Toni Morrison, Beloved, Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Chilling. Powerful. Mysterious. Beautiful. Like a painting.
Beloved is a work of art. And like many pieces of art, there are aspects of it that I don’t understand. I’m not too left-brained, however, to miss the beauty of Morrison’s words and phrases.
Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an ex-slave, and her daughter, Denver. They live in a house, called 124, which seems to be haunted by the spirit of a baby—Sethe’s dead child. Upon the arrival of Paul D, an old friend/fellow slave of Sethe, the spirit left the house. But not long after, a girl about the age of Sethe’s daughter if she had lived arrives at 124 and catalyzes a series of reactions from the 3 main characters. This woman calls herself Beloved.
The confusion of who, or what, Beloved is remains a mystery, both to the characters in the novel and the readers. Sethe and Denver believe she is the dead child returning in flesh. Or, she may be just a confused girl who believes Sethe is her mother. Regardless, as a literary device, the character Beloved is brilliantly created to trigger the other characters’ development.
Indeed, character development is, to me, the meat of the story. With Beloved’s presence, they are faced with history in slavery, their past actions, and how they are impacted by their past. Beloved’s identity is confused with the beliefs that each character projects to her—whom they think she is.
My favorite parts of the book are when Morrison zooms in to the internal narratives of each character, employing the first-person point of view. The emotions are palpable. The plot’s climaxes are also glorious, in a terrifying way (I won’t spoil any plot).
Zooming out to the social context that Morrison is addressing,Belovedis a powerful painting of what slavery does to humans and their sense of ‘self.’ Multiple times in the novel she describes a fragmenting experience that the characters experience—feeling that their heads, arms, or legs are coming apart, or not recognizing their own voices. Even though the characters are technically free men and women, the trauma of being owned and tortured remains in their lives.
There are two things (for the sake of this short review) that I think Morrison highlights in the novel. One, the impact of slavery is intergenerational. Denver grows up free, but she very much reaps the experiences of her mother and grandmother. The healing process from the evil of slavery is long and arduous. Two, when someone or a people is degraded, all humanity is degraded. Slavery does not only degrade the slaves, but also the perpetrators. A web of humanity connects us all.
One of life’s greatest joys is meeting new people and finding kindred spirits, those you can resonate in particular ways of thinking. The effect is energizing, it’s as if you’ve been friends for ages, or should have been friends before.
What I love about this experience is that it can happen anywhere in the world, with any person of whatever background. This is what I love the most about my friends whom I count as like-minded: they come from all over the world.
Take my closest knit of friends, for example. I’m Chinese Indonesian. My two closest friends are a Zimbabwean girl (with a U.S. green card now) who philosophizes over many things in life, and a half Cuban, half black, American lawyer girl who is super articulate. Each of us is about one-tenth Korean because of the foods we eat and the people we hang out with. We love food and we love books. And because of that, we get along so well with our (just a tad bit) older, Korean American sister whose company brings out the nuttiness in us even more (in a good way. I hope I don’t get in trouble for saying this).
What is the likelihood that four people from, literally, four corners of the earth can get along so well? And not just get along, but totally in sync in almost every thought and opinion. Don’t underestimate the amount of talking we can do with each other and the breadth of topics that gets covered. (And no, we don’t just talk about girls stuff. Absolutely not!). We have different personalities, different areas of expertise, and even different ways of approaching problems. By most natural standards, we shouldn’t even like hanging out with each other. But we do. Hanging out is our life philosophy.
In the larger circle of friends we belong to, the ethnic composition varies even more. At any given hangout session with different permutations of people, at least three continents will be represented easily. In multiple occasions when some 30 of us went out to eat, random people approached us asking if we were part of some program, like a mock UN or global youth type thing (except we don’t look that young). They thought someone forced us to be together. The response, No, we’re just friends.
And we’re not together just for special events. We can roll like this all day long, for multiple days. We actually like each other (most of the time), and find the communion of minds invigorating.
I’m talking particularly about the family of friends I’ve gained in Seventh-day Adventist communities in Boston, Michigan, and the Mid-Atlantic. More specifically, those who love to talk and think about how to reach and change the world, and those who love to hang out. These are they with whom I resonate in the deepest core. It so happens that they are the same people whose lives are intertwined in public campus ministries.
