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A novelist and a theorist discuss wordsmiths from around the world

The starting 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.

Though smoking 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.

The course, 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.

While Bhabha, 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.

Global Fictions 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 and slavery."

Four weeks 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 themselves."

Although Bhabha 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."

At mid-quarter, 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."

Bhabha was 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

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