines the allure of the juiciest gossip with the authority and mystery of a sacred text.
In general, Toni Morrison’s work is filled to bursting with references to the biblical canon. Scholars have also isolated references in her work to other belief systems, some originating in West Africa. Characters in Sula perish by water, fire, and trinities abound. But references to the bible are not what make the novel seem transcribed from an otherworldly source. It is that each character is as enigmatic as they are familiar and that the story’s bloodcurdling acts of violence, treachery, and love seem to belong to an elusive grand design. It is that Morrison poses countless questions, but answers a completely different set. It is that this story, centrally about the friendship between two girls in Ohio spanning from WWI to the 1960s, turns out to be a book about just everything. Also, Sula comes with its own philosophical system: a persistent sneak attack on binary systems of understanding. While good might be good and bad may be bad, good is not better.
The character Sula, for women and the people who are interested in them, is herself a myth, a legend, a worldly saint who offers something different each reading. In 1973 when Sula was published, the character Sula stood out sharply among the vast majority of black female heroines for the fact that she was actually brown-skinned. Though this seems (absurdly when you think about it) a particular political statement on Morrison’s part, it is connected to something universally inspiring about Sula. She finds herself fascinating and sexy despite the indifference of her community and the world outside of it. She is also creative, self-centered, and unapologetically forthright. As a little girl with a dearly loved mother of her own, I was chilled by how Sula watches her own mother burn to death “not because she was paralyzed but because she was interested.” As a teenager who navigated the occasionally threatening landscapes of the city with a best friend, I found Sula a badass for protecting her best friend Nel against the menacing white boys who chase them daily. “If I can do that to myself, what do you suppose I’ll do to you?” Sula asks, slicing the tip of her own finger. In my wild twenties (which lasted about six months) I found it hilarious that in the wake of sleeping with Nel’s husband, Sula excuses herself by saying, “I didn’t kill him, I just fucked him.” Now occasionally I wonder how close her personality hews to the definition of sociopath in the DSM V, but still love her as if she were my most magical and unreliable friend. Nel notes, “Sula never competed; she simply helped others define themselves. Other people seemed to turn their volume up when Sula was in the room.” How could you not love that?
But to go on and on about the character Sula, though she is fascinating, is to miss the novel. She is just one of a cast of characters whose stories make poetry of post-traumatic stress disorder, sleeping around, snobbery, infanticide, and friendship. In fact, the push-pull mystery at the center of Sula is the possibility encapsulated in the friendship of two black girls nearing adulthood in an America on the verge of the Civil Rights movement. What is the meaning of life? we wonder when we turn to our illuminated manuscripts of choice. Sula dies alone thinking “it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.” For her part, Nel realizes too late how much Sula was to her. “We was girls together,” she laments. Shortly after the book concludes with these lines: “It was a fine cry―loud and long―but it had no bottom and no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.” The meaning of life is your best girlfriend. Sula says it and it is so.
Asali Solomon is the author of Get Down: Stories. Her work has been featured in the anthologies Philadelphia Noir, Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives and Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips, and Other Parts and the magazines Vibe, Essence, and O: The Oprah Magazine. She is a recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and is currently at work on a novel. She was a 5 Under 35 selection in 2007. (Photo: Patrick Hinely WorkPlay)
Tiphanie Yanique writes:
Sula is a slight book exploring only the world of a small place (not even a town, not even a neighborhood or a community) called the Bottom. I read the book in one day. It was a day when my infant son was in daycare. I kept putting the book down to consider saving him from the possible dangers of the daycare provider. Sula, for all the academic papers and book club discussions of it being about sisterhood, is also a book about motherhood.
A book of mothers who love their children but admit to not liking them. A book of women who don’t believe they can create children if they want to keep on creating themselves as well. A book of Eva Peace, who first burns her own son to death and then later flings herself out of a window to save her burning daughter. As I read, I couldn’t help but put the book down and think first of my son, then of the brother I helped raise, and finally of my own self and the kind of burden and beauty I must have been for the women who raised me.
My son has already forgotten the warmth of my womb. And don’t I want him to? But as he turns from my body, will he also walk from my home, sprint from the beliefs I instill in him? But even then, don’t I want him to? Don’t I want him to be himself, whoever that turns out to be? But will I know what to make of him? His brightness inside of him that I won’t always understand, will I know how to love it? And if I can’t figure out how to save him in all things then what do I expect from the daycare?
I didn’t rush to the daycare. I kept reading the damn beautiful book, for Sula was clearly saying that parents save just as easily as they destroy. I gripped the book like it was the bed rails I gripped to burst the baby out of me. I was relieved when Sula was over and, yet, blessed to have passed through its horrifying truths.
There’s so much to be said about the importance of Toni Morrison to a black woman writer and reader like myself, and even more to be said about her staggering talent for all readers and writers of literary fiction. But when I finished reading Sula I thought first of Morrison as a mother. As a woman creating herself, even as she created her own children.
Tiphanie Yanique is the author of How to Escape from a Leper Colony, published by Graywolf Press. Her writing has won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship and an Academy of American Poet's Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 2010 5 Under 35. Her writing has been published in Best African American Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, American Short Fiction, and other places. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor in the MFA program at the New School in New York City. (Photo: Moses Djeli)
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Donald Barthelme for Guilty Pleasures
- Gail Godwin for The Odd Woman
- Joseph Heller for Something Happened
- Toni Morrison for Sula
- Vladimir Nabokov for Look at the Harlequins!
- Grace Paley for Enormous Changes at the Last Minute
- Philip Roth for My Life as a Man
- Mark Smith for The Death of a Detective
Fiction Winner That Year: Thomas Williams for The Hair of Harold Roux
Fiction Judges That Year: Stanley Elkin, Elizabeth Hardwick, Richard Locke
The Year in Literature:
- The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Eugenio Montale won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Morrison was a Fiction Finalist once more, in 1987 for Beloved. She also received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 1996.