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I discovered Toni Morrison’sThe Origin of Others‘ when I visited the bookshop for Christmas shopping last weekend. It was slim, had big font, covered important contemporary themes in Toni Morrison’s powerful voice, and had an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was too tempting to resist. And last but not the least, it had this awesome cover. Doesn’t Toni Morrison look majestic in that picture? I can’t stop looking at it! It gives me goosebumps!

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I took out ‘The Origin of Others‘ yesterday, and didn’t go to sleep till I finished reading it. This book is based on lectures that Toni Morrison gave early last year. In the book, Morrison explores the idea of why, as human beings, we love employing an ‘Us vs Them’ way of thinking and differentiate some people as ‘others’ and ignore them and discriminate against them and sometimes indulge in violence against them. She also looks at how literature aids this behaviour and surreptitiously makes us discriminate against people we regard as ‘others’. While discussing the way literature biases our outlook, Morrison picks some of the finest writers – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway – and gently pokes a finger at them. Sometimes this gentle poke is more forceful. For example, she says this about Flannery O’Connor – “Flannery O’Connor exhibits with honesty and profound perception her understanding of the stranger, the outcast, the Other.” If we think that what is going to come next is some good praise for Flannery O’Connor, we would be mistaken. Morrison doesn’t spare herself when she looks at a particular situation when she regarded someone as the ‘other’ and has unfair expectations from this person. Morrison also talks about a book which she describes in glowing terms, in which the roles of the insider and the other are reversed – Camara Laye’sThe Radiance of the King‘. I want to read that book now.

Morrison’s book has six chapters which address different aspects of the theme of ‘the other’ – ‘Romancing Slavery‘ which talks about how people justified slavery and propagated it and how the legal system defended it, ‘Being or Becoming a Stranger‘ which describes how a person becomes an outsider or is come to be regarded as one, ‘The Color Fetish‘ which describes how literature employs skin colour to drive the narrative, ‘Configurations of Blackness‘ which explores the definition of ‘black’ and how people differentiate between different types of blackness, ‘Narrating the Other‘ which describes how literature describes the ‘other’, including first person memoirs of slaves and outsiders’ accounts, ‘The Foreigner’s Home‘ which talks about what happens when the role of insider and outsider are reversed and also addresses the globalization and migration that is happening today. During the course of the book, Morrison talks about memoirs of slaves, stories of escaped slaves and the fate that awaits them, and memoirs of plantation owners in which these owners casually describe the way they treated slaves with indignity. Morrison quotes from some of these books and articles, and it is heartbreaking to read.

I loved all the chapters, essays, in the book, though I loved the first half of the book more than the second – I felt the first half was stronger and Toni Morrison was more in her element there. The book has a brilliant introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which he beautifully argues why this book is important today, when we are living in these challenging times. I remember Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called ‘The End of History and the Last Man‘ at the end of the Cold War era, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That book implied that, from then on, human beings will get together and live happily ever after. Well, things haven’t gotten any better, and Fukuyama’s book sounds laughable now. Toni Morrison shows how some of the oldest biases from across the centuries, probably from the earliest days of humankind, are still alive and kicking, and have put down roots in new and sophisticated ways, and how our challenges are still immense in rooting them out to reach that happily-ever-after state we yearn for.

I loved ‘The Origin of Others‘. It is wise, perceptive, brilliant and a must read for our times. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The first passage in the book, which made me smile and gave me goosebumps :

“We still played on the floor, my sister and I, so it must have been 1932 or 1933 when we heard she was coming. Millicent McTeer, our great-grandmother. An often quoted legend, she was scheduled to visit all of the relatives’ houses in the neighborhood. She lived in Michigan, a much-sought-after midwife. Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room : without urging, all the males stood up.”

This insightful passage :

“How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example.”

And my most favourite passage in the whole book :

“It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known – although unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes – especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves.”

Have you read ‘The Origin of Others‘? What do you think about it?

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