The book Beloved by Toni Morrison is full of brilliant, haunting language powerful enough to open eyes and let readers see the beauty and the pain that gives meaning to this world. There is much music, color, texture and complexity woven into the story of Beloved. The symbols and layers of this novel have such depth that it has taken me time, distance and a lot of thinking to let the story take root and unravel.
I was introduced to Beloved at the age of 17. At the time I was a student at an academic summer program for urban youth interested in Math & Science. I had an English teacher there that encouraged me to read deeply and to find strength and courage in literature regardless of circumstances. In Beloved I encountered language that compelled me to follow my teacher’s guidance. Long after my first reading of it, the book stayed with me both figuratively and literally.
When I was a kid, my family moved every few months in search of affordable housing that would help keep us together, safe and afloat. My mother, my three sisters and I had grown accustomed to the constant shuffle of what I now understand was homelessness. Moving from place to place (at a moments notice) made it difficult to own things. Beloved was one of a handful of books I held on to. This paperback of Morrison’s novel (pictured on the left) was among the few personal possessions that survived my nomadic childhood. The book has kept me company for nearly 18 years now.
Recently, I decided to experience Beloved through the original audio recording that Toni Morrison herself considers the truest reading of the text.
Rereading Beloved (after all of these years) and listening to Morrison’s powerful voice recite the tones, rhythms and cadences of all the characters in her narrative has inspired me to create a multiwriting reflection project featuring songs by Nina Simone.
This project started with a simple idea. I was thinking I would try drawing the sort of imaginative pictures I once drew as a kid moving from one broke-down apartment to another, dreaming up worlds I could keep with me… Little private worlds made possible by color pencils, crayons, markers, pens, paint & paper.
Channeling my inner-child while listening to Morrison’s audio recording of Beloved, I drew a quick sketch of (my own version of) 124 Bluestone Road, the central setting of the narrative located in the free state of Ohio. 124, while technically free of slavery, is haunted by the terrible memories and repercussions Sethe (the main character of the novel) faced as she tried to protect her children from enslavement.
Ultimately, Sethe ends the life of her own child to keep “the already crawling baby” from becoming the property of southern plantation owners in Sweet Home, Kentucky. This tragic decision haunts her throughout the entire novel and keeps her mentally enslaved long after the whips and chains are outlawed.
The two settings in Beloved (North & South/ Free & Enslaved) are vastly different but are linked in the narrative through the tormented memories of the past recounted and the horrors relived by Sethe and all the central characters. Each individual beat, brutalized and dehumanized as a slave, finds themselves struggling daily, even in freedom, to overcome the severe traumas of their enslaved pasts. The story of Beloved manages to represent in a series of narrative fragments, the constant battles (both internal and external) that stifle the hopes these characters have for creating new life experiences worth living and remembering.
While drawing & listening to the story, lyrics kept coming to mind (mostly songs sang by Nina Simone). Her voice and her words transformed the picture I had in mind. The colors, the shading, the slow, ghostly, fragments of rhythm surfacing had a story all its own. I wanted to capture the essence of my reading/listening experience in a shareable, interactive composition.
I wanted to render (visually) some of the themes found in Beloved and weave them together with personal memories. I asked myself, how might I describe through color, music and rhythm, the complexities and ironies of settings like 124 & Sweet Home? I wanted to layer some ideas and feelings born in me as a nomadic 17 year old living (resting) in a stable place for the summer while exploring transformative language, reading Beloved in a protected academic cocoon that nurtured me as a scholar to think with literature, about the dimensions of my life.
In making this layered composition, I was trying to work with memory in a creative way, trying to use memory as a raw material for reflecting the past, but also as a substance that might speak of current reality, the place, the mood, the state of mind I find myself in at the moment.
Using Scratch to create a multi-writing composition, I remixed the drawings, songs, memories and emotions in an interactive project made to express layers of meaning. A digital object to think with. A storied artifact. Something “in the cloud” that I can return to time and time again to re-experience in new and expansive ways, my layered interpretation of Beloved’s Sweet Home.
As an adult, I no longer move around as much as I once had to. After three decades of constant motion, I have found peace in simple living, “fronting only the essential facts of life”.
I don’t own much, just a small library of favorite books, some tools, a few pieces of furniture and clothing. I still make my art like a seven-year-old. Simple. A few basic, inexpensive supplies that are easy to keep @RockshelfStudio along with plenty of paper & recycled materials. This has become something of a lifestyle for me.
In 2013, after living in a large 1 bedroom apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts for six consecutive years (the longest I’ve ever lived at any address) I had to leave my job at the Museum of Science Clubhouse and downsize the life I was building post college. Mainly, I was being called to attend to family responsibilities. My grandmother in the South Bronx, the woman who had helped raise me, had fallen ill and needed support. I moved to New York City to be near her in the last 8 months of her battle with breast cancer.
When my Abuela passed away March 2013, I went nomadic once again, living for nearly two years with all of my possessions in storage while roaming for months, back and forth between New York City, Providence and Boston. During that time I realized I didn’t need much of what I had accumulated in the six years I lived in Brighton.
As an artist trying to find & make meaning of my life experiences, I embraced the art of living simply (think Thoreau, had he been a queer woman of color living in the hood instead of in the woods by Walden. Remix a bit of Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, and you get a pretty solid idea of the framework for #MyDiyMFA).
Currently I live in a tiny urban micro-apartment (300+ square feet) and make a living working on the web, designing and managing media content while making art and digital artifacts for a series of life projects that are teaching me all kinds of interesting things about my self and the world around me.
Reading, writing and making have become the foundation of the life I’m shaping daily. #MyDiyMFA projects are the challenges, the building blocks, the gears in the gallery of ideas that power the evolution of my creative life experience.
Beloved, the third and final foundation text in #MyDiyMFA exploration of Toni Morrison’s work, is another piece of this unfolding puzzle. Along with Sula and The Bluest Eye, Beloved is teaching me how to see the interconnections of past, present and future. These novels brilliantly illustrate how narrative can work to weave together a fragmented life, to face past pain and heal and to seed (in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles) the possibilities of a hopeful future.
Here is a tiny video snippet of the multi-writing project I made on Scratch featuring Nina Simone’s brave, beautiful voice singing:
“I see my light come shining.”
Visit the link below to experience this #ObjectToThinkWith in its entirety.
Thanks for visiting the Rockshelf! Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what books have inspired you or what creative projects have served as the building blocks in your life.