Sula was a re-read for me and it was awesome! It was like tasting your favorite ice-cream sundae all over again. Letting the familiar flavors and fragrances wash all over you while the taste sinks on your taste buds and remains there forever. Sula is like that sundae with loads of nuts and various toppings of regret, friendship, love, betrayal and above all redemption. What made this book even more better was the fact that all the loose ends that were left untied the last time I read it, were complete and made all sense to me this time round.
“Sula” is a world in itself. A world defined by loss and womanhood. A world that is not restricted to Bottom – it could be anywhere and could occur at anytime. This book spans between 1921-1965 taking readers to a journey in the lives of two girls, Sula Peace and Nel Wright as they become friends, share secrets and make their way into womanhood. What I liked about the book was its simplicity – yeah it was simple as would not be generally expected out of Morrison’s’ works.
This 174 page so-called novella shows readers what it is that friendship can sometimes do and sometimes cannot. Sula Peace is one character that is so enigmatic and rich – she leaves her hometown called Bottom (which has a funny yet moving significance in the book) only to return and add to the anger of the residents. Sula is a woman of a different sort. Growing up in a poor black mid-western town, she lives in a home where men often visit, but don’t stay very long. Her grandmother and mother allow men to satisfy their respective sexual desires, but don’t need them in their lives on a permanent basis.
Out of this environment, and through other events in her youth (including ten years in the outside world attending college and living in different parts of the country), Sula arrives back at home as an attractive woman who, like her mother and grandmother before her, “uses” a different man every night to satisfy inner urges but nothing else. There is no love for Sula. She has exercised her freedom and independence by becoming the ultimate “player”, loving and leaving them all over town, married or not. She even loves and leaves her best friend’s husband, destroying both marriage and friendship.
And with nary a care. Until one day when an older man, Ajax, comes calling. He is kind but not possessive. They are a perfect match. They enjoy each other’s company, and they certainly enjoy their time together in bed, but they don’t need each other. They are two free spirits who can love and stay with each other precisely because their partner could care less. That is, until Sula starts to care. When she sets the table for two, cleans house, makes the bed, and “expects” Ajax to show, well, that’s the end of that.
love, love, love,
makes you do foolish things.
sit alone by the phone,
a phone that never rings.
hoping to hear you say
that you love me still,
knowing, knowing, you never will.
Some pretty nasty things happen to and around Sula on the way to her adulthood of free and open choice. In freely bedding any man she chooses, she becomes hated. She is the town pariah. A witch. Evil incarnate. In fact, the whole town measures their worth, their piety in direct contrast to Sula’s evil. She is their yardstick. When she dies, when the yardstick goes away, they have no feedback loop, and fall into evil chaos themselves. Toni Morrison presents a clear view that evil makes us virtuous by comparison. In Sula, the entire town finds virtue by hating Sula.
Sula, was, until Ajax, the only woman in the town who could resist the standard operating procedure, the moral code: “You need a man”. To achieve that level of freedom in her time, she had to become, in many respects, the epitome of evil. Sula has to make some awful choices or sacrifices to be the person she chooses to be, to live her life as she pleases. The young Sula mutilates her own finger with a knife to prove herself a worthy opponent. “If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?”
Sula has many layers – I feel that the book was written with much integrity and a lot of afterthought. Toni Morrison observes the racial issues with such strength and vigor that the portrayal of which in the book is breathtaking. We also meet characters from her earlier books such as Tar Baby and the Deweys – which do have their significance in the book – only that it is lost after a certain point. The central link though is a drunk lost war fellow called Shadrack who comes across very strongly celebrating “Suicide Day”. Toni Morrison uses Sula to help the reader analyze the conditions that have created Afro-American life in America. The picture is not always appealing, but there are some clear issues available for deep empathy and discussion.