Since enrolling in grad school, I’ve read a handful of novels in-between nonfiction articles and books. I expect to complete several academic articles centered on Black feminism by the end of this summer, so most of my reading list consists of texts by Black women academics. This includes the Black Feminist Reader edited by Joy James, the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Humanities at Williams College, and Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Distinguished Professor of African American and Diaspora Studies and French at Vanderbilt University.
Toni Morrison, Noble Prize winning author, contributed a chapter titled
“Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” I’d never read a nonfiction piece by Morrison, though the Bluest Eye remains one of my favorite novels. She discusses this and other novels in the chapter, stating:
The points I have tried to illustrate are that my choices of language…my reliance for full completeness on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy… As well as my (failed) attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts… to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Afro-American culture into a language worthy of culture. (Pg 45-6; emphasis added).
It never occurred to me to read Morrison or any other novels through the lens of literary theory, which Michael R. G. Spiller defines as “the study of the abstract, often philosophical ideas about meaning and literariness.” After reading this chapter, I started to reconsider the work of my favorite novelists in a new light. What more did a novel have to say than what had been written on the page? I purchased $25 worth of books on a trip to the thrift store soon after. I initially sought out books written by or about Black women. I also included a few writers who interested me including Amy Tan, whose prose and storytelling I’ve enjoyed since I first read the Joy Luck Club.
The first of the books I started reading was another novel by Amy Tan titled the Valley Amazement,. In this novel Tan tells the story of a mother and daughter whose lives get broken apart in the months following the collapse of China’s imperial dynasty. Normally, I would simply admire the story for how well-written and engaging the novel is. Now that I have learned more about literary theory, I see the insight the novel provides about a wider range of topics:
- Gender relations in post-imperial China
- U.S.-Chinese relations during the early twentieth-century
- Biracial identity in a non-Western context
- The opioid crisis in late-nineteenth century and twentieth-century China
These are just a few of the insights I’ve absorbed by viewing this novel as a book to learn and enjoy. I also have a newfound appreciation for the creative writers I admire. It takes a lot to do research and even more to turn that research into a written product. Novelists like Toni Morrison and Amy Tan show that research gives voice to people typically marginalized in mainstream narratives. From their vantage point, we learn how significant historical events affected women of color.