Sumiko Saulson’s Black Women in Horror Writing #8: Toni Morrison

Beloved

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Review/Thinkpiece/Hybrid-sorta thing by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)

Alright, I’m back! Not that I haven’t been around, actually. But I need to get back to my Black Women in Horror Writing project. Alas my short attention span got in the way, I developed an interest in China Mieville, and felt inclined to read some more nonfiction. As a result I have been preoccupied with The Scar and Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet. But just today I started Toni Morrison’s novel Love on audiobook, which so far as been extraordinary (and not just for Morrison’s sultry voice acting).

Toni Morrison, as it happens, is perhaps the most notable author on Sumiko Saulson’s list. I first read her a couple summers ago, and have been fighting back impulses to read her novels back to back ever since. (Something I would never recommend, as describing Morrison’s fiction as devastating would be an understatement. Gotta space out that stuff.) I have already read Beloved, and have been saving a review of it for a rainy day, ie when I get lazy like I just did last month. So now seemed the time to delve into it for this series.

My trouble though, is this: What more is there to say about Toni Morrison’s Beloved? It’s incredible, to the point where even the author herself read it decades later and couldn’t believe how good it is. Beloved needs no introduction, and any dissection of its themes and style by yours truly would be a disservice. It doesn’t need my critical eye—my critical eye can, in fact, barely put a dent into its surface.

Beloved is a unique horror novel in that it transcends genre boundaries, becomes something that really only Morrison can write. All I can do is recommend it wholeheartedly, and remind the unassuming reader that it is neither easy nor peaceful to experience. Beloved exists in a contradictory state of both striking lyricism and profane grotesqueness. Its appeal is ubiquitous, attracting Oprah’s Book Club followers to stodgy literary critics. In fact, I can’t really think of an author so universally respected as Toni Morrison. In short, read Beloved. That’s about all I can say.

I don’t quite want to end there, though. So instead allow me to explain a thought that has been teetering in my head ever since I started Love today. Thought being, why am I following the list of Black Women in Horror Writing? Why not something that fits my personal background—vaguely queer white cis dude?

The short of it is because I can’t handle reading that much Dennis Cooper and Clive Barker and William S. Burroughs. But further still, most queer writing hasn’t quite gotten over itself for being queer. At least what I’ve read. Writers like David Leviathan certainly mean well, but they treat queerness like a genre. This fiction is often so damn didactic it doesn’t really feel like queer people are actually the intended audience. We know our own queerness, but these authors don’t move beyond it. Boy Meets Boy, for instance, is entirely fixated upon gay boys in love—and I know, it’s a love story so of course it is. But it is sold as a curiosity, something that is in opposition to the status quo. The recent Symptoms of Being Human appears to be guilty of following this trend as well—a genderqueer protagonist whose main goal is to fixate on what being genderqueer is. Their queerness, in effect, defines these characters. Queer fiction authors don’t let their protagonists just be. They have to stand there and lecture the unknowing audience on what their identity is all about, instead of simply allowing that identity to play out.

I often feel isolated from queer fiction because I don’t feel like it is being written from a genuinely emotional, artistic place—I feel like it is being written to boost minority representation without really representing that minority. Politically charged without the soul, perhaps. Not to say there aren’t good queer novels out there (Alex Gino’s George, hello!), but this wave of didactic novels full of characters seemingly defined by their queerness is overwhelming. It ends up being less than intended, more a tool for getting queer identities out there than a mode of expression for people of those identities.

That’s something I admire black women authors for working actively beyond. Or rather, never even falling into in the first place. It has certainly been the trend in my reading off this list. I know that Toni Morrison, for instance, noticed that very few novels touch upon the subject of female friendship. Thus, she wrote Sula. Sula is one of the most bizarre novels I have ever read, and while it deals intimately with race and gender it does not condescend to its audience—Morrison is not interested in “introducing” the reader to the plight of black women. She simply throws you into it, writes her fiction not to show the world what it means to be a black woman but simply to express herself, whose identity is inextricably tied to blackness and womanhood.

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About Bryan Cebulski

Historian, critic, author. Undercover queer. Aspiring P&C adventure protagonist. Collects bad habits like Jessica Rabbit.
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