novelist and a theorist discuss wordsmiths from around the world
hour came and went, and still no sign of the two professors. Then,
very slowly, the smell of smoke began to fill the hallway and an
alarm started to ring. Students rushed hither andthither, inquiring
as to their teachers' whereabouts. It was then that people realized
the elevator had stopped running and the smoke was coming from its
motor. Thirty minutes later, the Chicago fire department arrived
and pried open the elevator door, freeing Ms. Morrison and Mr. Bhabha.
Hardly an auspicious
beginning to a most auspicious class—Nobel laureate in literature
Toni Morrison and renowned postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha on
Morrison's 1988 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved. Nonetheless,
the two scholars recovered gracefully, moving the class from a smokey-smelling
Wieboldt 408 to Classics 10, and students soon were interrogating
Morrison on her work.
elevators didn't happen every week this autumn quarter, such heady
conversations did: For nearly three hours each Wednesday afternoon,
27 U of C students—two undergraduates, a smattering of advanced
Ph.D. candidates, and a majority of master's-level students—met
with two of the world's leading literature professors to discuss
ten great novels from around the world.
Global Fictions, centered on three of Morrison's works—Beloved,
Jazz, and Paradise—as well as books by authors as diverse as the
Anglo-Polish Joseph Conrad, the Indian Salman Rushdie, and the South
African J. M. Coetzee. (Coetzee, incidentally, also taught at Chicago
this term.) The students had to write an essay to apply for the
class, a graduate-level seminar, and were drawn from the English,
psychology, anthropology, and history departments, among others.
Besides fiction, they read a substantial amount of literary theory,
including selections from Bhabha's reputation-making book, The Location
of Culture, and from Morrison's book of criticism, Playing in the
Dark. Assigning two or three students to make presentations on each
week's reading, Bhabha wanted the students to define the topic and
tone of the conversation. By quarter's end, students had to produce
a paper on any topic or issue raised in the course.
the Chester D. Tripp professor in the humanities, designed the course,
he considers Global Fictions a "creative and experimental" collaboration.
Bhabha invited Morrison—the Robert F. Goheen professor in the Council
of the Humanities at Princeton University, and now also a U of C
visiting university scholar—to join him in crafting the syllabus
and teaching the course each autumn for three years.
gives students the opportunity to see how a literary theorist and
a novelist approach similar problems of identity, history, and representation.
"I don't think it's about theory versus literature," says teaching
assistant Selena Horn, "but a place where students can bring together
subjects that are traditionally approached in different ways." Both
authors are deeply interested in issues of globalization and its
often traumatic effects on identity. Bhabha's The Location of Culture
is concerned with how nationalism and colonization structure individual
and group identities, while Morrison's Playing in the Dark focuses
on what she terms "Africanism," an African identity that has traditionally
been constructed by white American authors.
It is Morrison's
power as a novelist, however, that prompted Bhabha to woo her to
campus. "The work of Toni Morrison has a way of making accessible
through fiction some very complex ideas about history, identity,
and suffering," says Bhabha. "Beloved in particular is a good example
of how contemporary notions of a fragmented global situation can
be illuminated by past moments of globalization such as colonization
into the autumn term, Beloved became the focus of class discussion.
Although the class didn't discuss Oprah Winfrey's recently released
film (that conversation was scheduled for the following week), students
probed Morrison about her characters and her methods of writing.
When queried on her doubts and fears about writing Beloved, the
author smiled. "I didn't really have any. I knew Beloved would be
a good book," she chuckled, adding, "But I didn't think so many
people would read it!"
Asked by one
student to sum up her goals for the novel, Morrison explained, "I
wanted to feed the reader with small sips of the impossible life,
the life of slavery." So, another asked, how did Morrison manage
to write about slave life without writing a standard slave narrative?
"It's not a novel about slavery, but about people," she emphasized.
"The first thing I had to do was to take out the big names like
Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass."
Was it emotionally
difficult to write this story? "I don't have to live it," Morrison
replied. "I just have to think it up." She pushed students to voice
their own ideas. "What was [the title character] Beloved pregnant
with?" one student demanded. "What do you think?" Morrison shot
back, preferring to hear his interpretation before she offered her
own—that Beloved represents the unspoken. Is she a person, a ghost,
or a place? "She is the consequence of everyone's desire," Morrison
said. "They all want to eat her up. They need to feed her to feed
took a back seat during this particular session, he interjected
occasionally, observing that the novel "represents survival as the
day-to-day confrontation of trauma, history, and memory, rather
than a one-time overcoming of injustice and suffering."
student reaction was overwhelmingly positive. "I love the class,"
enthused Amelia Cowen, a student in the Master of Arts Program in
the Humanities. "I love the balance that the two often provide."
Calling Morrison "a very generous presence," Sarah Rose, a General
Studies in the Humanities graduate student, said, "You feel free
to ask almost anything."
equally enthusiastic about the benefits of having Morrison in the
classroom. "Students can work out various issues that come up in
class by tracing them through the text with the author herself,"
he says. Bhabha notes that he, too, benefits from the team-teaching
dynamic: "You are not only building a bridge between yourself and
the students, but also between yourself and the other instructor."
—Jenny Adams, AM'94