Really, there is no likely reason why we should be friends. We don’t even like the same food, at least not in the beginning. But the wonder is that we are friends, and there is one core reason why this is so: God. We know that each of us subscribes to a culture that supersedes any of our individual cultural and ethnic background, namely the culture of Christ. As a result, our lives are enriched by each other.
This culture of Christ and embracing diversity is something I’m very adamant about in my personal life, and especially in the church. (Read articles on racial segregation that some of us have written here). I don’t get cultural insularity, especially when there is a greater purpose to serve. In the community of faith that I belong to, this purpose is to bring the everlasting gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people (Rev 14:6).
When people see a diverse group of people who actually like and want to be with each other, no matter what skin color or hair texture, it tells the world that God has done something special not just in the individual lives, but also in the community. It bears witness that there is Someone who has “broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph 2:14), more powerful than any cultural ties.
I’m not saying that this multicultural friendship experience can only happen to a Christian; I’m saying that this experience takes place in my life because I’m a Seventh-day Adventist. When I gained Christ and started letting Him order my life, I gained a family of unlikely friends as well.
There are many ways to be a tourist. For example, one can remain in one’s own vacation bubble, as is necessary sometimes for recovery and rest from daily toils, or one can break through and be immersed in the world and culture on site.
I tend to like cultural experiences and usually try to discover the lives and customs of the local people. What is their reality like? How do they think? Et cetera, et cetera… I can’t pretend that I immerse myself completely, like those who would walk on foot and visit neighborhoods, shops, and houses, but at least I can ask questions to the people I interact with and to the local tour guides.
But in Bali, it is very hard to ignore its cultural and religious artifacts, since they are simply in sight everywhere you turn. Temples are ubiquitous, and the locals’ belief system is visibly displayed not just in their Hindu ceremonial precessions, but also in their architecture and daily customs. I would say it even dictates Bali’s economy and weighs in on Bali’s social progress vis-à-vis modernity and secularism.
For example, every morning the Balinese put out sesajens, or small offerings composed of flowers, rice, and salt in bamboo leaf trays all over the place. You would find them by the streets, statues, in front of houses, restaurants, counters… basically everywhere. These offerings, in oversimplified terms, are to please the gods and prevent their wrath upon them.
Every house and building in Bali has its own altar, whether small or big, which is put at the front of the house near the entrance gate. Bridges would have statues of some manifestations of Hindu gods on both sides of each end, to protect the space and prevent evil spirits.
Many statues, poles in buildings, pillars, and even trees would have sashes of a particular kind around them. The motif is called poleng. It is a piece of cloth with black and white squares, a symbol of balance, akin to the Chinese yin and yang. But it’s not just any generic notion of balance; it particularly symbolizes the balance between good and evil. The alternating black and white signifies good and evil that coexist everywhere; one cannot be present without the other.
This concept, it seems to me, is very Hindu, for a lack of a better description. The three main deities that compose the Trimurti in Hinduism (kind of like the Trinity), Brahma, Wisnu (Vishnu), and Siwa (Shiva), are the creator god, sustainer god, and the destroyer/transformer god, respectively. The destroyer god is feared the most, but he is not seen as evil, since his work is necessary to get rid of old things and transform them to a newer state.
Poleng around an altar.
Though I do not subscribe to the Hindu belief system, I admire its cohesiveness and pervasiveness in the Balinese society. Believing in something means that their whole lives revolve around it and it’s publicly displayed, even if their motives may be combined with fear of the gods. Their religion is not a private matter. It dictates how they spend their money, their daily activities, how they deal with birth, marriage, and death, and every aspect of life. There is not one thing that is purely secular. Take the economy, the emblem of development and modernity. If every building needs to have an altar, it means that every building project in Bali must needs to budget to build the altar, no questions asked. It is not a small matter, optional, or of a low priority, because in their minds, they simply would not tolerate an unprotected house or building.
It is refreshing to see something that is systematic and consistent in a world that is increasingly subscribing to a buffet style belief system. In a way, this is the kind of integration that I yearn for with my own belief system. I mean, the fact that every house has an altar is so mind-blowing to me. What would it look like if every Christian had the same regard for sacred things in their houses… to see their belief as central and pivotal to daily activities…