“How exquisitely human was the wish for permanent happiness, and how thin human imagination became trying to achieve it.” – Toni Morrison (Paradise)
When struggling with how to make sense of the world’s chaos, one often turns to the the artistic, philosophical, theological interpretations of another. In this moment, as in many moments of my life, I turned to Toni Morrison. I remember a conversation I watched between her and Angela Davis; she was speaking about Paradise and how she had received a letter from a prison in Texas stating that her novel had been banned from their facility. I remember thinking, “hmm, I’ve got to read that.” Of course life continued on after that conversation and I found my nose in a series of other books, but eventually fate aligned the perfect moment at which it became necessary to open this majestic journey of wisdom bound in a “book”–a word that only oversimplifies what Toni created.
Over the past couple of months I have watched what seems like more of a manipulation than observation and critique of the world, especially as it relates to the complex reality of black individuals. Everything created in response to recent events have felt like contrite efforts to cash in on a hot topic. I didn’t need the painful reality manipulated into some twisted “fairy-tale” for ratings. I didn’t need some roundtable discussion that never addressed the real root. I didn’t need some misguided lyrics under a compelling beat. What I needed was understanding. I needed something that delved into the ugliness, not to find beauty, but to understand that ugliness and how it got there. That’s when I sought after Paradise. Quite an unbefitting title for such a story, but that’s just like the legendary Toni Morrison to take a word and totally turn it on its head.
I always approach a Toni Morrison novel with trepidation–intimated by her worthiness and my lack thereof. She is much more than a complement to the craft of writing; her work is the very epitome of it (and I’m not just saying that because we’re both from small towns in Ohio and I hope that she may one day become aware of my existence).
At the surface, Paradise is about a town at odds. The citizens of Ruby, Oklahoma are descendants of the Old Fathers; a congregation of nine men who found no solace in any town after America’s failed “attempt” at reconstruction. They took their families and set up roots in a place called Haven, Oklahoma, but later those families packed up and searched for a more secluded place to call home. All of the motivations and intentions of the Old Fathers–being perpetuated by the New Fathers–are called into question by a younger generation. This generation is not blindly accepting truths their parents regarded with reverence. They have new ideas and hopes for their future as well as the principle upon which Ruby was founded.
Ruby is in an ideological war between two generations. One is complicit with their segregated, self-created, and self-supported community. Another feels compelled to explore what lies beyond its borders. The New Fathers are determined to eliminate all threats to the permanent happiness their forefathers created for them. Such threats include outsiders. These outsiders come in the form of a minister, a fair-skinned black woman, and a group of women who live in an abandoned convent on the outskirts of Ruby.
Toni Morrison wouldn’t be Toni Morrison if she didn’t have a parallel story that ran in between the lines. The history of Ruby and the nine families are told in an achronological frame of women who have all had some form of contact–direct or indirect–with the abandoned convent and its inhabitants. The women in the convent live on the peripheral of society–they have been abandoned, scorned, and outlawed by those whom they loved. In this convent they have created their own utopia away from their dark pasts.
With a town, led by men, paranoid over how to maintain control and the presence of women, who seem to have had some affect–direct or indirect–on the threat of that control, tensions come to an explosive head that slices the town wide open.
Paradise is one of the most important feministic piece of literature in our society. Toni Morrison has often stated her interest in unconventional women. This novel explores the saint/whore complex and truly humanizes women who are often relegated into constricting stereotypes. Morrison looks at the daughters of Eve and reveals the sins that lead them all to the convent. It is there that they create a silent covenant to help one another relinquish the shit that weighs them down so that they may fly.
Morrison experiments with structure and chronos in this tale of two intersecting and conflicting utopias. She continues her gaze into the nuanced experience of black self-identification as she explores issues of tradition, colorism, misogyny, oppression, religion, and sexuality. Morrison also explores the pursuit of happiness and how far individuals will go in order to secure their own.
Of course, with every Toni Morrison novel, you will have to read it several more times before you can grasp even half of her multi-textured tale. Morrison creates stories and characters that will live with you forever and, quite frankly, no one does an extended metaphor like her.
Though set in the early-to-mid 1970s, Paradise is a timeless classic that has a way of speaking to the issues of today, or showing how very little has changed. Regardless, it is a must-read.