Monday 15 November 2021

Beloved: painful, powerful inspiration - by Rowena House

'Slavery is very predictable. There it is, and there’s some stuff about how it is, and then you get out of it or you don’t. [A story] can’t be driven by slavery. It has to be the interior life of some people, a small group of people, and everything that they do is impacted on by the horror of slavery, but they are also people.’ 

These words are Toni Morrison’s, from an interview in 1987 when her astonishing Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved was published.

They have reverberated about my head for years after I read them in Celia Brayfield’s reflections on historical writing in Writing Historical Fiction, A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (on page 36 if you’d like the context). 

Published in 2014, this companion book, too, is becoming history, yet I find I return to both Celia Brayfield’s and Toni Morrison’s wisdom again and again for guidance and inspiration for my own seventeenth century work-in-progress. 

I think this particular quote reverberates because it speaks directly to the issue of writing about the historical ‘other’, not just about who has the right to speak for whom from the past, but also what sort of things can be said.

In Beloved, Sethe, an emancipated slave, is living with the excruciating inner wounds of having killed her eldest daughter as a baby to save her from the appalling anguish of a life of slavery. The baby’s ghost haunts the house where Sethe now lives with her other daughter, Denver, both of whom believe that a woman calling herself Beloved, whom they find on their doorstep one day, is the dead daughter/sister returned to them.

Before reading Beloved, I had thought the character Beloved might serve as a literary model for my ghost-witch, and teach me about the contemporary uses of magical realism in literary historical fiction

But the power of Toni Morrison’s subject – the profound psychological scars of slavery and fractured family relationships – is proving too emotionally overwhelming to be anything other than a deeply disturbing reading experience, far removed from any notion of writerly research.

If anything, writing the ‘other’ is becoming harder to think about. After all, what right have I to pretend I can put my twentieth century, middle-aged, educated self into the mind of a young, illiterate, marginalized teenager, executed for having the misfortune to beg pins off a man about to suffer a stroke? 

It has taken an emotionally-distanced study of studies about Sethe to discover my story does share certain creative bonds with Beloved, which, I hope, will eventually inform and enrich my work.

These bonds include a shared theme about the loss and recovery of ‘self’ as repressed or distorting memories of suffering are regained, re-examined and, at last, laid to rest. Denver’s character arc also offers potential lessons for my ghost as the daughter of a damaged mother, whose social relations are conditioned by her mother’s status as an outcast from her community. 

In other words it is the shared humanity of ‘the interior life of some people, a small group of people’ which links ‘us’ in the here and now to ‘them’ there and then.

In my story, the ghost is not intended to be a projection of the living’s suffering, although that is a possibility I have considered. Better, I think, that she is ‘real’ and the horror that impacts on her life is the persecution of people identified as witches. Taking Toni Morrison’s advice, her story needs to be about her responses to that persecution, the bad as well as the good, and whether she can heal her deeply damaged self.

Last week, on Armistice Day, I had the privilege of talking to students in a London secondary school about writing The Goose Road and the inspirations behind it. Re-reading blogs I wrote at the time of its publication in order to remind myself about formative influences now half-forgotten, I came across my own words explaining how much research I had to do before I felt I had the right to write about World War I.

Before I began, and repeatedly during that story’s development, I had to go to the places where my characters suffered. I needed to touch the soil of the Somme and Verdun, and feel the cold winds in their winters, and the warmth of a Limousin summer. I had to read, read and read again the words of many people, and visit every museum I could, and watch films, and listen to sound archives.

And that is where, so far, I have failed my ghost-witch. Due to circumstances of family life, I haven’t yet walked her hills or seen her prison, nor read enough about the lives of people like her, nor practiced her spells in woods or at crossroads. No wonder I can’t write her yet. 

But I will. Fingers crossed. Funny old thing, imagination. Good luck with yours.

Twitter @HouseRowena

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