Morrison and Roy- Writing Intimacy
Toni Morrison- The Bluest Eye, Arundhati Roy- The God of Small Things
The late Toni Morrison became a writing hero of mine last year. Never before have I been so keen to read a writers entire corpus after reading just one of their books (the first of hers that I read was Beloved), and my first reaction was one of just huge regret that I hadn’t come across her earlier. One of the many things I love about her work is its fearless honesty; even when it comes to the most horrifying and unpalatable themes she is unwavering in her mission to expose the failings of societies built upon difference and fear. As Zadie Smith wrote in her tribute, she succeeds magnificently when it comes to opening up a space for marginalised voices:
‘For when it comes to ways of telling, ways of seeing, every man’s story is infinite. Every black woman’s, too. This infinite terrain is what she opened up for girls like me who had feared otherwise.’
In this article, I want to talk about how both Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy, another female novelist and idol of mine, are determined to expose racism within their respective nations. One of the key themes they utilise in order to do this is the presentation of the intimacy- both writers express what is both private and public, domestic and societal, as pivotal to the understanding of structures of dominance. In Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye and Roy’s 1997 novel The God of Small Things (Booker prize winning), both writers dissipate boundaries between public and private in specific ways that emphasise how racialised empire states can exploit both spheres of life. Roy alludes to this in her title, equating her trope of the small things with the intimate:
‘This is a book which connects the very smallest things to the very biggest. Whether it’s the dent that a baby spider makes on the surface of water in a pond […] or how history and politics intrude into your life […] into the most intimate relationships between people.’
Morrison highlights similar intentions; she has also codified blueprints of domestic and private life in strong correlation with structures of dominance:
‘The public exposure of a private confidence […] the writing was the disclosure of secrets, secrets ‘we’ shared and those withheld from us by ourselves and by the world outside the community.’
The importance of exposing imbalances in power, ‘the secrets withheld’, beginning on the most microscopic of levels, the relationships we have with those closest to us and even the relationship we have with ourselves, leads to an exposure of wider patterns of prejudice in both novels. Being seen to ignore the attempt of individual figures to redefine and emancipate themselves, to overlook this in favour of a generalised wider political agenda on state-focused patterns of prejudice comes, for Roy, with a warning:
‘That personal despair could never be desperate enough. That something happened when personal turmoil dropped by at the wayside shrine of the vast, violent, circling, driving, ridiculous, insane,
unfeasible, public turmoil of a nation. That Big God howled like a hot wind, […] Then Small God (cozy and contained, private and limited) came away cauterized […] Inured by the confirmation of his own inconsequence, he became resilient and truly indifferent.’
Morrison also highlights the dangers of this negation of the individual, through the complex inner lives of even the most despicable of her characters. Father Cholly’s violence towards his daughter Pecola is written by Morrison as bred from the racism and fear he has experienced in his lifetime. Morrison is clear in her emphasis of this, lending Cholly a detailed back story and so refusing to let the reader thoroughly demonise him, as much as they may want to. This is a masterful decision, exposing misconceptions of the home as safe, innocent or protected from structures of dominance. Rather than a monster, he is framed as a husband and father and product of nurture- hegemonic structures of what it means to be male.
'His revulsion was a reaction to her young, helpless, hopeless presence […] why did she have to look so whipped? She was a child- unburdened- why wasn’t she happy? The clear statement of her misery was an accusation. He wanted to break her neck- but tenderly […] How dare she love him?’
Intimacy is violated by the presence of prejudice; prejudice mimicked and transferred down the hierarchy of power- white man vs black man, man vs woman, adult vs child. Audre Lorde writes of this pattern as ‘that anger [that] lay like a pool of acid deep inside me, and whenever I felt deeply, I felt it, attaching itself […] Upon those as powerless as I’. The confusion inherent in Cholly’s discourse, passing paradoxically between violence and warmth, insinuates a failed reaching out towards an intimacy that is inevitably tainted by hatred, guilt and the desire for dominance.
One of Roy’s elder characters and ‘untouchables’, Vellya Paapen, in despair at his own son’s affair with a touchable woman, reflects on the intimate without realising the subversive potential of what he is describing:
‘What his Untouchable son had touched. More than touched.
Within these moments of transgressive contact, Roy describes how ‘history was wrong-footed, caught off guard […] sloughed off like an old snakeskin […] in its absence it left an aura […] as plain to feel as the heat on a hot day […] So obvious that no-one noticed’. Emphasised is the unselfconsciousness of this act of intimacy, both unnoticeable and natural in its rightness. This contrasts with the novel’s famous love laws of history, which act to harness what is natural, metonymized in the ‘old, scarred pelt […] drag[ging] them back to where they really lived […] Where the Love Laws lay down who should be loved’. Be it that the touchable and untouchable pair can only exist through the small things, ‘ant-bites on each other’s bottoms […] the minute spider’, this is a start, a resistance, even in the face of fear of death, of the alienation of the other:
‘[Velutha] tried to hate [Ammu].
She’s one of them, he told himself. Just another one of them.
She had deep dimples when she smiled. Her eyes were always somewhere else.
Madness slunk in through a chink in History. It only took a moment.’
Contrasting with this, Morrison’s Claudia, young schoolgirl and narrator, describes the feeling of individual helplessness and inaction as unavoidable in the face of wider public injustices. Using metaphors of the land, she describes how she didn’t help Pecola:
‘I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. […] when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live.
We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late.’
Refusing accountability, she denies Pecola the fundamental human right to life. Structures of prejudice that infect a society contain their durability and power in what Ahmed describes as the mechanical systematicity and negation of individual affect within hate:
‘The signs of hate surface by evoking a sense of threat and risk, but one that cannot be simply located or found. It is the failure of hate to be located in a given object or figure, which allows it to generate the effects that it does.’
By resisting intimate and individualising relations, power structures evolve and naturalise themselves into the societal subject. Roy’s narrator evokes the greatest shock, during the attack on Velutha, in the conveyance of this impersonality:
‘The sober, steady, brutality, the economy of it all.
Cracking an egg to make an omelette […]
Impelled by feelings that were primal yet paradoxically wholly impersonal.’
The novelists’ choice to write the intimate however, focusing, as the novel must, on the singular plight of its chosen protagonists, potentializes rewritings of dominance. Audre Lorde appeals to her race ‘to move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves’. To re-humanise oneself, as Morrison and Roy advocate, is to evoke care and compassion for both yourself and for others.
Finalising The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes that ‘love is never any better than the lover […] Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly’. Perhaps this oversimplifies; as Morrison has evoked, through complex convolutions of oppression, hate breeds hate. By resisting the urge to stereotype and categorise, commonly under the catalyst of fear of the collapse of a sense of self, an individual acts to prevent intimate structures of dominance. At their worst, these can be structures wherein the marginalised individual, as Suniti Namjoshi writes, is ‘the Living Example of what [people] most genuinely did not want to become […] the lowliest creature [who] serves humanity, indeed, she serves and serves’. If the sign of a great writer is the ability to imagine what is not the self with compassion and believability, writers writing intimacy hold the potential to overcome, both creatively and socially, boundaries of unfamiliarity and fear and, in turn, structures of dominance.
Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014)
— Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000)
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (New York: Ten Speed Press,
Suniti Namjoshi, Feminist Fables (London: Virago Press, 1994)
Zadie Smith, Daughters of Toni: A Remembrance <https://pen.org/daughters-of-toni/>