The Place Where Meaning May Lie: Toni Morrison

All readers and writers have novels which are their benchmark for quality, creativity, and literary verve.
This novel is my benchmark, my lifelong inspiration.imgres.jpg


Like Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’, Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’ exploded my views on how language works. Like George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’, this novel stunned me with its subtle view on the politics of a complicated world at a certain time in history,.

However Toni Morrison’ed ‘Beloved’, was the first great novel I read without bidding from scholar or teacher on page or in person. It was 1987 when I first read this novel and felt it to be great. I did not know then that ‘Beloved’ would win the Pulitzer Prize, or its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I read this novel once, then reread it instantly to find out why it had made such an impact on me. Then I read it again, to ignite more fireworks in my head with Toni Morrison’s words, her prisms of meaning, her verbal music. That was years ago. This week, I read it again and, the catherine-wheels have started to spin, spitting off fresh insights to be encoded into my idea of ‘Beloved’.

At the centre of this glittering catherine-wheel of a novel are Sethe, her flesh-daughter Denver and her-ghost daughter Beloved. Spinning around these three is Baby Suggs, shamanistic woman of great heart, mother to Sethe’s absent husband, Halle, who worked years of Sundays to buy his beloved mother’s freedom,

Spinning around them is is the incident in the shed of a house on the banks of the Ohio eighteen years before. Here, rather than have her baby daughter returned to the spoilage of a slave’s life, Sethe kills her with a saw.

Towards the edge of catherine-wheel spins Sweet Home, the plantation where Sethe was born, where Baby Suggs worked in the kitchen and where Halle, Paul D and the other ‘Sweet Home men’, worked the land for the apparently benevolent Mr Garner, who kindly allowed Halle to work years of his free Sundays to buy his mother’s freedom.

Further out beyond Sweet Home spins the sea, from where came Sethe’s mother who spoke a language Sethe could not understand, and who ended at the end of a hangman’s rope.

And beyond the sea spins Africa, always Africa.

Time is given little linear respect in this novel: it flashes inwards and outwards, backwards and forwards to allow us a deeper and deeper sense of the interior landscapes not just of Sethe and Baby Suggs, but of Denver and of Paul D, who comes to Ohio to find Sethe; and of old Stamp Paid who rescues slaves on the banks of the Ohio.

The palest, whitest, most glittering light shines on the interior landscape of ‘Beloved’, the aggressive mischievous ghost finally embodied as a girl, ‘who had new skin, lineless and smooth, including the knuckles of her hands.’

The novel inhabits not only light but music, in the layering and counterpointing of word and word and word, and in its incantatory prose rhythms. Buried in there too is the syncopated development of motif, which spreads, divides, then fuses in the artfully artless manner of jazz. Music also lives in the novel in plain sight: Upstairs Beloved was dancing. A little two step, two step, make a new step, slide slide and strut on down.

Already praised for her earlier novels, Morrison changed gear as a writer with ‘Beloved’. She took her sense of the essential music of language to greater heights in her later novel, ‘Jazz’, set in 1920’s Harlem. Then came ‘Paradise’, which Morrison wrote as the final instalment of a trilogy that began with ‘Beloved’. ‘Paradise’ begins with the best first lines, ‘They shoot the white girl first…’ but for me ‘Beloved’ is the best, the first great begetting.

Morrison, a career academic, is a highly7 conscious creator. Straight narrative, plain talk, fancy allegory, elliptical forms, metaphoric language, magic and music are her fingertip tools. In her Nobel Prize speech, she said, ‘The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers and writers. Although its poise is sometimes a displacing experience, it is not a substitute for it. It arcs towards the place where meaning may lie.’

Now that ‘Beloved’ is on firmly fixed on curriculum lists we are treated to a wide range of analytical perspectives of the novel and its writer. However, arguments regarding the informing issues of race or of gender seem to me cripplingly reductive. Morrison herself said, in an article in Time Magazine ‘Race is the least reliable information you can have about something. It’s real information, but it tells you next to nothing.’ 

The race under the microscope here is the human race.

And gender? Well the feminist in me finds much to cherish in the closeness, the high definition and elaboration of the female characters: their strengths and their discreet consuming passions; in the elevation here of female sensuality in food and colour, appetite and domestic routine. But the tenderness and acute perception which Morrison also shows Paul D and Stamp Paid, and even the absent Halle, properly includes men in this universe of pain and redemption.

‘Beloved’ shoots out light, life and even hope in all directions, including ours. It’s the best.
Read it!

(NB This article was first published in Mslexia Magazine. They edited out my admonition ‘Read it!’ I have restored it here,)



Book promotion myths

This piece by  Ruth Ann Nordin makes excellent sense to me

Among other wise things she says So why are we pigeon holing writers? This is what I feel we do with book promotion.  We box writers into believing they must engage in certain activities online in a certain way if they are to be successful.  (Success often means money, of course.  The intrinsic value you bring to a reader’s life or the passion you had as you wrote the story rarely get factored into “success”.)

There are many advisors – Nordin calls them Gurus – out there who base promotion of books on business plans based on commodities like cars or washing powder without considering how different are writers to manufacturers an books to social commodities.

As Ruth Nordin saysThe bottom line is that writers need the freedom and relief of knowing they aren’t failures just because they don’t promote books a certain way.

I feel many independent and self publishers will find reassurance in this article.


The Damselfly Journal

The Damselfly Journal will reflect thoughts and developments at Damselfly Books and the writers who help and support it.

Wendy Robertson writes:

I was inspired by friends to create Damselfly Books through my own earlier experience of mainstream publishing and aflater relishing the creativity and opportunities offered to good writers by independent publishing

After relishing and surviving academic life I became a full-time writer. I have now published twenty-three novels, both historical and contemporary, as well as two short story collections. I still write occasional articles on issues close to her heart.  I also love writing my blog  A Life Twice Tasted

I love living in historic South Durham. My  Victorian house has played a role in more than one of my novels. I love travelling – experiences which have inspired my novels – from Scotland to London, from  Singapore to Colorado Springs, from France  to Ireland. Inevitably these experiences have found significant reflections in many of my books.

I was, for five years on and off, Writer in Residence at HMP Low Newton – a life-changing experience. I learned a lot, helping a  wide range of women to raise their self-esteem and realise their potential through original writing.  That experience is also reflected in my novel   Paulie’s Web

For two years I produced and hosted a local radio show, The Writing Game which featured a wide range of writers and literary discussions.

I have a Master’s degree in in Education which involved deep study into childhood and child development. This has possibly had an influence on my latest novel  The Bad Child

It might just be relevant to say that my M.Ed dissertation was entitled Language and Power. So, becoming a professional writer fits quite well with this! The University invited me to pursue my studies to  PhD level but I chose then to focus entirely on writing realistic fiction.

I have to say that each novel I have written has felt like researching,  studying for and writing a separate PhD in itself. A nice thing.

I am now newly and happily involved with Damselfly Books which adds a fascinating creative dimension to the writing process.


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