The Origin of Others, by Toni Morrison, Harvard University Press, 136 pp, £19.95, ISBN: 978-0674976450
At what point in a novelist’s career does it become acceptable for them to assess the themes that have preoccupied their work? Often a question answered all too soon, such literary accompaniments can serve to betray a writer’s satisfaction in their own eloquence, often resulting in the kind of self-congratulation that detracts from the body of work itself. Toni Morrison however, has waited just long enough. Prompted by the pressures of our current climate, Morrison delivered a series of lectures at Harvard on “the literature of belonging”, examining the questions she has long asked her readers in her prose. These lectures have since been distilled into her latest work, The Origin of Others, through which Morrison explores the notion of race as the creation of “otherness”, articulately writing in and out of her own works, inherited literary tradition, and accounts of slavery penned by both the enslaver and the enslaved. She awards weight to each of the conclusions that can be drawn from this range of sources, prizing narrative fiction as a fundamental tool in pursuit of being and becoming “other”.
In our delineation between the races, Morrison proposes, we commit ourselves to this psychological act of “othering”. As Ta-Nehisi Coates surmises in an erudite introduction, “If ‘race’ is the work of genes or the gods, or both, then we can forgive ourselves for never having unworked the problem.” “Race” is not the fact in this instance, little more than the classification of a species that we are all members of, but we have elevated racism such that race exists as an arbiter of difference as, if not more significant than wealth, class or gender.
Nowhere more stark can the act of “othering” be seen than in the justification of slavery. It must have been undeniably evident that the slave trade was inhumane, Morrison argues – ignoring defences of social relativism – as sellers would never have wanted to be sold as slaves, when those who were, often committed suicide to avoid it. Shining a light on the often overlooked voices of slaves themselves, Morrison points to Mary Prince’s memoir, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, and her accounts of the sadistic brutality she endured at the her hands of her owners. “How hard they work to define the slave as inhuman, savage, when in fact the definition of the inhuman describes overwhelmingly the punisher,” states Morrison. “It’s as though they are shouting, ‘I am not a beast! I am not a beast! I torture the helpless to prove I am not weak.’” The risk of sympathising with the stranger is shown to be the possibility of becoming one.
The “other”, then, is the stranger, at once knowable and alien, for he or she is simply a version of ourselves whom we hold at arm’s length in our quest for self-preservation. The fetishisation of the “other” is something Morrison explores convincingly through literature, quoting heavily from Faulkner, Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, and highlighting the racial cues that their narratives rely on. There is no better plot point, when a tale requires a family crisis, than “mutual sexual congress between the races”, proposes Morrison. Yet these stories cannot be altogether divorced from the time in which they were written, when “colour laws” were still enforced, and as such were employed regularly as a literary device, laying “the carpet on which many writers have danced to great effect”. By contrast, Morrison has repeatedly engaged in attempting to write non-colourist literature, a task she has found both liberating and difficult, and one that has routinely unnerved her editors. She recognises that such efforts may not be of interest to other black authors, but denies that she is engaged in literary “whitewashing”. Rather she sees herself as undermining the literary colour fetish so immediately and unreservedly reminiscent of slavery itself.
At a time when the pressures of mass movement draw our attention to the borders, where our concept of “home” is most likely to be compromised by the intrusion of strangers, the fear of collapse of white privilege is at its most apparent. Morrison exemplifies the contribution a novelist might make to the shaping of the means we use to move forward, lest we continue to sustain the notion of an “other”. At Random House, where Morrison worked as an editor chiefly concerned with the promotion of African American writers, she was told that one could not “sell books on both sides of the street”. Though fifty years have passed since she first took up her post, the rhetoric still prevails. Unless addressed, the truth of Morrison’s epithet will remain, ever reinforcing the existence of “otherness”: “Why should we want to close the distance when we can simply close the gate?”
Julia O’Mahony is a writer, currently contributing literary features to Totally Dublin magazine, as well as pieces on current affairs, book releases, and cultural goings-on in the Dublin area. She is the winner of the Pete Walsh Award for Critical Writing.